The North Bergen Board of Commissioners’ chambers were packed with a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday afternoon for a special meeting.
Usually meetings draw only a handful of residents. But this was different.
The commissioners had unique items on their agenda: buying four new vehicles strictly for flood recovery, as well as two for pothole removal; possibly putting metal detectors at the doors of the high school; starting a shuttle bus to the new municipal pool, and installing a job placement and training center at the free public library.
Mayor Eileen Reslen called the meeting to order by banging her gavel.
Say what? Hasn’t Nicholas Sacco been the mayor of North Bergen forever? Isn’t Sacco running for re-election this month? Was there a coup?
Actually, Tuesday was Student Law Day in North Bergen, the annual chance for the North Bergen High School Student Council to take over Town Hall and assume the positions normally held by the sitting town officials. It was a chance for the students to get some firsthand knowledge on how the township operates on a daily basis. “I really didn’t know what being mayor entailed,” said Reslen, who is the president of the North Bergen High School Student Council, thus earning the right to be mayor for the day. “I just thought the mayor made appearances and had people handle everything else.”
Guess again. Students’ resolutions
The students wrote up resolutions to present at the makeshift commissioners’ meeting. And when they did, the audience members – other high school students – spoke out.
They were concerned that the pothole removers would cost too much taxpayer money and would add to the ongoing traffic woes. As it turned out, the vote on the resolution was 3-2 against, with Mayor Reslen casting the deciding vote.
When was the last time that there was a split vote in the real Board of Commissioners? Not in Sacco’s administration.
The number of water-removal vehicles to address flooding was sliced from four to two at the insistence of the concerned residents.
The idea of putting metal detectors at the main entrance of the high school brought a lot of responses.
“It will take a lot of time to search everyone who goes into the building,” said student Eric Cruz, playing the role of one of the concerned citizens. “We feel like we’ll be entering the school like criminals.”
“School is where I want to be and where I want to learn,” said Katherine Moreno. “It’s like my second home. I think the money would be better spent on other things than metal detectors.”
After the lengthy debate, the student Board of Commissioners decided to modify the terms of the resolution and vote on it on another time.
The idea of having a shuttle bus for the new municipal pool, which is slated to open next month, was such a good idea that Township Administrator Chris Pianese (the real one) said that they were going to look into the possibility.
“We’re considering it,” Pianese said.
The makeshift commissioners voted in favor of the shuttle bus and the job placement and training center.
After the highly contentious meeting came to an end, Sacco praised the students for their participation.
“A lot of the questions and comments that came from the residents were very valid,” Sacco said. “Those questions forced the mayor and commissioners to make modifications. They came to the meeting ready to vote ‘yes,’ and the residents changed the commissioners’ minds. I think it was a great lesson for the students to see how we operate.”
Had to defend themselves
However, the students portraying the mayor and commissioners were definitely on the defensive. The audience members were firing salvos left and right.
“I really thought the mayor and commissioners defended themselves very well,” Sacco said. “They made the modifications and did a good job. The Mayor [Reslen] did a good job of keeping order. They were well prepared and had a sense of what needed to be done. I think the audience was very enthused and got into the program, which made it a very successful day.”
For the first time in the 17 years that Sacco has hosted a Student Law Day at North Bergen Town Hall, the eighth grade members of their respective student councils also were invited to attend, to get them ready for when they participate in Student Law Day when they are in high school.
“We were very happy to have the eighth graders participate for the first time,” Sacco said. “They seemed to enjoy themselves as well. These students represent our future. They volunteer to participate and to get an understanding of how our government operates. Some may even pursue careers in public office.”
However, after being besieged with comments and complaints for more than an hour, the impromptu commissioners wondered whether they could continue to handle the attacks. Devanshi Patel, who was the commissioner of finance for the day, replacing Hugo Cabrera, was the one under the most attack and handled herself quite admirably. She is headed to Rutgers University in the fall, to major in business.
“It was tougher than I could have imagined,” Patel said. “I never expected that. It was a good experience and I learned a lot. I always thought that we were being ripped off as taxpayers, and I learned that we’re not. It really gave me a thrill to sit up here and be in charge for a little while.”
Even after being under attack, Patel said that it was a positive experience.
“I might consider a life in politics,” she said.
Reslen would much rather cover the politicians than be one. She is headed to Boston University to major in journalism.
“The whole thing was more involved than what I originally thought,” Reslen said. “I didn’t expect to have to do so much. But it was good to have my finger on the pulse, so to speak. I don’t know what the future holds for me. Maybe I’ll cover a politician’s press conference as opposed to being a politician. But this definitely kept me on my toes. There was a lot of action going on.”
Next week, the commissioners’ meetings will go back to being their usual sedate selves.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org