The Town Council has delayed filling the council seat recently vacated by 1st Ward Councilman Richard Kane to allow time for interviews with the three candidates who are vying for the position.
Kane stepped down two weeks ago to accept a new job that he said would have conflicted with his commitments as a Town Councilman. Since he is a Democrat, the Secaucus Democratic Committee selected three possible candidates to replace him. The council has 30 days to vote for one of the individuals to serve out the rest of Kane’s term, which ends Dec. 31.
The local Democratic Committee has recommended Dawn McAdam, George Heflich, and Robert Zych for the seat. The Committee, which is chaired by Mayor Dennis Elwell, also passed a resolution urging the council to appoint McAdam since currently there are no women on the governing body.
At last week’s caucus, however, the Independent faction of the Town Council – which is often at odds with Elwell’s Democratic faction – requested an opportunity to interview McAdam, Heflich, and Zych in-person.
Promising to be objective, Independent Councilman Gary Jeffas said, “We would like the opportunity to talk to the candidates, view each resume, and review their credentials. It would be advantageous to the council as a whole to know about each candidate’s…views for the town.”
After the caucus meeting, Councilman Michael Gonnelli, another Independent, said, “We’d like to ask them about the issues that we think are important to the town.”
Criteria for selection?
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, resident Tom Troyer asked Elwell what the criteria was for being selected by the Democratic Committee.
“To me it looks like the committee chose the three who dislike Mr. Gonnelli the most at this point in time,” said Troyer, whose comment was greeted with laughter and applause from several residents in attendance.
McAdam was reportedly angered when Gonnelli became the head of the Department of Public Works several years ago, believing that he was unfairly promoted over other candidates for the position.
Heflich, a former chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department and president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, has been publically critical of Gonnelli’s efforts to remain a fire chief while also serving as Town Councilman. Zych is related to Elwell.
“How the committee selected these three names really isn’t town business. But the selection process was fair,” Elwell responded. “The committee had a meeting. Nominations were made and voted on. There were minutes taken. Everything was done in accordance with the law.”
Of the three contenders for Kane’s seat, only Heflich attended Tuesday’s council meeting.
During the meeting, he asked Gonnelli, “Now you have a chance to vote for me as councilman. Are you going to vote for me?”
Gonnelli replied, “That’s why we’ve asked for interviews, because the Democrats aren’t going to vote for you. They’re going to vote for the preferred candidate, and that’s Dawn McAdam. The only votes you could possibly get would be from us.”
With Kane’s departure, the council is now evenly split, three Democrats to three Independents. Councilman John Bueckner is the third Independent who votes with Jeffas and Gonnelli. Elwell and Councilmen John Shinnick and John Reilly are the council’s three Democrats.
The in-person interviews will take place at the council’s next caucus meeting on Feb. 24. If a divided council fails to agree on a replacement for Kane within 30 days of his resignation, the decision reverts back to the Secaucus Democratic Committee, which would then make the final decision.
Gonnelli said he, Jeffas, and Bueckner plan to ask the candidates specific questions.
“We want to know their views on pay-to-play, televised meetings, professional service contracts, [our lobbyists in Trenton], and our agreement with [the] Transit Village [development],” he said.
Xchange at Secaucus Junction, formerly known as Transit Village, is a large housing development being built near the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station. The developers of the housing community are paying Secaucus a $5 million impact fee to offset the anticipated rise in municipal services due to the influx of new residents to the town. There is also some disagreement as to whether the site will have to provide more affordable housing.
“I’d like to come up with 10 questions to ask the candidates,” Gonnelli continued. “We’ll rate each candidate on their answers, and whoever gets the highest rating will get our vote.”
At Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, Councilman Gary Jeffas spoke on behalf of the council’s Television Committee. He announced at the meeting that the governing body has reached an agreement on videotaping and airing municipal meetings.
Council meetings will still include a “public comments” section, but that portion will not be taped and aired.
Council meetings will still include a “public comments” section at the end, but that portion of the meeting will not be videotaped and aired.
Jeffas and Councilmen Michael Gonnelli and John Bueckner had hoped to get full council meetings, including comments from the public, taped and aired. But Mayor Dennis Elwell and Councilmen John Shinnick and John Reilly were concerned that some uncensored comments from the public could be defamatory and could lead to lawsuits against the town.
Jeffas and Shinnick will now hammer out specifics on how televised meetings will be structured. They will give the details to Town Attorney Frank Leanza who will draft an ordinance to create televised meetings.
If taped meetings become a reality, they will be aired on Channel 32, a local public access station. – EAW E. Assata Wright can be reached at email@example.com.