Call him Sal A look at the second most powerful man in county government

One week before Election Day 1996, when he first ran for a seat on the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders (which is the county version of a town’s city council), Silverio A. Vega faced questions regarding his residency. His opponent at the time claimed Vega lived in Bergen County, where he apparently held the mortgage on a house.

It was a pivotal moment in Vega’s political career, and one that threatened to cost him not only a possible future as one of the more powerful figures in county government, but his commissioner’s seat in his hometown of West New York as well. State law required that he lived in Hudson County to run for freeholder here, and in West New York to be a commissioner.

Although Vega had purchased the house in Ridgewood for his then-estranged wife a year earlier, he still lived on 62nd Street in West New York. To prove his residency, however, Vega had to allow investigators from the state election office to snoop in his refrigerator to see if he had food there and to look in his bathroom for signs of recent use. Neighbors were interviewed, reports filed, and finally Vega was vindicated.

This was not the image of America that Vega had envisioned when he immigrated in 1967 at 10 years old, nor the kind of America he wanted to help create as a public official.

Long distance run

These days, most people can find Vega, 43, any morning they want as he jogs along the waterfront and streets of North Hudson, part of a daily routine that recalls his glory days as a world-class runner. He often waves to people he knows, and those who know him best call him “Sal.”

Many of the people who see him during his daily run know of his athletic accomplishments, how he was named among the national athletes of the decade in the 1970s for his track accomplishments at Memorial High School. Some even know of his achievements at the University of Tennessee where an annual award to its runners is still given out in his name. Until sidelined by asthma in the mid-1980s, he had a national rating, competing as a professional. Now, a decade later, he jogs for exercise.

Although Vega, chairman of the Hudson County Freeholders, has been on the political scene for over a decade and associated with most of the more important political figures, Vega is not a household name outside of West New York, where he has lived and worked for more than 30 years.

Vega is the embodiment of “home town boy,” having attended the schools in West New York and then returned to West New York to work when he finished college. He taught physical education in the West New York schools, served as administrator for the school board there, and served as athletic director for its high school.

A itch for politics

Almost as soon as Vega returned to West New York from college, he got involved with the local political scene, starting as a campaign worker for the former mayor, Anthony Defino – who later appointed Vega to the Board of Adjustment in 1984 and then in 1989, the Rent Control Board. For a time, Vega served as legislative aide to state Senator Bernard Kenny (D – 33rd Dist.).

“I’ve always been civic minded,” Vega said during an interview recently. “I’ve always felt that I needed to be in charge of my own destiny. A lot of people sit on the sidelines and complain about how county government is run. I feel if I have a complaint, I need to do something about it.”

Vega was elected as a commissioner (the West New York equivalent of a councilman) in 1991, and he served as director for the Department of Revenue and Finances from 1991 to 1995. He has served as the town’s public safety director since 1995.

When Robert Janiszewski became County Executive in 1988, Vega got appointed to the county’s school of technology (at the time, it was still called a vocational school). Vega recalls the difficult times the school had during those early years, and still admires the changes brought about by the current county administrator. “What had once largely been a job bank for political patronage became a legitimate educational resource,” Vega said.

Vega was elected as a freeholder in 1996.

Taking the lead

In 1999, Vega became the freeholder chairman in what was then called by some “a bloodless coup.” For decades, freeholders ascended to the position through a series of preliminary seats: pro tem, vice chairman, and then chairman. By securing the needed votes, Vega bypassed the traditional route that would have made Freeholder William Braker, who was next in line, the chairman.

Instead of changing chairs again this year, Vega retained the position. He argued that the move was necessary to bring some credibility to the chairmanship, claiming that chairman changing every year made the chairman “a lame duck” the day he or she took office, and that he wanted to make the position stronger. When reelected by the freeholders earlier this year, Vega had no opposition. Looking back, Vega said he has come to respect Braker’s knowledge and abilities.

“To Bill’s credit, he never let the matter interfere with our relationship, and since then, he is one of the people I work most closely with,” Vega said. “We have a good relationship based on respect.”

As chairman, Vega is a stickler for parliamentary procedures. Random talk is discouraged. Questions are always addressed through the chairman.

“This allows us to focus on the issues and avoid conflict,” he said. “While there are going to be disagreements, we can deal with these in an orderly manner. I don’t prevent anyone from speaking. I don’t try to cut their time. But I insist that people show respect for each other and each other’s ideas. We don’t accomplish anything if the meetings get disrupted.”

Yet Vega said he wouldn’t censor anyone, believing that each freeholder represents a constituency that deserves to have a voice on the board. Vega said the public has a right to know what the board is doing and this is the reason – as chairman – he began to take freeholder meetings on the road, holding up to six meetings per year in various municipalities around the county.

In order to bring government to the people, Vega has even more plans to use technology – especially the Internet – more efficiently in the future.

As closely aligned as he is with County Executive Robert Janiszewski, Vega said the freeholders make up the legislative body for the county and must be distinct and independent, even if the board disagrees with the county executive from time to time.

Vega makes no apologies for his admiration of Janiszewski, claiming that the current county executive has done much to help the county recover from the neglect of previous county-level administrations and to create an atmosphere of economic growth.

“This did not come without making hard choices, or even angering some people whose own privileges were attached to previous patronage system,” Vega said. “Sometimes we had to look at whether to cut services or raise taxes. But many of the decisions made since 1988 have resulted in the improvements to the county and our ability to keep taxes stable over the last three years.”

Vega said the county needs to keep the current economic growth going as long as possible and keep government from becoming too costly when the economy eventually does less well in the future. In this, the freeholders and the county executive must lay plans and explore new ideas, such as possible commuter or hotel taxes to developing corporate-government relationships. Yet Vega said county government should not cut back so far as to forget its purpose, and that is to provide services to the people who live and work in Hudson County.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group