It was a brisk and sunny morning in January 2008 when Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell stood near the banks of the Hackensack River behind two old warehouses and discussed his plans for River Walk, a government-funded project to create a path connecting Laurel Hill Park and the Meadowlands Walkway.
“We will be using grant money to purchase these two plots here so that we can preserve this as open space,” he said that day. “There are those who would like for us to use this land for affordable housing. But this area isn’t suitable for housing of any kind.” He then mapped out the beautiful walkway that would include park benches, a bike path, and maybe a concession stand or two.
The mayor had grand plans for Secaucus, the town in which he had been born and raised, the town in which he married his high school sweetheart and raised three children.
That day, he also talked about his immigrant grandparents who settled in Secaucus and grew flowers that were sold in markets in New York City; about the in-the-works Secaucus Recreation Center; and about his upcoming race for reelection, still 22 months away.
“Mr. Gonnelli, I take seriously,” Elwell said, referring to Town Councilman and future mayoral opponent Michael Gonnelli. “But I’m confident I will win reelection.”
And he was. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been standing on the banks of the Hackensack River giving a tour of Secaucus, his Secaucus.
But for the last week, Elwell’s town has been reeling from a corruption scandal that reached from the banks of the Hudson River to the banks of the Hackensack and beyond – embroiling Elwell in a bribery scheme that stunned many.
On Tuesday afternoon, Elwell, who had been mayor since the year 2000, faxed a one-sentence resignation letter to Town Administrator David Drumeler: “Please be advised that effective immediately that I am resigning my position as mayor of the Town of Secaucus. Very truly yours, Dennis Elwell.”
‘Not guilty’ plea entered
The resignation capped off a spectacular fall from power that began in the early hours of July 23, when FBI agents descended on Elwell’s home and arrested him in connection with a statewide bribery and money laundering sting operation that netted 44 public officials and religious leaders.
According to federal prosecutors, Elwell allegedly took a $10,000 cash bribe from a witness who was cooperating with investigators. In exchange for the payment, he allegedly agreed to help the witness get a hotel built in Secaucus, prosecutors said. He was charged with “conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.”
If convicted, Elwell faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
The night of his arrest, Elwell was arraigned and released on a $100,000 personal recognizance bond, according to his lawyer.
This past Monday, federal investigators served a subpoena on Elwell’s office at the Municipal Center, calling for date books, phone messages, e-mails, and other records.
“Dennis pleaded not guilty to the charges, is presumed innocent, and will vigorously defend the unproven allegations made against him,” said defense attorneys Thomas Cammarata and Jeff Garrigan in a statement. “We hope that all the citizens of Secaucus whom Mayor Elwell has served throughout his many years in public service stand by him and are not swayed by an accusation.”
Deputy Mayor and 3rd Ward Town Councilman John Reilly, an Elwell ally, is currently serving as acting mayor in Elwell’s stead.
Although some of Elwell’s critics have labeled him a “bully” who often sought revenge against those who didn’t support him politically, his supporters remember a kind and generous public figure.
“He was the best mayor that Secaucus ever had,” said Marie Bania on the day of Elwell’s resignation. “The way he treats the seniors, the way he treats the children is terrific. We have free movies at the library. There are free bus trips for seniors. The children have more things going for them as far as sports – it never stops. You look at other communities, they don’t have these services. But we have them in Secaucus. There are young men who are going into military service; they don’t go to their own fathers. They go to Dennis, [a decorated Vietnam War veteran]. I tell you, if he ran today for mayor, he’d win.”
Elwell has long listed the relatively new Secaucus Public Library and Business Resource Center, the Recreation Center, and the town’s history of low property taxes among his major accomplishments – accomplishments resident Wayne Bosinski also noted last week.
“He has made a lot of community improvements,” he said. “The town has changed for the better in his tenure. I’m a Republican, but I always voted for Dennis.”
He added that he would still vote for Elwell if he were to continue his bid for mayor.
Democrats to select acting mayor
Even before his resignation, the Secaucus Town Council saw the handwriting on the wall and made plans to move forward without Elwell.
