Richard Steffens said it himself: he may be the shortest-serving mayor in the history of Secaucus. But during his brief tenure he managed to fulfill his pledge be a “bridge between Democrats and Independents” on the Town Council.
He was sworn in to office at a time of turmoil and strife on the governing body.
Former Mayor Dennis Elwell had been arrested in the biggest corruption scandal to rock New Jersey. The 2009 Secaucus budget hadn’t been passed and was eight months late, partly due to an investigation into alleged shortfalls in the Tax Collector’s Office. With the November Town Council elections on the horizon, the governing body was divided, with the two warring political factions – the Democrats and Independents – often at odds with one another.
“He was a good selection by the Democratic Party.” – John Shinnick
Steffens, a retired businessman, was one of three candidates selected by the Secaucus Democratic Committee to serve out the remainder of Elwell’s term, which ends on Dec. 31.
Ed Zloty and Robert Zych were also under consideration, but from the outset Steffens received unanimous support from the Town Council.
Committee Chairman and State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32nd Dist.) specifically chose candidates to fill the mayor’s seat who did not plan to run for the position in the November election. Although some people criticized Prieto for this decision, at least one councilman believes it ultimately helped Steffens become the link between the council’s two parties.
“He was a good selection by the Democratic Party,” said Town Councilman John Shinnick, who is himself a Democrat. “The choice was important. It wasn’t a situation where we put somebody in there who was then going to run for that office. I think that had a lot to do with his ability to help heal the town.”
Marilyn DePice, who is a member of the Secaucus Democratic Committee, agreed.
“He helped put the town back on the right track and restored cordiality to council meetings,” said DePice. “And that was so important to the community. We really needed to get back to that because it was missing before.”
John Scheiner also agreed. Like DePice, he is a member of the Democratic Committee that selected Steffens as a possible candidate for interim mayor.
“Given the situation he was thrust into, he did a very good job,” Scheiner said. “I think he presided fairly. We definitely moved ahead with him as mayor.”
The three Independents on the council – Gary Jeffas, John Bueckner, and Michael Gonnelli – saw at least one of their pet issues move ahead after Steffens was appointed mayor. In September the Town Council passed a pay-to-play ordinance that the Independents had failed to get passed while Elwell was mayor. (Pay-to-play ordinances help stop governments from rewarding contractors who donate to their campaigns.)
Steffens also heeded the Independents’ request to get the budget process started earlier. The council began working on the 2010 municipal budget in October.
Gonnelli, who will succeed Steffens as mayor on Jan. 1, has often praised his leadership as mayor.
“The roadblock has been removed,” Gonnelli said. “He’s more open-minded. He allows open dialogue. Now we can talk about things that the other guy wouldn’t let us do. So I think you see a more unified council.”
The mayor-elect also noted that Steffens has been supportive of the administrative transition that Gonnelli requested. Specifically, Steffens has allowed two newly elected councilmen – Rob Costantino and William McKeever – to sit in on the council’s closed caucus meetings. “He didn’t have to do that,” Gonnelli said. “But he did it and I appreciate that.”
Tenure not without controversy
Steffens also got a bit of criticism for making long-term appointments even though he was just an interim mayor. His most controversial pick was the reappointment of Municipal Judge Kathleen Walrod.
The mayor at first agreed to be interviewed for this piece but then declined, saying he had promised a similar interview to another newspaper.
Steffens, who had previously served two terms on the Town Council in the late ’70s and early 1980s, has repeatedly said he has no plans to return to politics. Given the job he has done over the past four months, however, some people are speculating that he could be convinced to run for office again next year. Steffens, who lives in the 1st Ward, could run against Jeffas, whose term ends next December.
“I don’t live in his ward,” Scheiner said. “But if he decided to run, I’d certainly campaign for him and help him get elected.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.