Vowing to be a “bridge between Democrats and Independents” on the Town Council, Richard Steffens was sworn in as acting mayor Tuesday night after the governing body voted unanimously to appoint him to the post. Steffens, a Democrat, will serve out the remainder of Dennis Elwell’s mayoral term, which ends on Dec. 31.
A November election will determine who becomes mayor for a subsequent four-year term. Right now, the only candidate in the running is Independent Councilman Michael Gonnelli.
Elwell resigned as mayor last month after he was arrested on bribery charges stemming from an FBI sting operation.
Two other candidates for acting mayor, Ed Zloty and Robert Zych, also had been under consideration to serve out the rest of Elwell’s term. But two week ago Zloty withdrew his name from consideration and Zych publically stated during an interview with the Town Council that he was less qualified for the job than Steffens.
Although Independent councilmen John Bueckner, Gary Jeffas, and Gonnelli expressed dismay Tuesday that Steffens remained the only viable candidate for the position, all three offered unqualified support for him.
“I don’t think he’s somebody who’s just going to vote the straight [Democratic] party line all the time,” Gonnelli said after the meeting. “I think he’s someone who is going to vote his conscience and do what he thinks is best for the Town of Secaucus.”
For three years there had been rising tension among Elwell and his Democratic allies on the council and the Independents. However Steffens is viewed by both factions as someone who can end the partisan bickering.
“I think he will be our link to bring the two parties together,” said Councilwoman Dawn McAdam.
“The goal of everyone on this dais is to move the town forward,” said Councilman John Shinnick. “And Rich is the best person to do that at this time.”
‘First step towards healing’
After he was sworn in, Steffens immediately joined the Town Council for the remainder of its regularly scheduled public meeting, which he chaired as mayor.
Third Ward Town Councilman John Reilly had been acting in Elwell’s stead since his resignation. His duties as acting mayor ended when Steffens was sworn in.
Before getting on with town business, Steffens read a lengthy statement saying that the judicial process should address Elwell’s situation, not the Town Council. He also said the ongoing investigation into the former tax collector has raised many questions.
“We all have an obligation to see that these questions are answered,” he said, “and [that we] put into place the proper internal controls to ensure the community that this can never happen again…We also have to get the budget finalized and ready for next month’s hearing and adoption. I intend to meet with [Town Administrator David Drumeler] and the council so we can prioritize our agenda in order to get things done efficiently and as quickly as possible…Thank you. Now, let’s get to work.”
“The goal of everyone on this dais is to move the town forward. And Rich is the best person to do that at this time.” – Councilman John Shinnick
By the end, Steffens felt comfortable expressing his opinion about such issues as televised meetings, the Secaucus Recreation Center, pay-to-play, and other matters.
Democratic November slate unresolved
Steffens, who is now retired from his company, Steffens Provisions, was twice elected as a Democrat to the Town Council, first in 1979 and again in 1981. He also served several years on the Secaucus School Board in the mid-1970s.
He has repeatedly said that he has no interest in the mayor’s seat long-term and does not plan to run for the position in the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
Gonnelli, who represents the 2nd Ward, remains the only candidate in the mayoral race. He had been expected to square off against Elwell, a Democrat who was seeking his fifth term as mayor.
The Secaucus Democratic Committee must still decide whether to run a mayoral candidate against Gonnelli. If the committee chooses to run a mayoral candidate, it must file papers with the Hudson County clerk by mid-September.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.