Gandhi statue generates controversy

Residents speak out at Town Council meeting

Sixty-six years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi has become a controversial and hotly-debated figure in Secaucus. Recently a local family donated a life-sized statue of Gandhi to the town. It is scheduled to be erected in the Sadhu Vaswani Meditation Garden at the Recreation Center, with a dedication ceremony on May 31 attended by various dignitaries.
This has raised some eyebrows among certain residents, a fact that Mayor Michael Gonnelli felt the need to address before the regular Town Council meeting on May 13.
Standing at the podium before a substantial crowd, he stated, “The reason I’m making such a big deal about this tonight is because there’s been a lot of negative comments about me accepting this statue on behalf of the people of Secaucus.”
Critics – including anonymous bloggers online – have apparently raised concerns about Gandhi’s religion, and have accused Gonnelli of trying to “buy the Indian vote.”
In an emotional speech, Gonnelli praised Gandhi as a man of principal, vision, nonviolence, and an inspiration to others.
“In this day and age, in this world, in this country, in this town of Secaucus, we’re changing like everybody else,” he said, referring to the demographics of the town. “And to me, everybody is one family. That’s how I look at everybody and that’s how I treat everybody.”
He stated that despite the antagonism of a small minority, the town was proceeding as planned with the dedication. “In our political careers sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” he said. “This decision wasn’t tough for me at all.”
His comments were greeted by applause from the attendees, followed by a number of responses from audience members.
Noted local artist and school teacher Doug DePice spoke of Gandhi’s accomplishments, saying, “His life and ideas inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. He was responsible for leading campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, and building religious and ethnic unity for achieving self-rule.
“In light of today’s world tensions and the recent abduction of 300 school girls in Nigeria, his life and image stand as a torch for the goodness of human nature,” said DePice. “I feel honored and proud to have a statue of Gandhi in our meditation garden.”

Secaucus is one of three finalists for federal flood funding in the national Rebuild by Design competition.
Others who responded with powerful comments included Secaucus Environmental Coordinator Amanda Nesheiwat, various local residents, and a pair of Secaucus High School students and Junior State of America members.
Megan Vasquez, a high school sophomore, spoke of Gandhi’s accomplishments and legacy. “Gandhi proved that one man has the power to take on an empire, and thanks to his imprint on humanity, he has shaken up the dynamic of world politics through civil disobedience. Martin Luther King Jr., Ninoy Acquino, and the Dalai Lama are all other nonviolent leaders impacted by Gandhi.”
Following the comments, Councilman Gary Jeffas noted that the controversy had actually brought the community together, saying it was enlightening “just hearing people talk about not defining somebody by their religion and then putting them in a box [so that] anything else they could have done doesn’t matter.”
“This was one of the best things I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The statue is the first of Gandhi in New Jersey. The dedication on May 31 will be attended by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, along with other local and state officials. In keeping with Gandhi’s teaching of Ahimsa (non-violence), the event is being co-sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The dedication ceremony will be conducted by Revered Dada J.P. Vaswani, a spiritual leader from India, who will deliver the keynote address. HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle will also speak, and along with Dada Vaswani will engage in a town hall-style meeting with the audience.

Money matters

Many important items were discussed once the biweekly meeting got underway. Among the most notable was an announcement from Mayor Gonnelli that Secaucus was a finalist in the national Rebuild by Design competition.
Rebuild by Design was established by President Obama to seek out ways to address and prevent flooding and devastation from events like Hurricane Sandy. Secaucus was one of 30 communities in the tri-state area to be included in proposals – 10 in each state.
“Three applications have made it to the final round from New Jersey, and we’re one of them,” said Gonnelli. “Our application is a finalist project along with Hoboken and a project from South Jersey. Talk about a big pot of money; there are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on this.”
The number of winners has not been announced, nor has the projected date when the final decision will be made.
“I’m hoping that they do the three Jersey projects and they give seed money to each project,” said Gonnelli.
Secaucus is also the recipient of an unrelated influx of cash for environmental development. “We have gotten a $25,000 trail grant for Mill Creek Point,” said Gonnelli. “That is to connect the existing trail to the bridge at the point. And that will also serve as an extension of the berms and dikes that we’re building in that area.”
And on a completely different subject, the town has recouped most of the money lost in a financial scandal years ago in the tax collector’s office. Former Tax Collector Alan Bartolozzi was imprisoned for stealing nearly $800,000 from the town and a municipal union between February 2008 and May 2009.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Gonnelli, “but we received the additional check for $250,000 this week. We are still fighting for $14,000 in administrative fees, so this brings our total collected to date $778,000.”

Improving quality of life

Councilman Gary Jeffas announced at the meeting that the town council will be holding a “Business Breakfast & Brainstorm” session at the LaQuinta Hotel on June 11. The event is billed as an exchange of ideas addressing the concerns of the Secaucus business community.
“There will be a network opportunity for business owners, managers, local organizations to get together, have discussions,” he said, “and maybe come up with some good ideas for us as a council to share as well as people in the business world. To make sure that we’re doing the right thing for them and that we’re understanding what their problems are.”
Scheduled speakers include Meadowlands Regional Chamber CEO Jim Kirkos and State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. All are invited to the free event. Information will be posted on the town website.
Jeffas also noted that the council had passed a resolution to form a “quality of life” committee to “look at things that relate to quality of life around town: nightclubs, massage parlors, acupuncture services, animal control services, property maintenance. Just to get ideas from various groups and organizations that work in the town to make sure that there’s a coordinated effort to keep on top of those things, because we think it’s obviously an issue of utmost importance to the residents.”
Councilman Mark Dehnert discussed the town’s extensive selection of summer concerts and activities over the coming months. Flyers have been mailed to residents listing the many events coming to town.
He also announced a new online initiative involving the Recreation Center. Through a company called Capturepoint, the town is instituting a “CommunityPass” program. “What this does is it automate all of what we do in the Rec Center, from sign-in, registration, marketing, to facility scheduling,” he said.
The program is being rolled out in stages, beginning with the Recreation Center and Swim Center. Ultimately it will become a comprehensive online resource for all activities.
“Every program, every concert, everything that goes on there,” said Dehnert.

Planes, school, EMS

Addressing a recent concern of town residents, Councilman William McKeever spoke about ongoing issues to air traffic patterns at Newark airport.
“Runway 22, which is a direct approach to Newark Airport straight down the Hackensack River, has been closed due to construction,” he said. The runway will remain closed for 60 days and then will be used in a reduced capacity after June. It will be closed again from September 20 through 30.
“But in the meantime the reason the planes are coming closer to Secaucus and lower is they’re diverted towards Newark Bay, then they have to make that crosswind approach to runway 29,” he said. “So that’s just going to be a temporary situation.”
In school news, McKeever announced that an installation of works from the art students of Secaucus High School was on display in the lobby of the Municipal Center. Examples of photography, ceramics, computer graphics, and studio art would be exhibited until May 27.
Councilman Jeffas noted that the Middle States accreditation for Secaucus High School had been completed, with the school receiving high grades from the reviewers. The administrators received significant praise from the visiting team for their strong support of school students and activities.
And in a special presentation, the mayor and Town Council gave a plaque to EMS workers from Meadowlands Hospital for their outstanding service to the community of Secaucus.
“I’m really proud to say we have a four-minute response time,” said Gonnelli. “The average in the state is eight minutes, so we’re 50 percent below that.”
New Meadowland Hospital CEO Thomas Considine attended the ceremony. Gonnelli also appointed Councilwoman Susan Pirro to the position of EMS liaison with Meadowlands Hospital.

Art Schwartz may be reached at

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