Former Mayor Richard Rutkowski likes to think he was ahead of his time when he promoted fiscal austerity for the City of Bayonne.
Serving as mayor from 1990 to 1994, Rutkowski saw the city through some troubled financial times and claims credit for leaving the city in good shape – something he said those who followed him failed to do.
Rutkowski, who served as an at-large councilman for two four-year terms prior to running for mayor in 1990, lost his re-election bid to Leonard Kiczek in 1994. Since then, he has run twice more, in 1998 and 2002, against Joseph Doria.
Now, with the city once more facing hard choices, Rutkowski believes he is the man to help shepherd the city back to fiscal good health.
“I like to think people didn’t know what they had back then,” he said during an interview last week. “While I don’t think anyone can completely turn around the city over the next year and a half, I think I can turn it in the right direction.”
Rutkowski – long rumored to run – becomes the fifth candidate in a winner-take-all special election on Nov. 4, facing off against Police Director Mark Smith, retired Municipal Judge Patrick Conaghan, City Clerk Robert Sloan, and Zoning Board of Adjustments Member Raymond Rokicki.
“I’m the only candidate running who has any experience at being mayor,” he said. At 74, he is also the oldest of the candidates, followed by Conaghan at 71, Sloan at 60, Rokicki at 57, and Smith at 46.
Rutkowski believes that his experience is necessary for helping to turn the city around as quickly as possible.
“I’m the only candidate with proven leadership and extended experience who can start from the first day I’m on the job. I want to continue some of the things that [Acting] Mayor [Terrence] Malloy has started,” he said. “This means cutting expenses to stabilize taxes and to properly develop the [former Military Ocean Terminal].”
Saying a politician cannot be in two places at once (as a criticism of former Mayor Joseph Doria who served as both mayor and in the state legislature), Rutkowski said he would be a full-time mayor.
Indeed, during his term as mayor, Rutkowski had a reputation for touring the city to check on details, often getting hands-on experience picking up trash or responding to fires.
Until recently, Rutkowski served as the owner/manager of the family business Hi Hat Caterers, and believes that his experience as a businessman helped him in managing the affairs of the city.
A lifelong resident of Bayonne, Rutkowski attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel School and St. Peter’s Prep before earning a bachelor of science degree from St. Peter’s College and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Rutkowski said many of the problems Bayonne faces today, he addressed and solved as mayor. But he said that subsequent mayors abandoned his reforms.
Some of the changes he implemented for the police and fire departments were similar to those proposed by a recent efficiency study.
Under his watch, Rutkowski pushed for Bayonne’s inclusion in the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system. He also oversaw the reorganization of the police and fire departments, an issue he said the city once again faces. During his term, the city saw the establishment of the enhanced 911 emergency system. Based partly on some of his experiences working with trash collectors, Rutkowski said he was able to privatize the city’s recycling programs.
When he served as mayor, Rutkowski made a point of responding to every two-alarm or more serious fire. He said he believed it was important that he be there to help the victims and to show the victims that the city was aware of their plight.
He also expressed pride at the fact that he responded personally to residents when they reached out to him, returning each call and welcoming hundreds into his office to help them deal with any problems they might have.
He said he learned leadership skills from his family business and his stint in the United States Army, where he served as an executive officer and infantry company commander at Fort Dix.
“I was tough, but I was fair,” he said.
Rutkowski’s platform this year is consistent with themes he had expressed in previous campaigns. He wants to stabilize taxes, eliminate patronage jobs from City Hall, and review plans for the development of the Military Ocean Terminal site.
As mayor during the rough economic times of the early 1990s, Rutkowski said he left the city with a $3.8 million surplus, an accomplishment unequalled by any other mayor.
“I’m a businessman, not a politician,” he said. “As a businessman, I’ve always done what’s best for the city. A politician will do what is needed to get re-elected.”