The day after his arrest, the governing body held a special closed session and made Reilly temporary acting mayor in Elwell’s place. In Secaucus’ form of government, the mayor serves on the seven-member council.
Drumeler said he expects Reilly to come in to work on an “as needed” basis.
“Mayor Elwell didn’t come in every day,” Drumeler said. “I’d say he came in three good days a week and when he had appointments. It’s summer and this is a slow time of the year, so I’d say [Reilly] will come in when it makes sense.”
The mayoralty is considered a part-time job in Secaucus. Elwell also worked at his family’s trucking company in town.
Reilly’s position as acting mayor is temporary. The council is now faced with the same situation it had back in January when 1st Ward Councilman Richard Kane resigned from the governing body. Because Elwell was elected as a Democrat, the Secaucus Democratic Committee must now submit the names of three possible replacements for him. The Town Council will then vote on the three candidates. The candidate who gets four or more votes will finish out the rest of Elwell’s term, which ends Dec. 31. Whoever is elected mayor in the regular November municipal election will take over on Jan. 1.
If no candidate gets four votes from the Town Council, the decision bounces back to the Democratic Committee and the committee will vote on a candidate to serve out Elwell’s unexpired term.
Before Elwell’s departure, the seven-member council had four Democrats and three Independents. With his resignation the governing body is now split evenly 3-3.
Given the congenial atmosphere at last Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, however, selecting Elwell’s replacement will likely be less contentious than the partisan battle that ensued after Kane’s departure.
After his arrest, Elwell abandoned his bid for reelection, all but guaranteeing that Gonnelli – who was running against him as an Independent – will win the mayor’s seat on Election Day. Elwell’s Democratic allies on the council clearly sense the shift in power and are eager to cooperate with Gonnelli and his allies on the governing body.
Top of the ticket?
With the mayoral election just three months away, the Democratic Committee has another more important question to answer: Who, if anyone, will replace Elwell as candidate for mayor on the Democratic slate?
Before his resignation, Elwell lead a ticket that included 1st Ward Councilwoman Dawn McAdam, 2nd Ward candidate Frank Trombetta, and Reilly.
Although none of the Democrats will confirm it publicly, there were reports of frantic phone calls last weekend to viable mayoral candidates who could challenge Gonnelli. If no one steps up, McAdam, Trombetta, and Reilly may run without a mayoral candidate.
This wouldn’t be a first in Secaucus. In 1955, James Moore, Howie Elwell (the mayor’s father), and Frank MacCormack ran together for Town Council without a mayoral candidate.
“I’m staying focused on my race in my ward,” McAdam said the day after Elwell’s arrest. “I got something like 525 votes in the Democratic Primary [on June 2], and I owe it to those voters to keep going, which is what I intend to do.”
Even before his resignation, the council saw the handwriting on the wall.
Elwell, who had been chairman of the committee, was expected to relinquish that post as well. Jason Elwell, his son, who also serves as treasurer, said he believes that Vice Chairwoman Marietta Reilly will now become acting chair.
Grace under fire
Of the 44 individuals arrested in the corruption scandal, Elwell was the first to resign. His quick departure may keep his legal troubles from becoming a distraction to town governance at a time when the council is working on the 2009 budget and is dealing with an ongoing investigation of the Tax Collector’s Office.
This means the Secaucus Municipal Center hasn’t been the scene of daily protests from angry residents, which has been the case elsewhere. Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, who, like Elwell, was among the 44 arrested in connection with the scandal, has defiantly remained in office since his arraignment. Several Hoboken City Council members have asked Cammarano to resign and residents have held several rallies asking him to do the same. Cammarano’s chief of staff resigned on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Jersey City residents held their own protest outside their City Hall calling for the “resignation of Team [Jerramiah] Healy.”
Jersey City Mayor Healy has not been charged in the scandal, but several members of his administration were. Some of those people were charged for allegedly accepting donations for Healy’s mayoral race in May.
Elwell’s resignation may put added pressure on others implicated in the scandal to step down.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.