On May 30, Secaucus Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent Michael Gonnelli filed his petitions with the Hudson County clerk in order to run for Town Council as an independent candidate in the 2nd Ward this November.
Joining Gonnelli in the insurgent effort to take over Town Hall are Gary Jeffas, an attorney who is running for the 1st Ward Council seat, and Dr. Robert Berckes, a chiropractor who is running for the 3rd Ward Council seat. The three are running as Secaucus Independents.
In a prepared statement, Gonnelli wrote that he is running because "the people want a hard working, honest government that puts the people first. It's time to return the small town charm to Secaucus that has been slipping away."
Gonnelli also questioned complained that taxes have not gone down even though ratables have increased tremendously over the past six years.
Gonnelli is a political enemy of Mayor Dennis Elwell, as both men have clashed on personal issues such as the amount of Gonnelli's retirement package and Gonnelli's job duties.
Prelude to war
One thing that has definitely not gone down in recent years in Secaucus is the level of rancor and bitterness between Gonnelli and Elwell. At one time, the two men were personal and political allies. Things began to go seriously wrong between the two men leading up to last year, when Gonnelli and his wife Linda sued Elwell and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono. The harassment suit claimed that the town officials had tried to damage and discredit the Gonnellis for political reasons.
Other issues led Gonnelli and Elwell to clash. Gonnelli is a battalion chief in the town volunteer Fire Department. One proposed town ordinance attempted to disallow firefighters from mentioning their firefighting background in campaign literature. While this concept failed to become reality, a $250 cap on any unreported individual or business donations to a Fire Department company or individual member did eventually pass.
The Gonnellis have continued to press their lawsuit against the administration, with particular concern focused on the question of whether Gonnelli will receive his full benefits upon retirement from the DPW.
A highly acrimonious Town Council meeting in February was the scene of an especially nasty skirmish between Gonnelli and Elwell and their vociferous supporters. The council passed an ordinance to reduce the powers of Gonnelli's superintendent job to a lesser administrative position, a law that was passed without any previous input from Gonnelli. The vote was 5-1, with only 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner voting against it.
Gonnelli's allies speak
One man who mentally cast his vote that fateful February day was Dr. Berckes.
"I was born and raised in Secaucus," he said last week. "It was quite obvious what was happening when you went to that meeting and saw a group of over 300 people who were a cross-section of Democrats, Republicans and Independents asking the mayor and council to put the Gonnelli matter on hold until it could be discussed more sensibly. They were not acknowledged. The people of my town are not being served in the capacity that they should be."
Berckes looked to his current job as a guide to performing what he hopes will be his new one.
'I'm a chiropractor," he said. "I make adjustments on patients all the time. Now is the time to run and help make some adjustments for the town."
Attorney Gary Jeffas rounds out the independent slate. In a prepared statement, Jeffas said he wants to help make sure that budget gaps are not closed with surplus funds, a practice he believes is fiscally unsound. He also believes that what he sees as the prevalence of the practice of 'pay-to-play' in the town "must be eliminated."
Finally, Jeffas decried what he views as the overdevelopment of Secaucus. "Whether we win the fight or not," he stated, "it would be nice to see an effort made to stand up against the developers."
Troyer criticizes Gonnelli
The Gonnelli group was not the first openly declared adversaries of the Elwell administration to enter the race. Board of Education member Tom Troyer declared last month that he would run for the 2nd Ward seat that Gonnelli is now seeking. Many observers of the Secaucus political scene now wonder if Troyer will drop out of the race. He has until 4 p.m. on June 13 to decide.
Troyer commented on both Gonnelli entering the fray and his immediate political future.
"I don't know what took him so long," he said. "As for myself, I've gotten some positive feedback from my supporters. Now I'll talk to them some more over the next few days and see how this all plays out."
Before you count him out, Troyer wants everyone to know that maybe he isn't the one who should leave the race. "It's idiotic for Gonnelli to run," he said. "Let me ask you this. If he wins his lawsuit against the administration, who is ultimately going to pay for it? The taxpayers. If he wins for council and maybe later for mayor, is he going to give up his lawsuit? Definitely the hell not."
Troyer added, "After all is said and done, I'm still the best candidate, because Gonnelli is really part of the organization whether he wants to be or not."
The view from Paterson Plank Road
In a small town like Secaucus, residents can get caught up in passionate political debates whether they want to or not. The ongoing Elwell versus Gonnelli battle is no different.
Pam Sciscilo is a lifetime Secaucus resident. As she strolled through the center of town on Paterson Plank Road, she got right to the heart of the matter regarding her opinion of recent political events.
"I just think it's all a bunch of political B.S. if you ask me," she said.
However, Sciscilo didn't think that certain viewpoints were without merit. "I don't know Gonnelli personally, but I've only seen him do positive things for the town," she said. "People have a lot of respect for him. He's got some valid points, and sometimes I think that he's being railroaded. Gonnelli has represented himself and this town in a very positive way. Isn't that what it's supposed to be all about?"
Asked why politics in Secaucus gets so personal, Sciscilo had a simple reply: "You can't mix friendship, family and politics. It just doesn't go."
Gonnelli and his allies are going forward into the Town Council race and November election with confidence. Gonnelli stated that one of the reasons that he is running because "it is his right as an American."
When asked if his rights had been infringed upon, Gonnelli reflected on the past as he prepared to look forward. "When you look back at what has happened over the last year or so" he said, "I think you know just how I might feel."
Reporter Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.