The Secaucus mayor and council, in a three-hour-plus meeting on March 24, clashed over contracts, exchanged barbs over the Gonnelli case, and reported some progress over televising its meetings.
The two factions of the governing body differed last night over the awarding of several hundred-thousand dollars in professional services contracts after requests for bids came up with little or no competition.
The partisan divide among the seven voting members was evident as the Independent bloc consisting of councilmen Michael Gonnelli, Gary Jeffas and John Bueckner consistently voted “no” or abstained from approving contracts for services with attorneys, engineers and a public relations professional, among others. They cited the lack of proposals (and competition) for the pacts, which ranged from a few thousand dollars a year to low-six-figure sums.
Business administrator David Drumeler defended the town’s decision to use two online portals for bid solicitations — Secaucus’ own website and listings on the Leauge of Municipalities’ RFP portal (we couldn’t find either one in a 10-minute search).
A few residents at the meeting called for RFPs to be advertised in newspapers, but Drumeler said the town is following the law with its online advertisements and is drawing enough interest based on website hits and calls to his office.
The Democratic bloc of the council — Mayor Dennis Elwell, council members John Shinnick and Dawn McAdam, and Deputy Mayor John Reilly — voted in lockstep to approve the professional service pacts, arguing that the town has worked with the winning bidders for some time and believes the work to be satisfactory.
“I’m not accusing anybody of doing anything, but maybe we’re not doing it right,” said Bueckner of the 27 bids the town received for its 23 contracts.
Councilman Gonnelli moved to table the votes on the contracts because he and councilman Gary Jeffas said members of the governing body had less than a day to read over the documents. In a melodramatic moment, Drumeler was asked to hold up the stack of contracts, which appeared to be several inches thick. Gonnelli’s motion to table was defeated, 4-3, a vote tally that was repeated several times over the next half hour as contracts for the town were approved.
McAdam noted that many of the service providers were approved in past votes, and Elwell stressed that the cost of the contracts is nearly $100K less than last year.
Gonnelli and Jeffas notably abstained and/or voted against new contracts for town attorney Frank Leanza, who bills the town at $210 an hour with a $140K cap for the year, and the law firm of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, which bills at $150/hour with a $25K annual cap for one contract and at the same hourly rate capped at $35K for a second pact. Both Leanza and the Lamparello firm were involved in the town’s lawsuit against Gonnelli for serving as councilman and fire chief.
Other points of contention during the services votes were the town’s lobbyist and public relations consultants. Jeffas said that State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) could adequately represent Secaucus’ interests in the statehouse and his “no” vote was echoed by Gonnelli and Bueckner. Elwell countered that the town has needed a Republican lobbyist on its roles because Prieto is a Democrat.
Gonnelli said the $20K public relations contract is with the same firm that works on Democratic campaigns in town. Bueckner noted that the contract calls for four issues of “Secaucus Scene” per year but said he didn’t think they were being produced with any regularity.
Gonnelli Addresses Court Decision
Although a Hudson County judge ordered Gonnelli to resign either the council or deputy fire chief post last week ending the case, the tensions sparked by the town suing him were still evident last night.
Gonnelli said he had resigned the deputy fire chief post as of 3:30 p.m. on March 24 and noted that he’ll complete the next two years of his council term. He is also expected to challenge the Democratic nominee for mayor in the fall.
Jeffas said he was disappointed that the town council never sent a word of support for Gonnelli. “I’m sorry that Secaucus lost an excellent volunteer fire chief,” he said, offering an apology for the episode that has bitterly divided both the council and the town.
Jeffas offered to relinquish his council position as liaison to the fire department in favor of Gonnelli stepping into the role. “It was an enjoyable and challenging task I would not relinquish but for the fact that Mike deserves to have that post,” he said. Elwell, who locked horns with Gonnelli over the particulars of the case during last night’s meeting, said he had no problem appointing Gonnelli to that role.
Televised Meetings Update
Jeffas said the council is still at an impasse over televising its meetings, but he acknowledged that there is a consensus that appears to want to move forward. The First Ward councilman, who supports airing entire meetings, said he has offered a compromise to other members of the governing body who are weary of airing public comments rather than see the whole idea scrapped because of opposition. He said town attorney Leanza will get back on procedural suggestions. Leanza would also need to seek approval from the Dept. of Community Affairs.
“You will see televised meetings in Secaucus,” said Shinnick, who like other Democrats on the governing body, has balked at airing the entire public comment portions of the meetings.
A few residents including John Bruno of First Street and mayoral hopeful Peter Weiner also spoke in favor of airing the complete meetings. “I believe it has to be the entire meeting,” said Weiner. “If somebody gets out of order they need to be told to stop.”
Tom Troyer of Garry Terrace echoed that sentiment. “If you leave out the remarks of citizens, you’re leaving out an important part,” he said. “This screaming and yelling is the clang of democracy.”
Property Maintenance Issues
A group of Chestnut Place residents took the open microphone last night to complain about a neighbor feeding wild animals and stray cats to the point where they say it’s become a nuisance to the street.
“Something has to be done,” said Anthony Grossi. “These people don’t care about their neighbors.”
Grossi said racoons, skunks, pigeons and cats were among the animals being fed by residents of a house on the street.
Elwell promised that someone from the town would be on the scene this morning and Jeffas said he had recently spoken to animal control about trapping and spaying/neutering feral cats in the area.
By the Numbers
3 – Number of profanities uttered by the public during the March 24 meeting.
3 – Number of hours the meeting lasted
3 – Number of different opinions Elwell said the council previously had on televised meetings. That figure is down to two, he said.
363 – Projected annual revenue, in thousands of dollars, being generated by the current 1,883 Secaucus Recreation Center memberships.