Recently, Gov. Chris Christie, who has been out on the national campaign trail, made a pit stop in the state just long enough to file a slew of nominations and appointments, some of which had been pending for months. Among them, Hon. Michael Gonnelli was appointed to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) as Mayor from a Constituent Municipality.
The NJSEA was expanded in January of last year to incorporate the functions previously handled by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, and the latter authority was disbanded. Thus, Gonnelli will help with zoning decisions for towns in the area, with grant programs, and other matters.
The merger required that the mayor of one of the 14 municipalities within the Meadowlands be appointed to the newly reconstituted NJSEA.
The NJSEA was established in 1971 to oversee the Meadowlands Sports Complex and has since expanded their purview to include other sports and entertainment ventures throughout the state. The Meadowlands Commission was established in 1969 as a regional zoning, planning, and regulatory agency to protect the region and ensure the orderly development of the Meadowlands.
“I hope to put forth ideas that benefit Secaucus as well as other towns.” –Mayor Michael Gonnelli
Previously the Meadowlands Commission controlled the zoning for large portions of many municipalities within the region, including 88 percent of Secaucus. They had final say over both residential and commercial real estate within their purview, meaning they dictated what could and could not be built in the majority of the town.
The new legislation allowed any of the 14 towns to “opt out” of NJSEA control and take over their own planning and zoning. Secaucus and Kearny were the only two towns to opt out. As such, Secaucus now has limited direct interaction with the NJSEA on development and zoning issues. The other towns will still be involved though.
“I don’t think there is a conflict of interest” in his dual roles on the NJSEA and as mayor of Secaucus, said Gonnelli. “I’m not there to represent Secaucus, I’m there to represent the 14 mayors. It’s a way to express the concerns of district municipalities, to get information to the board through me and vice versa. I’ll report to the mayors at our monthly meetings.”
Bringing experience and insight
Gonnelli’s new position with the NJSEA is a nonpaying one. He will receive orientation as a new member, with an initial meeting scheduled for Friday, March 11. Gonnelli’s appointment fills the 14th seat out of 16 on the NJSEA, leaving two seats still vacant. He admits he is much more knowledgeable about the workings of the Meadowlands Commission than the Sports Authority, which he sees as a positive thing.
“They used to be two different agencies with different missions,” he said. “The Sports Authority was entertainment and the Meadowlands Commission was development and environmental.”
“All the old members of the Meadowlands Commission are gone,” he continued. “All the Sports Authority members remained.” Gonnelli will therefore be able to provide them with “past experience, giving them insight into how the commission used to work.”
For example he spoke about some of the programs established when he served on the Meadowlands Commission, such as a district-wide tree planting program, the Municipal Assistance Program (MAP) to provide geographical data, and a shared services program to supply equipment to municipalities in the district.
One major difference between then and now, however, is money. “We used to generate income,” he said. “That’s stopped. Most of the money came from solid waste. Years ago we had a lot more active landfills. We have to look for new ways to generate income.”
In addition, the municipal committee comprising the 14 mayors has lost its funding. “It used to be funded through the state budget but was taken out,” said Gonnelli. “We’re contemplating having the municipalities kick in to keep it alive or getting funding through the state.”
Gonnelli sees development as the biggest issue in the Meadowlands, and ensuring that it occurs the way the municipalities want it to.
“I hope to put forth ideas that benefit Secaucus as well as other towns,” he said. “I’ve never been afraid to speak up, and I’m not going to change my approach. I’m still going to speak and represent all the mayors. I think this is good for the town and good for the district. I’m proud they chose me and like everything else I’ll try to do it to the best of my ability.”
Gonnelli previously served on the Meadowlands Commission for about half a dozen years, beginning around 2000.
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.