Celin Valdivia, who was sworn in as Union City’s newest commissioner last week, is hitting the ground running at City Hall, where he is already taking calls about the ongoing registration for spring and summer recreation programs. Taking over for the much-loved and highly visible Chris Irizarry, who resigned, Valdivia sat for an interview this week and said he didn’t think anything, besides education, is more important for Union City’s kids than ample recreational opportunities.
“I don’t think there’s really anything better for kids, especially in the summer, than getting involved in sports,” he said.
Union City is run by a board of five commissioners, one of whom also doubles as mayor. The others each get a department to run. Being a commissioner is a paid part-time job.
Among the soccer and baseball registrations that are currently underway, Valdivia will also oversee the Washington Park renovation expected to begin this spring. The park, located on Second Street and Palisade Avenue near the border with Jersey City Heights, will get a near-complete makeover, with an expansion of its playing fields and the planting of several hundred trees.
“The more space we can provide, I think the better off we’ll be,” said Valdivia.
The Recreation Department, which operates on a budget of just under $1 million per year, employs 10 full-time employees and around 50 part-time employees.
“I met with some of the staff this week, but it’s a big department. There are lots of people who work part-time,” he said. “But overall the department seems to be very strong.”
“I don’t want to be a routine boss. I don’t think Chris [Irizarry] was like that, and he had a lot of success with this department.” – Celin Valdivia
“If we get some grants, it makes for a lot of possibilities of what we can do,” he said. “For now, our priorities are keeping the recreation programs running and making sure our parks are clean.”
He praised Irizarry for running the department successfully, and said he’d take a lesson from him when holding sway over the recreation department.
“I don’t want to be a routine boss. I don’t think Chris was like that, and he had a lot of success with this department,” he said. “I’d like to be able to continue with that success.”
Union City born and bred
Valdivia, who has three children and four grandchildren, comes from a long line of Union City residents, nearly all of whom hail from the city of Fomento, Cuba. His great uncle arrived in New Jersey in 1949, and his father, the first Valdivia to live in Union City, came to America in 1956.
Valdivia, who was first employed by the city’s Community Development Agency in 1987 and was made director of transportation for the board of education in 1999, said he picked up political tips from his family members all throughout his childhood.
His aunt, Julia Valdivia, is well-known to longtime city residents as a prominent political figure throughout the late 20th century. An ally of legendary mayor William V. Musto, she worked in the city’s Hispanic Affairs office in the seventies. Now in politics himself, Valdivia said his aunt will serve as an example.
“I saw the way she operated, how she did things,” he said. “She was always doing her best to help people when they asked for it.”
Valdivia said his Cuban roots, and his love for Union City, will come in handy during his time as a commissioner.
“I rarely leave town,” he said. “And I like to go on long walks, so I meet a lot of people. But I also already know a lot of people, all the old families, especially the Cuban families.”
Valdivia graduated from Union Hill High School in 1980, and received an Associate’s Degree from Bergen Community College and a Bachelor’s Degree in political science from Rutgers University.
Working for the man
It’s no secret that Mayor Brian Stack, who wasted no time in nominating Valdivia following Irizarry’s resignation, can be a tough boss. Stack consistently says he works long hours seven days a week and expects the same type of commitment from his employees. Asked if he’d be able to keep up, Valdivia said that if he can’t, he won’t allow it to hurt city residents.
“I’m going to give 100 percent, but if I can’t do it, I’ll be the first one to admit it,” he said. “But I’m really forward to working with the mayor and my fellow commissioners.”
The mayor said in a brief phone interview this week that he is confident in Valdivia’s abilities.
“I think he’s going to be great at managing our recreation. He knows a lot about sports,” he said. “Most importantly, though, Celin really loves this city.”
Asked if there is anything about serving as a commissioner he isn’t looking forward to, Valdivia paused, then gave an unusual answer.
“It’s not anything related to the job, but I really like to wear shorts in the summer,” he said. “I’m not looking forward to wearing a suit every day.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org