In other words, the political parrying of five months ago continues.
"There are issues here a lot deeper than what's being talked about," Gonnelli claimed last week.
Gonnelli has worked for Public Works since he was 17. He became a foreman in the early 1980s and quickly became superintendent in 1984. Gonnelli says he wants to retire when he turns 50 this year, but so far, municipal government officials refuse to give him the package he has requested.
They think he is asking for too much money, and even placed an ad earlier this year in the Secaucus Reporter telling citizens about what Gonnelli wants.
Gonnelli said the issues go deeper, although he did not want to reveal much more.
"Every department head in the history of Secaucus got their time in pay - why not me?" Gonnelli said. "I'm basing my request on [retired Tax Assessor] Jim Tehune's package."
The contract for the Secaucus Department heads' unit states that "any employee who retires in accordance with the requirements of the pension system for a regular retirement shall be entitled as a terminal leave benefit to be remunerated based upon 50 percent of his unused accumulated sick leave at a daily rate in effect at the time of retirement."
However, Gonnelli wants more - full pay for 333 sick days, not 50 percent as the contract states.
"I agree the contract does say half, but as I said, every department head before me received full pay. I don't want to be penalized," said Gonnelli.
No way, Jose
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said there was, indeed, one employee within the same bargaining unit as Gonnelli who was given his full sick days with retirement package. But Iacono said the employee had less than a year (approximately 220 days) sick leave granted him, and there were other extenuating circumstances. He said he could not make public the name or details of the retirement package, or others who had retired in previous years, because of privacy issues.
"Whether this person produced a medical note or documentation is irrelevant," said Iacono. "We did deviate from the contract to address the employee's health condition."
He said that an outside attorney, Martin Pachman, offered an opinion that contracts referred to by Gonnelli were "irrelevant because neither of their positions were covered by the department heads' agreement" and that "the previous instances cannot overcome the [Gonnelli's] contract language."
The issues surrounding Gonnelli's unique case have been public. A full-page ad was taken out in the Secaucus Reporter by Mayor Dennis Elwell reporting the amount Gonnelli requested and the reasons this would be a bad deal for Secaucus. It also referred to money that Gonnelli's wife, a town employee, was requesting.
Gonnelli said the issues concerning his wife's pay have been resolved with the town administration. He complained that the ad made certain benefits he was entitled to by contract seem unreasonable.
"I paid into my pension for 32 years - I am entitled to these things," he said. "All employees get health insurance after retirement by working more than 25 years. The only thing I'm asking for is the second half of my sick leave."
Gonnelli said he cannot comment on any legal action he plans to take at this time.
Resulted in firefighter fundraising ban
This is not the only issue the town has been battling with Gonnelli over. Gonnelli wears a number of hats throughout Secaucus. He is battalion chief of Engine Company Number 3 on Centre Avenue for the volunteer Fire Department. He is also one of six commissioners for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC). These multiple positions have put Gonnelli at the center of a political game of ping-pong involving voting power, land use and conscience.
"I gave my life and soul to this town and just because of one vote, I have the door slammed on me," said Gonnelli. "I just thought I did the right thing."
On January 25, 2005, during a regular session of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission where an over-capacity crowd filled the usually sparsely attended monthly meeting room, a gas station addition to the new Harmon Meadow Wal-Mart was voted down by the commission.
NJMC representatives said their decision was based on "an objective reflection of the zoning regulations." The Secaucus administration, including Mayor Dennis Elwell, wanted the gas station and said it would be good for the town.
Gonnelli was absent during the meeting because he was dealing with a court case against his department. But Elwell believed he would have had to recuse himself from the vote anyway, as Wal Mart had made several donations to the Secaucus Fire Department budget. So Elwell put a ban on funding for the entire Fire Department two days later, saying that this way, Gonnelli - as Secaucus' representative on the board - wouldn't have to miss other important votes.
Why not just put someone else on the board? The state was the one who appointed Gonnelli there, not the town. "No one from the municipal government went to the Meadowlands Commission and raised the conflict - Gonnelli did that and the commission said he must recuse himself," said Mayor Dennis Elwell. "This means that any time a donation is made to the Fire Department, we can lose Gonnelli's vote."
"In my eight years as Commissioner," said Gonnelli. "I have recused myself no more than four times. I don't see this as a problem."
Gonnelli has not stepped down, and the town has not rescinded the ban on fundraising. The lack of fundraising has no effect on firefighting equipment, supplies, and materials, said Town Attorney Frank Leanza. The town provides those items. The volunteers' fundraising efforts are to supplement the town's support for social activities.
Leanza's recommendation is that Gonnelli either relinquishes his role as commissioner or as battalion chief.
Gonnelli says he wants to retire when he turns 50 this year.