Tension was in the air Tuesday night as the Secaucus mayor and council deadlocked on two votes to fill a vacant council seat and the two-year legal case over Mike Gonnelli’s dual role in town was again a political football.
The mayor and council were unable to break two tie votes at the Feb. 24 public meeting to fill the seat vacated earlier this month by Democrat Richard Kane.
The slate of three Independent councilmen supported Robert Zych (who won this website’s informal poll by a wide margin), but the slate of three Democrats, including Mayor Dennis Elwell, voted against Zych and supported the Secaucus Democratic Committee’s recommendation of Dawn McAdam.
The two votes, 3-3, came after the council entered a closed session to interview the three candidates (George Heflich is the third) and the stalemate sends the vacancy appointment to the Democratic municipal committee which has favored McAdam because the town council lacks a female member.
Independent councilman Michael Gonnelli said all candidates represented themselves well in interviews before he threw his support behind Zych (pictured at Tuesday night’s meeting). Fellow Independents Gary Jeffas and John Bueckner also expressed admiration for the choices before backing Zych.
“It’s kind of disappointing that three Independents agree on this name and three Democrats can’t,” said Gonnelli, alluding to the fact that all three nominees were Democrats. He said Zych’s thoughts on key issues like televising meeting and passing a pay-to-play ordinance were in-line with his own.
Democratic councilman John Shinnick and deputy mayor John Reilly cited the tough choice before voting against Zych and later supporting McAdam.
“This council would benefit to have have a woman on it,” said Elwell.
Both Shinnick and Jeffas said they were dismayed by accusations that the process was called a “sham” by some critics.
Members of the public in attendance seemed displeased at the inaction by the governing body and groans were noticeable as it became clear the appointment was at an impasse.
The Democratic committee will make the appointment to the empty 1st Ward seat on March 3. The appointee will fill out Kane’s term through the end of the year and would likely run for re-election with the Democrats in November.
Peter Weiner, an attorney who is running for mayor with his own slate of candidates, objected to the council’s closed-session interviews of the three nominees for Kane’s seat. “I would have thought under the open meetings act we could have heard what they had to say,” he said, sparring with town attorney Frank Leanza over the legality of the move to interview candidates privately. The exchange became testy when Leanza told Weiner to “learn how to read.” That remark drew rebukes from Gonnelli and Jeffas (as well as displeasure from the public) but Leanza did not apologize. [Jeffas also noted that he supported opening the nominee interview session up to the public.]
Gonnelli Suit Discussed
Tension was apparent throughout the night among members of the council to the point where Gonnelli and Elwell even exchanged jabs over the $240K homeland security grant secured for new fire department breathing equipment.Things only got worse when the lawsuit over Gonnelli’s roles as councilman and fire chief surfaced during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Elwell called that two-year legal drama a “clarification process” saying that someone could question the legality of the governing body if questions over whether Gonnelli’s two roles in two are not answered in court. The suit heads to Hudson County Superior Court on March 6.
Gonnelli (who is arguing with Leanza in the cellphone pic at the right) is in the fifth year of his six-year term as chief so any appeals would essentially be moot. Jeffas had previously proposed a comprise that would have removed Gonnelli’s administrative role with the Fire Dept. while he was on the council, but Leanza and the town’s law firm said that would not solve the legal questions.
Leanza said other rulings, including a deputy attorney general’s opinion that has circulated throughout town, or an opinion from the local finance board have no jurisdiction to remove Gonnelli from office. Only the superior court’s decision is binding.
In other business, the council voted to hold a March 10 public hearing on a proposed ordinance to add to the number of taxi companies operating in town. Two cab company owners had objected to the ordinance at the Feb. 10 public meeting and the council moved to table it in order to solicit more input.
Six taxi/limo companies currently operate in town and the ordinance would add two more, although one is believed to be an airport limo-type service and not a local taxi operator.
Licenses to operate a cab in town cost $1,500.
The Independent slate also voted against one aspect of the council’s relatively routine business. The council typically votes collectively to pay “claims,” or bills but the trio singled out the town’s tab with Calvanaco Landscaping in voting “no” against that single bill among others. Councilman Gonnelli said the objection came because he thinks there are some professional services that the town could handle in-house.