One year after a major power shift on the seven-member Town Council, voters will go to the polls in November to select three representatives for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wards. Each of the three winners will serve four-year terms on the governing body.
Six candidates are running on two political slates.
Three Independent candidates allied with Mayor Michael Gonnelli are running under the Take Back Secaucus banner and hope to repeat the same sweeping victory the Independents had last fall.
The Independents running in this year’s race are incumbent 1st Ward Town Councilman Gary Jeffas, incumbent 2nd Ward Councilman James Clancy, and former Board of Education Trustee Susan Pirro, running in the 3rd Ward.
These three will face a ticket backed by the Secaucus Democratic Committee which includes 1st Ward candidate and former police officer Robert Zych; 2nd Ward candidate and businesswoman Nancy Mateo; and 3rd Ward candidate Mark Bruscino, who, like Pirro, also served on the Secaucus Board of Education.
The race, which has thus far generated few sparks and little fanfare, will be the first test of public opinion of Gonnelli, who took office in January.
Similarly, the race will be a test of Secaucus Democratic Committee chairman Vincent Prieto’s leadership of the local party. Prieto, who is also a state assemblyman representing the 32nd District, took over as committee chairman last summer after previous chairman and former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell was arrested in a corruption sting. Since then, Prieto has tried to rebuild the local Democratic Party and remake its image.
Prieto has said the selection of Zych, Mateo, and Bruscino was a conscious decision to present “new faces” to voters.
Independents: Stay the course
In interviews last week, four of the six candidates began to sketch out their campaign strategies for the November race.
According to Jeffas, Clancy, and Pirro, their individual campaigns will focus on what they see as the many accomplishments of Gonnelli’s young administration. These accomplishments, they said, include implementing new checks and balances in the Tax Collectors Office, keeping taxes and public spending low, finding new revenue streams, enacting pay-to-play legislation, opening a teen-oriented community center, and getting public meetings taped and aired on public access television.
“The goal is to get elected so that the town can keep moving forward, and moving forward under an open form of government,” said Jeffas.
But he acknowledged the town faces challenges in the coming year, notably the renegotiation of three labor contracts that expire next year. Employee benefits are the municipality’s largest expense.
“Clearly something is going to have to be done by way of negotiation to bring those benefits more in line with reality. So, in the upcoming year that’s going to be a big priority. We’re going to have to get some reasonable concessions,” said Jeffas, who also serves as the council’s liaison to the Secaucus Police Department.
Police comprise the town’s largest union.
Operation costs at the Secaucus Recreation Center are also an ongoing issue and drain on town finances. Operating costs at the center, which was approved and built under the Elwell Administration, were supposed to come from membership dues. But since it opened in December 2008, the center has never attracted enough members for it to be financially self-sustainable. Taxpayers are now subsidizing the center, which has lost members since two new private health clubs opened in town.
“They mayor and council have been working on ways to make the rec center sustainable,” Pirro stated. “Right now, they are planning to bring in a professional with health club management experience, to see if this person can attract more members and revenue. I support that. It’s a good idea that should be tried.”
But all three Independent candidates admitted it may soon be time to end membership dues at the Recreation Center.
“The center, which happens to be in the 2nd Ward, may have to become a regular recreation center where people don’t pay membership dues,” Clancy said. “Taxpayers are already paying for it. They’re already supporting its operating expenses. Membership may have to be opened up to all residents.”
Democrats: Unfinished business
By contrast, the Democrats seem poised to focus on community concerns they believe have fallen through the cracks under the current administration.
“I’ve been out talking to voters. They’re concerned about services. And of course, they talk to me about the police department,” said 1st Ward candidate Zych, a former detective with the Secaucus Police Department.
His background in law enforcement would be his biggest asset on the council, Zych said, listing several policing and public safety initiatives he’d try to implement.
If elected, he said he would like to explore whether Secaucus could get 100 percent of the revenue generated by traffic tickets, rather than have those fines split between the town and the state.
“That could generate a lot of revenue for the town,” he said.
“I also hear residents talk about problems with traffic,” Zych added, “especially over by the high school and Clarendon, which is in the 1st Ward… I know the council has looked into what can be done to help the traffic situation, but it seems to have fallen through the cracks. And the problems continue. Over by Clarendon, we may need to see if we can make Fifth Street a one way.”
He’d also like to see Secaucus implement a reverse 911 system to alert residents of emergencies and traffic jams in town.
Calls to Mateo and Bruscino were not returned by press time.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.