Secaucus Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli was conspicuously absent from five nominations to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission made recently by Gov. Jon Corzine.
In Gonnelli’s place, another Secaucus resident – former school board member Mauro DeGennaro – was nominated instead. The state Senate Judiciary Committee must approve the appointment.
“The governor’s decision wasn’t a surprise. I fully expected it,” Gonnelli, who has been at odds with Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell for years, said of Corzine’s nomination. “I’ve been a holdover for more than a year now. The mayor has a say in who gets the seat, and state senators from the district [all of whom are Democrats] have a say in it, too. So why would they reappoint me?” Gonnelli is part of the Independent political faction of the Secaucus Town Council.
A state agency, the NJMC reviews and makes zoning decisions in parts of 14 towns in the Meadowlands region including Secaucus, where the commission has jurisdiction over 88 percent of the land.
Gonnelli was first appointed to the NJMC in 1997 by Gov. Christine Whitman, a Republican, and served two five-year terms. His second term ended in early 2008. He has been a holdover since then.
Individuals can nominate themselves to the NJMC, or they can be nominated by civic groups, nonprofit organizations, or other individuals.
DeGennaro, who chose not to run for reelection to the school board in April, said he nominated himself.
“I knew Gonnelli’s term was up and suspected there might be a vacancy on the commission, so I sent my resume to Trenton,” he said.
If strings were pulled behind the scenes for him to get the appointment, DeGennaro – an ally of Mayor Elwell – said he was not aware of it.
Elwell admitted that he met with state senators Nicholas Sacco, Paul Sarlo, and Sandra Cunningham about the NJMC vacancy, but claimed last week that he did not lobby for a specific candidate.
“I was concerned that the seat remain in Secaucus,” Elwell said. “My argument has always been that the [NJMC] controls 88 percent of Secaucus, so we should have a representative sitting there. So, yes, I did encourage that, but I didn’t have any say in who Gov. Corzine picked.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on DeGennaro’s nomination on June 25. If the committee fails to approve his appointment on that date, he won’t be approved until the fall, after the legislature reconvenes from summer recess. Gonnelli would continue to serve until DeGennaro is confirmed.
Rift began with Wal-Mart
Elwell has at times been critical of Gonnelli’s 12-year tenure on the NJMC.
Most of these criticisms date back to 2005, when the state agency was considering an application by Wal-Mart to open a gas station on Park Place, adjacent to the current Wal-Mart store.
Although mayors do not vote on applications before the NJMC, Elwell backed Wal-Mart’s application, and reportedly told company officials the station would be approved. The application was, however, shot down in a unanimous vote by the commissioners – including Gonnelli.
That the application was voted down, and rejected by the NJMC’s representative from Secaucus, was a blow to the mayor. The vote caused a rift between the two men – who had once been friends – and set up a dynamic that has colored local politics ever since.
Within a year of the Wal-Mart vote, Elwell rejected the municipal retirement package Gonnelli had hoped to get, and Gonnelli announced his intention to run for Town Council as an Independent candidate. The two are now running against each other for mayor in November and heading up separate slates for Town Council.
In recent years, Elwell has questioned Gonnelli’s effectiveness as a commissioner, stating that Gonnelli too often has to abstain – either at the NJMC or in the Town Council – on matters that come up before the two bodies. As a Town Councilman, for example, Gonnelli has abstained from voting on matters regarding Damascus Bakery because the business had pending applications before the NJMC.
“He’s conflicted all over the place,” Mayor Elwell said last year of the councilman.
But Gonnelli points to a long list of grants and other resources he helped leverage for the town.
According to him, he helped secure $6,978,024 in direct assistance to Secaucus. Since 2003, Gonnelli said, this money has been used for residential flood relief projects, new emergency vehicles, transportation grants, and maintenance of town parks, among other uses.
Tax formula DeGennaro’s priority
“I think Mike did a great job while he was there and he did what he had to do for the residents of Secaucus,” DeGennaro said.
Should he receive confirmation, he said he would like to see the NJMC’s tax-sharing formula revised. Each of the 14 municipalities that are partly within the agency’s jurisdiction sends money to the NJMC each year. According to Elwell, Secaucus has sent in excess of $63 million to the NJMC since 1973.
“Being on the Meadowlands Commission will hopefully allow me to do something to help alleviate the amount of money that Secaucus pays to the Commission,” DeGennaro continued. That’s not the reason why I sent my resume to Trenton, but that will be an interest of mine.”
In addition to DeGennaro, Gov. Corzine also nominated Thomas Quirico of Little Ferry, Jay Nadal of Demarest, and James Boccino of North Arlington to the NJMC. The governor nominated current commissioner Arleen Walther for reappointment.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.