"He has dedicated many hours of service far beyond what is expected of our commissioners," said NJMC Executive Director Bob Ceberio. "As executive director, I can always depend on him to be the first commissioner to be in the office and the last to leave."
After the formation of the commission in 1969, people in Secaucus had a rather suspicious view of the state-appointed officials who oversee and approve development plans in the Meadowlands region. Until recently, residents had to devote exorbitant time and effort to get approvals for installing things as simple as a fence or swimming pool, often spending as much in legal fees as giant corporations.
NJMC was formed to help managed problems in Hackensack River wetlands that were considered beyond municipal governments to handle, and since the area included parts of 14 towns in two counties, the state legislature authorized the governor to set up a body to oversee the massive trash dumps, the uneven development, and the rescuing and possible preservation of remaining wildlife areas.
For Secaucus - of which 88 percent was under the commission's zoning rules - this meant little local control over development, and residents had almost no power to halt large projects. Even more frustrating was that once an unwanted project was imposed, some of the tax benefits went into other communities as part of a complicated tax sharing formula.
For many locals, the most frustrating element was that they had no one on the commission who was there to represent local interests or make certain that Secaucus got its fair share of many of the other benefits the commission provided, such grants for repair, roads, or various restoration funding.
Under the state legislation, commissioners must represent both counties, and appointments must be generated evenly from both political parties - two from Bergen County, two from Hudson County - with the chairperson being a member of the governor's cabinet, most often the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Over the years, commissioners were sometimes from Union City, Jersey City, North Bergen, and Kearny, but Gonnelli - first appointed to the NJMC in December 1997 - was the first commissioner from Secaucus.
Gonnelli actually served his first year filling the unexpired term of state Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who he credits with getting him his first five-year appointment in 1998.
Always known for his ability to get things done locally, Gonnelli, as the superintendent of the Secaucus Department of Public Works, brought that work ethic to the NJMC, keeping a practical view of everyday problems municipalities faced such as flooding issues, development, road work, and other areas.
A new view
Gonnelli, who spent over 26 years prior to his appointment helping to fix potholes and pump floodwater from people's yards, gave the commission a new view that had been largely lacking previously, said Mayor Dennis Elwell.
Ceberio said Gonnelli got things done.
''He is so effective because he cares about what he does," Ceberio said.
Town officials and members of the NJMC said that Gonnelli opened up communications that had been missing prior to his appointment, often giving other commissioners a better understanding of how ordinary people were impacted by decisions rendered by the state-appointed body.
Gonnelli said he believed the commission had good intentions, but sometimes did not know about the practical problems faced on a municipal level, and Gonnelli's arrival helped the commission understand how people in all 14 towns felt.
"He is always reliable as my sounding board for advice and direction," Ceberio said.
Gonnelli, 49, has been with the Secaucus Department of Public Works for 31 years, and was its superintendent since 1986, a tenured position since 1992. Among his many qualifications, he is a certified as a public works manager.
Gonnelli is also the chairman of the Flood Control Committee and serves as the NJMC's liaison to the Meadowlands Municipal committee. He also serves on the Parks Planning and Natural Resources Committee and the Solid Waste Committee.
Secaucus has benefited from numerous projects since Gonnelli's arrival, including resolution of some of the town's most pressing problems. Gonnelli's voice on the commission helped generate funding to rebuild Meadowlands Parkway and resolve the decade-old conflict concerning Castle Road reconstruction, with many of the critical engineering fees granted to the town by the NJMC. Money for repair of the Meadowlands Parkway Bridge, the installation of flood control pumps, studies of flooding, and numerous other smaller projects have been directly linked to Gonnelli's being on the commission. Gonnelli has also been credited with the NJMC's involvement in flood control projects in the Mill Creek area, particularly in land near the high school. He was also instrumental in seeking environmental education projects and park construction funds for places like the new Mill Point Park, which is currently being upgraded for a waterside recreation and environmental education center.
Although local officials such as Elwell hesitate to celebrate too many of Gonnelli's accomplishments for fear of inspiring resentment from other communities, Gonnelli has been credited with many practical solutions elsewhere in the district, in providing glimpses into everyday problems in flood control and the sealing of trash dumps.
"Over the last six years I have had the privilege and honor to serve under Commissioner Gonnelli's leadership," Ceberio said. "He has earned the trust and respect of his peers. I applaud the governor's decision to reappoint [him] to another five-year term as a New Jersey Meadowlands commissioner."