He may go down as the Secaucus mayor with the shortest tenure in office, but Richard Steffens is determined to leave a legacy.
Steffens recently reappointed Kathleen Walrod to a new three-year term as municipal judge for Secaucus. Walrod’s most recent three-year term ended on August 31 and she has continued in the position in a holdover capacity.
The reappointment – one of several Steffens has made over the past two months – is controversial because Steffens only took office in August after former Mayor Dennis Elwell resigned due to bribery charges. He is not running in the Nov. 3 election for a full four-year term, so his time in office will end on Dec. 31.
Some council members and residents believe since he was appointed by the Town Council, not elected, Steffens should refrain from making appointments that will continue into the newly elected mayor’s term in office.
The vote to reappoint Walrod was among the few that split along party lines since Steffens joined the council.
Steffens has pushed back against the criticism, arguing: “Mike Gonnelli is not the mayor. I am. This is the best appointment I think I could make.”
The Walrod judgeship
When Steffens joined the council in August he said he hoped to be a bridge between the Democratic and Independent factions on the governing body. For the most part he has been successful in doing that during his eight weeks in office.
The vote to reappoint Walrod was among the few that split along party lines. Council members Dawn McAdam, John Shinnick, and John Reilly voted with fellow Democrat Steffens to reappoint Walrod. Gonnelli and Independent Councilmen Gary Jeffas and John Bueckner voted against the reappointment, arguing that they wanted the opportunity to interview Walrod and other possible candidates for the position.
“This is a three-year appointment and the next administration will have to live with whatever decision gets made,” Bueckner said. “Richie, since you’re only here for a short time. I think this is something that should be delayed until after the new administration takes office.”
But Shinnick disagreed.
“We had a good 45-minue discussion on this upstairs in our caucus meeting,” Shinnick said. “There was some serious dialogue. The mayor made a presentation. I know her reputation. And she has a reputation as a tough judge, which is what you want. So I vote yes.”
Walrod was first appointed as municipal judge in 1997 by former Mayor Anthony Just. Elwell continued to reappoint her every three years throughout his tenure as mayor.
“You know, when I took the oath [of office] I took the same oath as every other mayor,” Steffens said. “This is the administration right now. This is the appointment that comes due now. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do or what I feel is in the best interests of the town.”
The Walrod reappointment was also controversial because of the judge herself.
Known as a tough, “no nonsense” judge, Walrod has been both praised and criticized by attorneys who have appeared in her court.
And in 2007, while she was working in Jersey City as the assistant city attorney, Walrod’s boss, First Assistant Corporation Counsel Joanne Monahan, questioned Walrod’s judicial ethics after it was discovered that Walrod & D’Amico, the law firm she runs with her husband Charles D’Amico, represented clients who were involved in lawsuits against Jersey City. Monahan believed this constituted a conflict of interest.
Walrod, however, noted that D’Amico was the attorney representing these clients, not her, and that Jersey City’s corporation counsel was aware of Walrod & D’Amico’s involvement in these cases. She said Monahan only raise the alleged “conflict” charge after she refused to do a favor for one of Monahan’s relatives.
Walrod eventually filed a civil suit against Monahan and Bill Matsikoudis, Jersey City’s corporation counsel. The suit was settled in May. Under the settlement, Walrod left her position as assistant city attorney and deferred her pension until age 60. In return, the city gave her a one-time $5,000 payment and an increased retirement package.
The question of whether Steffens should make appointments first came up last month when he named several people to boards. He reappointed Thomas Lee to the Secaucus Municipal Utilities Authority Board. Corey Robinson and James Sheridan were reappointed to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Orietta Tringali was named to the Library Board. Steffens appointed Joseph Morano to the Ambulance Committee, which is looking at ways to improve ambulance coverage and response times in town.
Finally, the mayor appointed himself to be the council liaison to the Department of Public Works (DPW). Elwell had previously been the DPW liaison.
Bueckner had tried to have Gonnelli made the council liaison to the DPW. Before being elected to the council, Gonnelli had served as the head of the DPW.
Steffens decided against Bueckner’s suggestion, stating that due to the “personalities” involved it would be more effective for him to serve as the liaison.
Current DPW head John Dubiel was an Elwell ally. Gonnelli has claimed that the groundskeeping requests made to the DPW by Democrats on the council are prioritized over similar requests made by the Independents.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.