During a highly charged West New York Town Commissioners’ meeting on Wednesday, Mayor Felix Roque and the majority of the five-member board voted to reassign each commissioner to a new department, a move that frustrated one of Roque’s potential mayoral successors and strengthened another.
The move irritated Commissioner Count Wiley, who responded with a protest that eventually forced police to intervene.
West New York has five elected town commissioners, of whom one also serves as mayor. Each one is in charge of a city department. At the meeting, Roque’s reorganization plan moved Wiley from Public Works to the Parks and Public Property Department in what Roque claimed was “cross-training.” But it had political implications.
Wiley, who was a Roque ally in the past, is seen as a potential replacement for Roque if he is forced to step down due to federal charges. In May, the mayor and his son Joseph were arrested by the F.B.I. on charges of allegedly hacking into a website politically opposed to the mayor. Roque has since lost committee seats in the Hudson County Democratic Organization, and lost his position as chair of the West New York Democratic Committee.
“Everybody knows that it takes more than a year for an administration to get organized in their department roles.” – Commissioner Count Wiley
One other reorganizational switch-up stood out as a possible way for Roque to maintain some influence. Commissioner FiorD’Aliza Frias was put in charge of the Revenue and Finance Department, which places her next in line for the mayoralty should Roque be forced to step down.
Local officials and residents alike have claimed that after the stigma of the indictment has set in, the subsequent divide in the community has compromised Roque’s ability to lead. Some believe it’s only a matter of time before a recall election, much like the one Roque called for against former mayor Sal Vega two years ago.
Dissent amongst the ranks
Before the reorganization vote was held, Wiley removed his town pin from his lapel and stepped down from his commissioner seat to address the crowd. “I was proud to wear this pin at one time,” he said. “I’m going to step down here because I’m one of the people.”
He went on to express his disappointment in the administration – specifically in Roque – and his refusal to go quietly into his new role.
After town attorney Gilberto Garcia interrupted Wiley to yell, “You’re misleading the audience,” assistant town attorney Joe DeMarco called a five-minute recess during which Wiley refused to stop speaking. Police officers intervened to calm him down.
The meeting was then called back into session and held behind a wall of police.
Commissioner Ruben Vargas was switched from Parks and Public Property to the Public Works Department, Commissioner Caridad Rodriguez was switched from Revenue and Finance to Roque’s former post as head of the Public Safety Department, and Roque took over the Public Affairs Department.
While Roque claimed the reorganization was implemented so that all of the commissioners could become proficient in all town roles for the betterment of the community, Wiley disagreed.
“It was a real kick in the face,” he said after the meeting. “Everybody knows that it takes more than a year for an administration to get organized in their department roles.” He referenced Roque’s stated intent to hold yet another reorganization a year from now. “What I’ve accomplished in a year [in the Public Works Department] has been phenomenal. We’re going to get a reduction in our insurance for being 100 percent in compliance with all the employees in the town in terms of education, safety, and certification. This is something I’ve really worked hard for and put my heart and soul into.”
Wiley also said he first heard of Roque’s intent to switch him out of his department when a package of information was left on his desk two days before the meeting “which was very disrespectful,” he said. He added that he intends to prevail in his new role, but he disagrees with the switch.
“Dr. Wiley is an exemplary commissioner who has done a great job and has been a good friend of mine,” Roque said after the board voted. “He sees this as a demotion, but it’s not a demotion. This gives other commissioners the opportunity to work in other departments. I encourage Dr. Wiley to be a team player and to work together because next year, we’ll be doing it again.”
Public call for mayor to step down
Toward the end of the meeting, when audience members were allowed to address the board, former Board of Education President and Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez’s current Chief of Staff Cosmo Cirillo, who was recently elected as treasurer of the West New York Democratic Committee after Roque was voted out, called for Roque to step down.
“I just want to say that I think it’s a shame what you’ve done to this town, not only for Hudson County but in the state of New Jersey, you’ve made West New York a laughing stock,” Cirillo said. “I think you should be ashamed for yourself for what you have done, and I’m going to publically call on you to step down and move aside.”
Notable audience members in support of Cirillo’s call included former town construction official Tom O’Malley, who is currently suing the town for alleged unlawful termination, and retired private investigator Carlos Betancourt, whom confidential sources say has his sights set on the mayoralty.
The crowd seemed divided in their loyalty. Less than half appeared to be on Roque’s side. His sister Dr. Hilda Roque was also at the meeting, and said later that she was proud of her brother’s “honorable conduct” among those whose conduct was perhaps not so honorable.
“I am happy to see Mr. Cirillo getting involved in town matters now,” Roque responded after Cirillo spoke. “Instead of fighting the town like you’ve been trying to do, let’s fix it and make it better, Mr. Cirillo, because that’s what this is all about.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org