By Thursday, Jan. 22, the administration of Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell was no closer than two weeks ago to a temporary agreement with Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli that will allow him to participate in meetings of the governing body.
Gonnelli is the subject of a former political foe’s complaint to the state government because he was serving as a councilman and as a senior officer in the volunteer Fire Department, which some say is a conflict of interest. Gonnelli was scheduled to be promoted to fire chief on Jan. 1.
Gonnelli has been at political odds with the administration of Mayor Dennis Elwell. The town attorney recently told Gonnelli that he should sit the council meetings out.
The two sides of the conflict of interest debate had previously indicated that they would try to find a way for Gonnelli to attend and participate in Town Council meetings until a judge rules on his case.
But if no agreement is reached by the next Town Council meeting, scheduled for Jan. 27, Gonnelli’s constituents in the 2nd Ward may go without full council representation indefinitely.
Meanwhile, as the controversy gets more contentious each week, the former political opponent of Gonnelli’s who filed the ethics complaint is speaking out about the recent fallout.
Former Town Councilman Robert Kickey, an Elwell ally, was defeated by Gonnelli in his re-election bid in 2006. At the time, Gonnelli was battalion chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.
Kickey asked the state Local Finance Board to investigate whether Gonnelli was in conflict since the Secaucus Town Council oversees the fire department. The complaint dragged on for more than two years, and the board failed to act – even after it received a written opinion from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office that Gonnelli’s two positions are in conflict.
The Town Council didn’t take any action either, until December, when Town Attorney Frank Leanza said Gonnelli would not be sworn in as chief on Jan. 1, as scheduled.
“I think the [Local Finance Board] didn’t want to rule on this because it would affect other municipalities,” Kickey said last week, echoing a point often made by Gonnelli. “The easiest thing for them to do was [to] get an opinion from the Attorney General, then let Secaucus take it from there. My question is: why didn’t the politicians in Secaucus file a complaint last year when they got the opinion from the Attorney General? They should have done something then.”
He noted that the Town Council was no less to blame than the state’s Local Finance Board.
Gonnelli: In or out?
On Jan. 13, the Town Council voted to take Gonnelli’s case to Hudson County Superior Court to ask a judge for a ruling on the matter. Town Administrator David Drumeler, acting on behalf of Secaucus, said that he signed the complaint against Gonnelli on Jan. 20. The town’s labor attorney, Ralph Lamparello, was expected to file the complaint with the court by Jan. 23.
On the advice of Leanza, Gonnelli did not participate in the most recent public Town Council meeting or the earlier closed caucus session. Gonnelli instead sat in the audience.
“Councilman Gonnelli is still a member of the governing body. His status has not changed. He is sitting out this meeting on my advice for his own protection, and for the protection of the town,” Leanza said at the last council meeting.
He added that he would meet with Gonnelli’s attorney before the Jan. 27 meeting to see if the two sides could come up with a way for the councilman to participate in council sessions, pending the judicial ruling.
No such meeting had taken place by last Thursday, Gonnelli and Leanza each stated.
When asked whether he will participate in the upcoming meeting, Gonnelli said, “Absolutely. I only sat out the last meeting because I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my attorney. But I met with him, and he’s looking at case law, and it’s his opinion that they have no legal reason to exclude me from meetings. So, I intend to fully participate. I’ll abstain on matters dealing with the fire department, like I always do. But other than that, I intend to be in the meetings.”
Leanza saw it differently.
“Well, I would imagine that it will be like the last time,” he said last week. “I expect that Mr. Gonnelli will attend the council meeting and sit in the audience…I suspect he will continue to do that until there’s a decision made on his situation.”
The two sides could still reach a consensus on what Gonnelli’s participation should be, but if not, residents of the 2nd Ward, which Gonnelli represents, will be left with only one councilman, rather than the usual two.
Gonnelli ally John Bueckner is the other councilman who represents the 2nd Ward.
The lack of full representation would come at a time when the Town Council is preparing to go into negotiations for the 2009 municipal budget, much of which will be hashed out during closed caucus meetings.
Leanza and Drumeler said last week that they expect the matter to be resolved by a judge quickly, and neither believes it will drag into March. If they are right, Gonnelli could miss up to three council and caucus meetings.
“Everybody, from the state down, is cheating the residents of Secaucus out of representation,” Kickey said. “This is everyone’s fault.”