Normal municipal business essentially ground to a halt as open political warfare broke out between two competing Secaucus council factions.
He said, he said
The meeting started off with a typical council discussion on the progress of the placing of speed bumps around Secaucus streets in order to slow drivers down to safer speeds.
But soon, discussion drifted abruptly off the regular road into a debate that might have led onlookers to search for their seat belts.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Gonnelli brought up the fact that someone (believed to be a political foe) sent an anonymous letter to the state complaining that he is a councilman as well as a volunteer deputy fire chief. (See cover story).
"I've been the target of several anonymous letters," Gonnelli told his fellow council members. "This most recent letter has to do with me holding a position as a volunteer fire chief and as a Secaucus councilman. I can tell you that I will fight this one to the end. Since I became a councilman, I abstained on every single issue that had to do with the Fire Department. This one hits home, and the outcome of this will have ramifications throughout the whole state of New Jersey."
The assembled crowd of over 80 residents sat raptly and at times behaved rowdily as the debate unfolded. Gonnelli continued with an appraisal of the source of the anonymous allegation.
"I don't know where it's coming from," he said. "But the town did spend taxpayer money in October 2006 prior to me being elected councilman to get an opinion from our town attorney [Frank Leanza] saying that I couldn't hold both positions. That same opinion somehow found its way to Trenton. I repeat, I'm going to fight this to the end."
With that, Mayor Dennis Elwell, Gonnelli's political rival, expressed his opinion. He first defended himself against an assertion made by Gonnelli that Elwell had called him a liar during the caucus held before the council meeting.
"That's right, because I don't like being lied to," Elwell said. "Your statement here when this issue first came up last October was that if you were elected to the council, you would deal with it. You should have gone down to Trenton and asked for an opinion. I would not have a problem with writing you a letter of support so that you could remain fire chief. Any other letter didn't come from me."
Council letter to counter anonymous letter
The debate between Elwell and his council allies and Gonnelli and his Take Back Secaucus team continued when 1st Ward Councilman Richard Kane addressed Gonnelli.
"I'm into my third term now, and I have spent half my time on the council dealing with issues related to Mike Gonnelli," said Kane, an Elwell ally. "I am here to serve the people of the 1st Ward and the town. I think that we need to get on with life here, and you need to take responsibility for your actions. I'm tired of this."
Another ally of Elwell, 3rd Ward Councilman John Shinnick, then noted that a unanimous offer was made during the caucus to send a letter of support to Trenton asking that Gonnelli be allowed to hold both positions. Shinnick then claimed Gonnelli had refused that offer.
"Everyone is in support of this," Shinnick said. "I don't know what you want us to do."
Deputy Mayor John Reilly, who is also an Elwell ally, noted that several points Gonnelli made at the caucus about the issue made sense to him.
"Mike did a lot of research on the issue, and I give him a lot of credit," he said. "I'm not a lawyer, but he's a good fire chief and I think that we should support him in his effort with the Department of Community Affairs."
Second Ward Councilman John Bueckner, a Gonnelli ally, then made a motion to draft and send a letter of support to be sent to Trenton on Gonnelli's behalf. First Ward Councilman Gary Jeffas, a Gonnelli ally, additionally counseled Gonnelli to take the letter.
Shortly thereafter, the council passed the motion unanimously.
The greatest show on Earth
The council did attend to some regular business during the meeting, addressing a lingering zoning dispute on Franklin Street and giving an update on the progress of the television committee (which was formed to televise public meetings).
The council also made an announcement that New Jersey Meadowlands Commission's executive director, Robert Ceberio, said the Secaucus Fire Department will once again be allowed to train on the site of the former River Barge Café in Carlstadt.
For those who are regular attendees of Secaucus Town Council meetings, resident Gary Pollack may have summed up Secaucus' municipal machinations best.
"I found this meeting very interesting, educational and exciting," he said. "We have a town television station and I would like to be able to watch the meeting on it. My father and my uncle came to these meetings regularly, and I never understood why. Now I do. This is better than television."
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at email@example.com.