Judging by the comments made at the April 10 Secaucus Town Council meeting, neither Penhorn Avenue nor town politics is going to be smooth anytime soon.
The road improvements brought up two questions: who pays, and how much?
Former ‘paper street’ now needs paving
Penhorn Avenue is located at the far eastern edge of Secaucus, close to the creek that both gives the road its name and marks the town’s boundary with Jersey City. The street is bisected by Secaucus Road.
For many years, Penhorn Avenue was merely a “paper street,” meaning that it was designated for future growth and not yet the site of any major buildings.
As Secaucus has grown in the past 15 years, so has the status of Penhorn Avenue.
The street is now home to several businesses, as well as a noted Hindu temple.
When a major road improvement was made 10 years ago, the cost was paid for by what is known as a special assessment. Unlike a general assessment – in which Secaucus taxpayer funds are used for any significant infrastructure improvement – a special assessment is paid by the business owners or homeowners affected by the project.
At the Apr. 10 meeting, the Town Council unanimously approved the first public reading of an ordinance that would create a special assessment of $800,000 to pave the southern section of Penhorn Avenue, which did not undergo the road improvement of 10 years ago. These improvements would also include sidewalks and drainage ditches.
The council voted that the PMK Group, a consulting and environmental engineering firm based in Cranford, would do the initial engineering study for the project.
A north-south divide
While the first step towards becoming an ordinance sailed through the council, further discussion on the matter soon hit rough seas.
Several Penhorn Avenue business and property owners questioned the council about the special assessment.
John Markovitch, who owns Benmark Construction on 10th Street in Secaucus, as well as property on the southern end of Penhorn Avenue, wanted to make sure that people with interests in the southern section of the road don’t get caught up in the costs of improving the northern half.
“Any road in town that’s improved benefits everybody in town, because property values just go up,” he said. “But if you have a specific amount of property owners on Penhorn Avenue who have already spent between $300,000 to $400,000 to improve the road in a special assessment, shouldn’t those property owners get credit for the amount that they have already spent? There has to be an equitable distribution of cost.”
Mayor Dennis Elwell explained that all issues related to the road, including flooding, will be discussed with agencies such as the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and the Hudson County Planning Board before any distribution of costs is determined.
Citizens and council clash
In other council news, there were procedural complaints among the councilmen.
Second Ward Councilman John Bueckner stated that he was dismayed that he and the other two members of the minority Take Back Secaucus voting bloc on the council, First Ward Councilman Gary Jeffas and Second Ward Councilman Michael Gonnelli, did not get more advance notice on changes in the agenda before council meetings.
“Last Thursday, we were informed that there were five changes on the consent agenda,” he said. “When I came to the meeting tonight, it was increased to 10. I didn’t particularly like that.”
Gonnelli, Jeffas, and Bueckner proceeded to abstain from several motions due to what they felt was a lack of enough notification time regarding these matters, most of which involved nominations for town personnel positions.
Many of these changes are discussed in caucus meetings that take place right before council meetings. While councilmen sometimes vote during caucus meetings, only the votes made during council meetings are official and binding.
With that in mind, Gonnelli made a motion at the regular meeting to approve a proposal that no municipal employee can attend any conference or convention without the approval of the mayor and full council prior to attendance.
The motion had been tabled at a Feb. 27 council meeting and additionally discussed at a Mar. 13 caucus meeting.
The motion was approved unanimously Tuesday.
Jeffas also noted that the council committee to upgrade the town’s website and televise town meetings had met and was “making solid progress,” with internet services contracts having been put out to bid. The committee includes 3rd Ward Councilman John Shinnick and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono.
“After the internet gets straightened out, our next plan is to televise meetings,” Jeffas added.
State court ruling leads to first in Secaucus, as well as friction
One town resident was one step ahead of the committee. Dave Conroy steadily taped the Apr. 10 Town Council meeting with a hand-held digital video camera.
While such activity is commonplace in the modern age, it was a first for Secaucus. Conroy was taking advantage a Mar. 7 New Jersey state Supreme Court ruling that New Jersey residents have the right to videotape public meetings.
In the high court decision written by Chief Justice James Zazzali, the court stated that citizen taping could certainly be part of the public meeting process, with Zazzali writing “openness is a hallmark of democracy.”
For Conroy, his motivation was even simpler. In some ways, it helps him and others keep score, as well as know the score.
“It’s for personal reference,” he said. “It’s something to reflect back on so that you can get all the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ comments.”
Conroy could be on to something. In the remarks of the citizens’ part of the meeting, Secaucus Board of Education member and 32nd legislative district state Assembly candidate Tom Troyer made reference to the ruling when he addressed the council.
“If we had videotape, you all would have seen it when Shinnick [supposedly] made a deal with [former 3rd Ward Councilman] Constantino to step aside so he could run,” he claimed. Troyer was referring to the fact that Constantino has been nominated for a position with the town’s Recreation Department.
Shinnick wasn’t laughing.
“Mr. Troyer, I was not appointed to this position,” he said. “I stood for election for a vacant seat after Mr. Constantino retired. I ran for the seat, and I won the seat. I don’t know what you are taking about with regards to a deal.”
With that, Shinnick flashed a smile at Troyer as he looked towards the June primary election.
“Good luck running for Assembly,” he said.
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.