The topic of Gonnelli's service on the NJMC was broached at the meeting when Gonnelli's allies complained about the fact that Elwell recently held a meeting with residents regarding Damascus Bakery.
The NJMC staff approved a permit for the bakery to move its headquarters from Brooklyn to Secaucus in 2006, but the approval has become unpopular with Secaucus residents who don't want the bakery in the center of town. At the May 13 Town Council meeting, Gonnelli's council allies used the mayor's meeting with residents as an example of his unwillingness to keep them in the loop.
However, Elwell soon took the discussion on a different course.
Elwell turned to Gonnelli and asked, "Are you allowed to vote on matters pertaining to Secaucus on the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, or not?"
In response to Elwell's question, Gonnelli cited state ethics guidelines. He said, "There are...times when I may have to recuse myself from voting."
In an interview Elwell said later, "I raised the question because I've noticed that he's been abstaining from anything related to Secaucus. This is a question he needs to answer. Voters need to know whether he can vote there or not. It seems he's conflicted all over the place."
The timing of the mayor's question is of note because, after three terms on the NJMC, Gonnelli's current term is over and he is up for reappointment.
Elwell does not have any direct say in whether Gonnelli is reappointed - it's a decision that will be made by Gov. Jon Corzine - but Gonnelli admits the governor won't reappoint a commissioner without the backing of local leadership.
And Elwell is unlikely to want his foe to remain on the board - at least, not without getting in a few potshots first.
The mayor opposes the NJMC's decision to allow Damascus Bakery to occupy 10 Enterprise Avenue in Secaucus, saying it is dangerous to situate the business so close to Clarendon School and nearby homes. If the bakery were to move to there, it would be approximately 50 feet from the nearest home and only about 500 from the school. The town is now fighting in court to keep the bakery out of this location.
As a councilman, Gonnelli has abstained on bakery-related matters when they have come up before the council, saying that he may have to vote on Damascus issues at the NJMC. In the past, Gonnelli has said, "My vote will mean more there than it will here, so I want to save my vote for when it have more meaning."
Gonnelli has publicly expressed his opposition to Damascus.
Benefits for Secaucus
Gonnelli has been a commissioner on the seven-member NJMC since 1997. His appointment marked the first time in recent memory that Secaucus has had a representative on the state agency.
Prior to Gonnelli's appointment, Secaucus found itself in something of a "taxation without representation" predicament. The town contributes $3.3 million a year to the NJMC's tax-sharing pool, more than the other 13 towns in the agency's jurisdiction, and the agency oversees development for 88 percent of Secaucus' land.
Before Gonnelli was tapped to sit on the commission, Secaucus officials complained bitterly about the inherent inequities of the NJMC's structure.
Since his appointment, Gonnelli argues that he has been instrumental in the creation of the Municipal Assistance Program (MAP), through which Secaucus receives $100,000 a year.
The town, Gonnelli said, has used most of its annual MAP allocation to purchase and maintain police vehicles.
He said he was also pivotal in the creation of Mill Creek Park and Riverfest, the annual celebration in Laurel Hill Park.
Gonnelli also touts his involvement in the mitigation project that revitalized 22 acres of land next to Secaucus High School.
"I have voted on many resolutions that have benefited Secaucus in the past," Gonnelli maintained in an interview after the meeting.
Not enough cooperation
Gonnelli believes the mayor is trying to score political points with voters by characterizing the NJMC as a mismanaged agency that doesn't have the town's best interests at heart, while at the same time tying the agency to Gonnelli.
The mayor denies this, and accuses Gonnelli of trying to use his NJMC position for political gain.
In March, Elwell took the controversial step of sending a letter to Corzine requesting that Secaucus be removed from the NJMC's jurisdiction.
The mayor's letter read, in part, "One would assume with Secaucus sending this much money to the Commission, the Meadowlands Commission would make every effort to work cooperatively, diligently, and professionally with the town; however, this is not always the case."
Corzine's decision on Gonnelli's reappointment could be made at any time.