When the Town Council meets on Tuesday former councilman Richard Kane’s old seat will be filled for the first time in a month.
Last week the Secaucus Democratic Committee appointed Dawn McAdam as the new 1st Ward Councilperson and she was sworn in by Municipal Judge Kathleen Walrod immediately after being unanimously approved. McAdam will now serve out the rest of Kane’s term, which expires December 1.
The appointment comes as no surprise; the local Democratic committee was widely expected to select McAdam to replace Kane, who resigned in February after accepting a new job in Connecticut. This job, Kane said, would conflict with his role as a councilman.
Perhaps more important, Mayor Dennis Elwell confirmed last week that McAdam will be the 1st Ward candidate on his ticket in the upcoming June primary. At present, Elwell will face mayoral candidate Peter Weiner in the primary, and Weiner has selected health care executive Joe Morano as his 1st Ward candidate. But the Elwell ticket’s toughest battle could be the November general election, which could pit the mayor against Independent Town Councilmen Michael Gonnelli and his own slate of candidates for council.
McAdam is widely regarded as a diligent worker who will run a robust campaign and run hard for the Elwell ticket.
“Some years ago she ran for the council as an Independent and opposed my candidate for the 1st Ward,” Elwell said last week.
McAdam opposed Michael Grecco for the 1st Ward council seat in 2000. Grecco won that contest, but Elwell believes McAdam is a formidable challenger who can keep her seat in a tough election year.
“I’ll tell you, she works hard, she campaigns hard,” he added.
McAdam said she is not coming to the council with a set agenda. Instead, she said her agenda will be shaped by the residents in her ward.
“I think she’ll do a good job for her ward,” he added. “She’s concerned about her ward and concerned about the quality of life where she lives. We’re all looking forward to working with her.”
Listening tour planned
McAdam said she is not coming to the council with a set agenda. Instead, she said in an interview last week that her agenda will be shaped by the residents in her ward.
Taking a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook when she successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, McAdam said she plans to go door to door throughout the 1st Ward, asking the residents what the council’s priorities should be and about their needs.
“That’s what I did the last time I ran for council,” she said. “I had the residents tell me what was important to them. Then I went home and put that information into a spread sheet so I could see, for instance, how many people were concerned about speeding, or noise, or the tax burden.”
“It’s not so much about what I want to see for the town,” she continued, “it’s more about talking to the residents to see what they want my priorities to be.”
In a further indication of her approach to her new role, McAdam said she plans to go to “town hall to pull some documents to see what other research I may have to do.”
‘Getting back to town business’
In recent weeks Mayor Elwell has said that adding a woman to the Town Council could improve the dynamics of the governing body.
“Lately, there’s been a lot of controversy on the council,” he said. “I think bringing a woman to the governing body may offset some of that. In her interview, she explained that she wanted to work with everyone, and I think she was really sincere about that.” (Two weeks ago the Town Council held interviews with the possible candidates for the 1st Ward seat: McAdam, Robert Zych, and George Heflich.)
However, McAdam herself is more pragmatic.
“You have to face reality. Nothing is going to change overnight,” she stated. “There are a lot of opinions on the council. But we have to work together and find some basic goals where everyone can be happy. When you bicker, nothing gets accomplished. We have to start getting back to town business.”
Since December, an alleged conflict of interest matter involving Gonnelli has dominated several council meetings and caucus sessions, and some residents worry the debate around that matter has put town business on the back burner.
Gonnelli serves as both a councilman and a senior officer in the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department. The political opponent whom Gonnelli defeated in 2006 filed a complaint with the Local Finance Board – a state agency – asking the board to investigate whether Gonnelli’s two positions are incompatible, since the fire department answers to the Town Council. After the Local Finance Board dragged its heels for two years without reaching a ruling on the matter, the town decided in January to ask a Hudson County Superior Court judge to issue a ruling. This move came after attorneys for the town nixed a proposal to restructure Gonnelli’s duties in the fire department to remove the alleged conflict.
The town’s actions have angered Gonnelli’s supporters, who believe Elwell and his allies are trying to force him out of one of his positions ahead of the November mayoral race.
McAdam is well aware that some people in the community are looking to her to help temper the acrimony surrounding this case.
“I hope I can be a link between the residents and the council,” she said, “and a connector between the Independents and the Democrats.”
The honeymoon begins
Meanwhile, Gonnelli and his allies, 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner and Gary Jeffas, who also represents the 1st Ward with McAdam, are pledging to work with their new colleague.
At the February 24 Town Council meeting Bueckner said McAdam had “valuable, important attributes” that would benefit the council’s work.
And last week Gonnelli said, “I wish her a lot of luck. She’s going to be faced with a lot of really important issues in a relatively short period of time. I hope she’s an independent thinker who looks at the issues and makes up her own mind and doesn’t always follow the party line.”
McAdam has already demonstrated an ability to unite with former adversaries.
A resident of Humbolt Street, McAdam owns property that was near contaminated land owned by the old Keystone Metal factory. Local elected officials learned in 1997 that groundwater under homes close to the factory may have been contaminated with cyanide, alcohol, hydrochloric acid, and other hazardous materials used for metal plating. However, residents weren’t notified of the possible contamination until 1999.
Anthony Just was mayor at the time; Elwell was a member of the council.
Shortly after Elwell was elected mayor, local leaders discovered that additional properties may have been affected by the contamination, but again residents weren’t immediately notified.
At the time, McAdam was critical of the delay in notifications and the town’s handling of residents’ concerns. Last year at a Town Council meeting, however, she stated that she is pleased with remediation work that has been done in the area and she praised Elwell’s overall handling of the Keystone controversy.
“There are times – and my moving onto the council is one of them – when diverse people have to join forces to do what’s best for the greater good, in this case the Town of Secaucus,” McAdam said. “You speak with honesty, speak from the heart, and try to find that common ground with others.”
E. Assata Wright may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.