The drama surrounding the vacant Secaucus mayor’s seat took another bizarre turn last week when two of the three candidates vying to be acting mayor – a position they would only hold until the end of this year – took themselves out of the running during public interviews with the Town Council.
Richard Steffens, Robert Zych, and Ed Zloty were selected two weeks ago by the Secaucus Democratic Committee as possible replacements for former mayor Dennis Elwell, who resigned from office last month following a corruption arrest.
During the special Town Council session held Monday, members of the governing body held public interviews with the three men to gauge their interest in becoming acting mayor and their past experience.
But during the interviews, Zloty pulled his name from consideration and Zych explicitly stated that Steffens had more experience than he did – leaving only one viable candidate, Steffens, still in the running.
“I was somewhat surprised by the turn of events,” said Councilman Gary Jeffas. “I would have preferred to have three candidates who all wanted the position. I think it’s unfortunate that Mr. Zloty took himself out of contention completely. And based on Mr. Zych’s comments during the interview, he basically did the same thing, leaving the council with only one option. It would have been better to have more choice.”
Monday’s special Town Council meeting had initially been scheduled for the governing body to introduce the 2009 municipal budget (see cover story). However, since the local Democratic Committee had already come up with a short list of acting mayor candidates, the council decided to hold interviews with Steffens, Zych, and Zloty following the introduction of the budget.
Since Elwell was elected as a Democrat, state law required that the local party nominate three possible replacements to serve out the end of his term, which expires on Dec. 31. There will be an election this November for the next four-year term as mayor.
Elwell resigned from office last month after being arrested on bribery charges in a massive sting operation that netted 44 public officials and religious leaders. Since then, Deputy Mayor John Reilly, a councilman who represents the 3rd Ward, has been acting mayor, but only in a temporary capacity.
Steffens, Zych, and Zloty were selected by the local Democratic Committee following a meeting on Aug. 10. They were then forwarded to the Town Council for a vote.
New Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto, a state assemblyman who represents New Jersey’s 32nd District, said an ability to work with the Town Council’s warring Democratic and Independent factions was the main criteria for being selected as an acting mayor candidate.
“We will be looking for candidates who are able to work with both sides and get our government back on track so the government is functioning smoothly again,” Prieto said the day after Steffens, Zych, and Zloty were nominated by the committee.
Prieto added that he also wanted candidates who aren’t interested in running for mayor in this November.
‘No time;’ ‘Less qualified’
What he got were two candidates who apparently don’t even want to be acting mayor.
“It would have been better to have more choice.” – Councilman Gary Jeffas
During the council’s first question – why do you want to be acting mayor – Zloty thanked the Democratic Committee for nominating him, saying he was “honored” by the recommendation. He then promptly stated that he wouldn’t have time for the position.
“Wait a minute,” Jeffas interjected, “are you saying you don’t want to be considered for the position?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” Zloty responded.
“Thank you for your honesty,” Jeffas replied. “I don’t think we need to continue further with any other questions.”
Zloty later explained his decision.
“I retired a year and a half ago, and there are things I started after I retired that I should finish,” Zloty said. “I figured I’m just better off if I don’t make a commitment. If I do something, I like to do a good job. There are a lot of meetings and other things the mayor has to do. And I realized I probably wouldn’t have the time.”
Following his interview, Zych echoed a point he made several times Monday night: “Richie Steffens is more qualified to be acting mayor than I am. I’m not saying I don’t want to be acting mayor, or that I wouldn’t serve in the position if they selected me. I’m just being honest. Ritchie has already been a councilman before, and he has more skills and qualifications that pertain to the job.”
Zych, a 1st Ward resident, added that he might run for the Town Council in the future. Sitting on the council, he said, is the best preparation for higher office.
‘I know I can work with them’
Unlike Zloty and Zych, Steffens expressed clear interest in the acting mayor post and confidence in his ability to do the job through the end of the year.
“I’ve had a successful business in town for 35 years” Steffens said. “I think business and government go well together. I think I can apply my business knowledge to the governing of the town. Running a business and running a town is really the same thing.”
Steffens served two terms on the Town Council, representing the 1st Ward. He was first elected as a Democrat in 1979 and reelected in 1981. He also served for several years on the Secaucus School Board in the mid-1970s.
“I was in the minority during my two terms as a Town Councilman,” Steffens noted during his interview before the council. “I can honestly say there wasn’t a single person on the other side who I don’t still consider a friend today.”
He reiterated that he would have no difficulty working with the council’s three Independent members and said he would keep an open mind about pieces of legislation they support, specifically the pay-to-play ordinance that was recently re-introduced.
The Town Council will vote on an acting mayor candidate on Tuesday afternoon during its closed caucus session before the regularly scheduled public meeting at 7 p.m.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.