Although the high school concert band played in the rear of the room and school janitors scrambled to keep metal chairs straight in the high school auditorium, it was not an early graduation ceremony that greeted the public on Jan. 8. With flags unfurled and a forest of patriotic-colored balloons decorating the each row of seats, the mayor and council were holding their reorganizational meeting. The event – which took on increased significance with the presence of U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli and U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman – was held in high school rather than Town Hall to accommodate larger than usual crowds. County, school board and other dignitaries filled the seats.
Since Dennis Elwell became mayor in January 2000, the traditionally much more sedate governmental function has taken on an air of celebration. Instead of swearing in newly elected officials in Town Hall as was done in the past, the Elwell administration had brought the affair to the high school, adding live music, banners and important public servants to the roster.
Rothman administered the oath of office to Elwell and council members Chris Marra, John Bueckner and John Reilly, all of whom were re-elected in November. In remarks following the swearing-in, Rothman humorously noted that he has to run for office every two years, but now, Secaucus officials have four-year terms. Thanks to a change of law passed in 2001, terms of office in Secaucus expanded from two to four years for the first time in the town’s history. While a council seat in each of the town’s three wards will come up for election in Nov. 2002, those elected this past November will not run again until 2005.
Torricelli sings Secaucus’ praises
A joyful Torricelli – recently vindicated after a federal investigation into election fund-raising – set the tone of the night with his keynote speech, pouring on praise for Elwell, his administration and the town of Secaucus.
“This town has a great mayor and good people who come out to show their support.” Torricelli said. “While as U.S. senator I cannot make events like this in every town, I always try to come to this town.”
In a remark that hinted of an on-going dispute with U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, Torricelli claimed West and North Hudson always strongly supported him. In 1996, Torricelli – with the help of a faction of Democrats in Hudson County – managed to take the senate seat vacated by the resignation of Bill Bradley. In 1999, Torricelli – using the same group of supporters – sought to get the Democratic nod to run for governor, but thanks to strong opposition by Menendez, failed.
Torricelli noted that while he has reached out to meet many constituents throughout the state, he could not meet them all.
“But I have knocked on every door in Secaucus [during various local campaigns],” he said.
In heaping praise on Elwell and the council, Torricelli said Secaucus’ government had the unique ability to invest in preserving open space and providing increased services, while still keeping taxes from going up.
“It is critical to the quality of life in a state so densely populated that we maintain open space,” Torricelli said. “Yet here in Secaucus, this mayor and council have kept taxes stable, opened a new recreation center, built a new library and provided services to the residents. This is a great triumph.”
Torricelli also praised the town’s commitment to providing housing for senior citizens and called it a model for the state.
“When I’ve talked to other communities in Bergen County and they’ve asked me how to find money to build senior housing, I’ve told them to talk to Secaucus,” Torricelli said. “When I pass this town along the New Jersey Turnpike and I see those buildings, my heart swells. This is truly a wonderful place to live.”
Torricelli pledged to continue to support for Secaucus as part of a team of federal legislators.
Torricelli also praised the efforts of Hudson County’s emergency services in dealing with the World Trade Center attacks. He said that while New York City’s police, fire and emergency personal got just honors in their efforts, equal credit needs to go to those on this side of the Hudson River who handled numerous aspects of the disaster’s aftermath. Along with the people who were sent across to the World Trade Center site to help, many more volunteered to go, moving steel and glass to help recover bodies and to aid the escape effort. He said people who maintained security while others went to the site also needed to be honored.
“We need to honor our people in uniform, whether they are serving us in Afghanistan or right here on the streets of Secaucus,” he said. “The terrorist came to teach us a lesson, but we learned a different lesson about how special our people are and how blessed we are to live in this country.”
Rothman adds a few words of praise
After administering the oaths of office to Elwell and the councilman, Rothman added to Torricelli’s praise of Secaucus officials, saying that as the one-time mayor of Englewood, he had a natural sympathy for municipal officials.
“Municipal government is the front lines of public service,” he said. “This is the training ground. Municipal leaders are responsible to pick up people’s trash, make sure their roads are cleared of snow and repaired. Local government touches people’s lives in a very real way.”
Rothman, who has worked with Elwell on several projects including possibly funding a walkway along the river, praised the Secaucus mayor, saying Elwell cares deeply about the town.
“He is a smart, conscientious and dedicated public servant with the highest personal integrity,” Rothman said. “The people of Secaucus are lucky to have him as their mayor.”
Rothman saved some praise for Deputy Mayor John Reilly, whom he called one of the hardest working elected officials he knows.
Rothman called Secaucus “the Jewel of Northern New Jersey.”
Mayor and councilmen speak Elwell, in a reflecting on his first two years as mayor, said many of the promises made when he first took over were accomplished.
“It was a great experience and I learned a lot,” he said. “I also got to work with an excellent staff.”
Elwell said some of the successes of his administration came because of the good relationships he has formed with other levels of government. Over the last two years, Secaucus received $5.5 million in grants. Previously, the town averaged about $750,000 per year.
Over those two years, his administration kept the streets clean and safe, continued its sidewalk and curb program, began construction of a library and expanded the schools. Some of the administration’s accomplishments occurred during a period with a good economy, something that may prove a challenge for the future.
Elwell said that although his administration was largely positive, a significant change occurred with the Sept. 11 World Trade Center disaster. He paid tribute to local police, fire and Office of Emergency Management people, who reacted to the disaster.
“As with many other parts of the world, Secaucus came to a halt that day. It is a moment I’ll never forget,” he said. “But we did what we needed to do and we survived.”
Marra said two years ago when he came to the council, the town was starting a new chapter in its history. He said this election continues that chapter and that the binding to the book called the town of Secaucus was people’s commitment to public service.
“During the go-go ’80s and the dot.com ’90s, public service went out of fashion,” he said. “It did not seem in keeping with the times. But to me, public service is timeless and many of the successes Secaucus has had over the years have come because people were willing to get involved.”
Marra issued a new call for public involvement, not just teachers and elected officials, but for residents and business owners. He said the residents are already involved in many areas, including through the town’s Office of Emergency Management and volunteer fire department as well as though community organizations. He said that if the town is to prosper, people must get involved.
Bueckner said when he first ran for office nearly a decade ago, he set a goal to listen and be responsive to the community.
“I proposed to act in the best interest of the public, and I think I’ve lived up to that promise,” he said. “I’ve based my decisions on facts and a high moral standing.”
He said Secaucus faces some serious issues in the future, such as the threat of the massive Mills mall slated for Carlstadt, proposed changes in air traffic patterns and the moving of the Nets and Devils sports franchises out of the Meadowlands area. He said all would have a negative effect on the quality of life. He also noted that proposed 225 townhouse project in the north end needs to be studied and monitored.
Reilly in his speech said being an elected official is not an easy task, but that he felt Secaucus has never been in better hands than under Mayor Elwell. He said he has come to respect Elwell as a leader and a friend.