The addition of 1st Ward Councilman Gary Jeffas and 2nd Ward Councilman Michael Gonnelli to the seven-member council means that the council is almost completely divided politically.
Those two new councilmen are part of the "Take Back Secaucus" election slate that ran in opposition to Mayor Dennis Elwell's slate. They now form a solid independent voting bloc along with 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner.
Mayor Elwell can break the tie between the two groups, therefore maintaining his edge by the width of a blade of Secaucus swamp grass.
A hundred attend ceremony
New 3rd Ward Councilman John Shinnick now joins 1st Ward Councilman Richard Kane and 3rd Ward Councilman John Reilly in supporting Elwell.
A crowd of over 100 people watched as Jeffas, Gonnelli, and Shinnick took office on Jan. 1, with an oath administered by Town Clerk Michael Marra.
Marra also swore in Robert Parisi as the chief of the town's volunteer Fire Department, replacing Raymond Cieciuch. Charles Snyder was sworn in as battalion fire chief, while Gonnelli was sworn in a second time as deputy fire chief.
Not following party lines
Even though there may be warring political factions on the council, does that mean the council members will always vote with their allies?
Shinnick, 50, said he wouldn't. "Dialogue is always good," he said. "I intend to approach each issue as they come on an individual basis. You can't stand there and say 'I'm going to vote this way or that way' until you know what the issue is. I hope that both sides are open to open communication."
Jeffas, 40, an attorney, is used to negotiating. However, that doesn't mean that there are certain issues that Jeffas won't take tough stands on.
"I want to be able to bring issues to the floor in a way that hasn't happened for the last couple of years," he said. "Hopefully, we can get some of the council members to agree with some of the issues that we raise." Jeffas sees significant challenges ahead since he plans to press an agenda along with his fellow independent councilmen that may prove controversial.
"The majority probably plans to operate business as usual," he said. "The people of Secaucus who elected us don't want business as usual. We need to break that chain of events."
Jeffas doesn't necessarily foresee an atmosphere of total combat in the council chambers.
"I don't think it's going to be a free-for-all," he said. "There will be issues that are probably going to be a 4-3 vote, such as a new 'pay-to-play' ordinance, or competing visions of development. But we won't be having screaming arguments at every council meeting. It's not going to be like the TV wrestling smackdown."
Gonnelli wants changes
While Shinnick and Jeffas speak in terms of communication and conciliation, many town residents have focused their political perspectives on the rough-edged rivalry between Gonnelli and Mayor Elwell. Their longtime dispute, dating from Gonnelli's tenure as Department of Public Works superintendent, fueled much of the fire that led to Gonnelli's council election victory.
During his inaugural comments after he was sworn in, Gonnelli, 51, went through some of the same issues that were planks of his campaign platform: a "no loophole" pay-to-play ordinance (which strives to prevent political donors from being rewarded with town contracts); employee intimidation, open government, and more competitive professional service contracts.
"My hope is that moving forward, promotions are based on merit, and not based on political affiliations, which is blatantly happening now in the town of Secaucus," he said.
After his speech, Gonnelli examined the immediate future of the Town Council.
"Our challenge is that we are in the minority," he said. "I'm hoping that with the changes in the council, if we put ideas forward that are good for the community and can save the taxpayers money, then someone from the other side will vote along with us. If their ideas are good, we'll vote with them."
Gonnelli noted the high turnout at the New Years' Day swearing-in ceremony, and hoped that this trend would continue at the 7 p.m. council meetings.
"We had a good turnout today, and I hope that we see the same people at the council meetings," he said.
Gonnelli also said that government has to improve overall in Secaucus.
"I took a huge cut on my pension to run for this job," he said. "But to allow the administration to continue to do some of the things that they have been doing to me was definitely not the right thing to do. If they can do it to me, they can do it to any other employee in the town of Secaucus. That's what I want to stop. Believe me, we will stop it. This is a new era."
Town and state issues
Shinnick said during his inaugural speech that a "contested election" brought a lot of town issues to the surface.
"I now know the streets of the 3rd Ward better than I possibly could have imagined, and I know my neighbors and their concerns," he said afterward. "I'd like to keep our taxes stable, and keep our services as good as they are."
He pointed out that all municipalities in New Jersey are facing heightened challenges due to the overall fiscal climate in the state.
"I think people don't realize the fiscal challenges that towns like Secaucus have," he said. "State aid and federal aid are both down. The money isn't there anymore and Governor Corzine is clamping down. Municipalities are left to fend for themselves. What you need in that situation is good management and good government."