For months, appointed Secaucus Mayor Richard Steffens – whose term expires in Dec. – has defended his decisions by arguing to critics that he holds the same authority as any elected mayor. Among the decisions he has had to defend most are the handful of mayoral appointments he has made to various municipal boards and committees.
His detractors have bristled at these appointments because Steffens was not elected by voters to make such decisions. He took over during the summer after Mayor Dennis Elwell was arrested as part of an FBI corruption sting.
“The mayor’s decisions are no less legitimate if he was appointed by the council.” – Matthew Weng
But at least one statewide government association says Steffens has every right to make these appointments and says his selections can’t be voided simply because they were made by an acting mayor.
“The acting mayor has all the powers and duties of a duly elected mayor,” said Matthew Weng, staff attorney for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, last week. “If he appoints them, they’re in for a full term.”
Appointments under fire
Steffens was appointed in August to serve out the remainder of Elwell’s term as mayor, which ends on Dec. 31. One of three people considered to replace Elwell, Steffens, a former town councilman, was widely viewed as the best and most viable candidate to be acting mayor, and he received support from both the Democratic and Independent factions of the council.
But within a month of his own appointment, Steffens began naming people to municipal boards and advisory committees. His appointments have sometimes drawn criticism from the Independents and their supporters.
In September, Steffens reappointed Thomas Lee to the Secaucus Municipal Utilities Authority. Corey Robinson and James Sheridan were reappointed to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Orietta Tringali was named to the Library Board and Joseph Morano was appointed to the Ambulance Committee.
Steffens selected himself to be the council liaison to the Department of Public Works (DPW), an appointment some outspoken residents believed should have gone to 2nd Ward Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli, the former DPW superintendent who is now the mayor-elect.
The most controversial decision Steffens made was the reappointment of Municipal Judge Kathleen Walrod. Known as a tough “no nonsense” judge, she has been both praised and criticized by attorneys who have appeared in her court.
Walrod’s appointment, which had to be voted on by the entire governing body, split along party lines. Democratic Council members Dawn McAdam, John Shinnick, and John Reilly voted with Steffens to reappoint the judge. Independent Councilmen Gary Jeffas, John Bueckner, and Gonnelli 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 at the time. “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 Steffens responded, “When I took the oath [of office] I took the same oath as every other mayor. 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.”
‘Air of legitimacy’
Some of Gonnelli’s supporters have called Steffens arrogant for making such decisions.
“Obviously it has to do with politics,” Weng said. “If a mayor was elected and he does something you don’t agree with, he still has that air of legitimacy. But the mayor’s decisions are no less legitimate if he was appointed by the council, and they can’t be automatically voided by the next elected mayor.”
The only Steffens appointments that Gonnelli could theoretically overturn would be what Weng called “mayoral designees.” In some towns the mayor sits on boards and committees himself, but can choose someone else – a mayoral designee – to sit on the board or committee in his place. Such appointments, Weng said, end whenever that mayor leaves office.
Steffens doesn’t appear to have selected any mayoral designees.
Some larger towns, Weng said, try to avoid such complications by electing both a mayor and a deputy mayor. In cases where the mayor has to step aside, the deputy mayor then automatically steps in as acting mayor.
“That mitigates political controversy around the legitimacy of any appointments,” Weng said. “Since the deputy mayor was also elected, no one can really say the acting mayor doesn’t have the approval of most voters.”
In Secaucus, although 3rd Ward Councilman John Reilly carries the title of deputy mayor, he was not elected as such, and there is no law that would allow him to automatically serve out the mayor’s term should the mayor have to resign.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.