With a promise to “make this government run like a business” and “do what’s right for everyone,” former 2nd Ward Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli was sworn in as Secaucus’ 15th mayor in a ceremonial inauguration held last Saturday.
Officially, Gonnelli took the helm on Jan. 1.
Briefly choking up as he thanked his family and supporters, Gonnelli told an audience of 550 to 600 people at the Arthur F. Couch Performing Arts Center that, “The challenges, we have a few. Everyone knows what the financial [situation] out there is. We’re going to be faced this year with tax appeals. We have a lack of ratables. We have challenges in our school system. We have a lot of development that’s taking place that’s going to mean more children. But I give you my word we’re going to look at everything thoroughly … The town is going to move forward.”
“We’re going to have to get our arms around this year’s budget.” – John Bueckner
Gonnelli succeeds Richard Steffens, who was appointed in September to serve out the remainder of former Mayor Dennis Elwell’s term in office, which ended Dec. 31. Elwell resigned in July after being arrested on corruption charges.
Gonnelli enters office after an unusual period of turmoil in Secaucus, and the inaugural celebration was somewhat tempered by talk of the challenges facing the new administration.
Nearly a year ago, problems were uncovered in the Secaucus Tax Collector’s Office. This led to two audits and an investigation of the town’s longtime tax collector, who has been charged with stealing more than $75,000. Several members of the Town Council have called for a complete overhaul of the office and the introduction of new checks and balances.
Increased development throughout the town, and an increase in population, could soon lead to overcrowding in the local school system, whose classrooms are already filled to capacity.
The town needs to find a way to make its year-old Recreation Center financially self-suffficient. Costs for center were initially expected to be about $4.5 million but ultimately ballooned to $12 million.
“I think our biggest challenges will be taxes; making the Rec Center viable while keeping it somewhat affordable; and getting people in this town back together who have been divided by politics,” Gonnelli said after the ceremony. “I’m also going to be working with a lot of people who were on the other side and I’m going to have to gain their trust and confidence.”
Bueckner agreed. “We’re going to have to get our arms around this year’s budget, which we are already working on, and other finance matters. We’ve had two years of tax increases in a row. But I think if we can make cuts early in the year we might be able to avoid that.”
Bueckner also emphasized the need to work closely with the administration of incoming Gov. Chris Christie.
Beyond finances, Steffens added that divisions among municipal workers will also have to be mended.
“I felt that we were able to get everybody to work together,” Steffens said. “But I noticed there was a serious division amongst a lot of people who work for the city, people who felt they had been slighted in some way. And some of these people weren’t able to let go of old resentments for the betterment of their department, or the town. So, I think that’s a challenge Mike’s going to have to work onto overcome.”
The governing body held a brief Town council meeting during the ceremony, during which Jim Clancy was appointed to Gonnelli’s vacant 2nd Ward council seat. Clancy, a Secaucus High School social studies teacher, received unanimous support from the council. He will now represent the 2nd Ward through the end of 2010, and is expected to run for a full term in November.
The council also voted to make Bueckner, who has served on the council for 16 years, deputy mayor. Former Deputy Mayor John Reilly lost his reelection bid to McKeever.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.