If the weekly developments involving Councilman Michael Gonnelli and a government ethics complaint against him were a tennis match between him and the administration of Mayor Dennis Elwell, the residents of Secaucus would have whiplash.
One week after threatening to bar Gonnelli from sitting as an official at Town Council meetings until a judge rules on the ethics complaint, Elwell and Town Attorney Frank Leanza made no attempts to block him from last Tuesday’s meeting. Gonnelli, one of two Town councilmen who represents Secaucus’ 2nd Ward, sat with the rest of the seven-member governing body and voted on all matters that arose.
Gonnelli also sat in on and participated in the caucus meeting earlier that day, although he was asked to leave the caucus when the town’s legal action against him came up for discussion.
“I felt there was nothing on the agenda of this meeting that was controversial or that’s likely to be challenged in court,” Leanza said at the meeting Tuesday, when questioned by resident Andrew Conti about his seeming change of heart. “So I didn’t see a problem with [Gonnelli] participating in the meeting.”
Gonnelli said at the meeting that his attorney believes the town has no legal reason to bar him from Town Council meetings.
“I work for the people of Secaucus,” Gonnelli read from a prepared statement. “No lawyer, mayor, [or] council has the power or right to prevent me from performing my job as councilman. I will not participate in or vote on any matter involving the Fire Department or its personnel. [But] I will continue to sit as a council member representing Secaucus and the residents of the 2nd Ward.”
For more than two years Gonnelli has been the subject of a government ethics complaint sent to the state Local Finance Board. At the heart of the complaint, made by a former political rival, is Gonnelli’s dual role as a Town Councilman and a senior officer with the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department. Some say the two positions represent a conflict because the Town Council oversees the Fire Department. The Local Finance Board, however, has not ruled on the complaint.
Last month, the Town Council voted to take the matter to court to have a judge make a decision.
Gonnelli, an Independent, and Mayor Elwell, a Democrat, are both likely to be candidates in the November mayoral race.
Served in caucus
The town’s labor attorney, Ralph Lamparello, filed suit on behalf of the town against Gonnelli on Jan. 22. He was served last Tuesday at the council’s caucus session.
According to court documents, the town alleges that Gonnelli’s roles as Town Councilman and deputy fire chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire department “violate the doctrine of incompatibility of offices.” Court documents further allege that “the effect of Gonnelli occupying both offices in violation of the doctrine of incompatibility has placed all action by the Town Council…in jeopardy, thereby impacting the governance of the municipality.”
Leanza and Mayor Elwell have previously claimed that Gonnelli’s participation in council votes could “taint” those votes and leave them open to court challenge. They have also claimed the council could be charged with “malfeasance in office” for allowing Gonnelli to sit with the rest of the council.
Gonnelli’s attorney, Richard Allen of Kipp and Allen in Rutherford, N.J., did not return five phone calls seeking comment.
Finance Board spokesman responds
Since the beginning of the year, residents have questioned the wisdom of taking Gonnelli to court to resolve the matter. In response, Leanza said last month, “A judge would have to make a ruling anyway. The [state] Local Finance Board was never going to make the final ruling on this.”
A comment from the board’s spokesman, however, seems to refute this.
Spokesman Chris Donnelly said last week, “Individuals who disagree with the board’s finding may request a hearing. At the board’s discretion, the hearing may occur either with the board or be transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL). If it goes to the OAL, and they render a decision, that decision is then sent back to the board, which can agree, disagree, or modify that decision. That then becomes the final decision of the board. If the individual in question does not agree with that final decision, they may appeal to the Appellate Court.”
Presumably, Gonnelli’s case would have only ended up in front of a judge if the board had ruled against him and he decided to challenge the ruling.
But there has been no indication as to when the state would rule.
Gonnelli supporters were angry during the meeting.
“How much money are you spending to prevent this man from being a councilman and fire chief?” – Pat Belenski
“What I want to know is, how much money are you spending trying to prevent this man from being a councilman and fire chief?” asked resident Pat Belenski. She then asked, addressing Leanza, “Do you get paid by the hour? How much money have taxpayers paid for you to fight this?”
Leanza said he has not yet billed the town for his January hours, many of which were likely dedicated to work related to Gonnelli. The town’s labor attorney also has not yet billed Secaucus for his January hours.
Belenski said that when those bills are available, she wanted to see the totals, and suggested that Gonnelli hold a fundraiser to offset his legal bills, which he is paying for himself.
Addressing Gonnelli, resident Tom Troyer said later, “If this continues much longer, you’ll be able to pass a resolution to pay your own legal bills,” indicating the councilman could defeat Elwell in November.
An emotional and admittedly “nervous” Dora Marra received a partial standing ovation from residents at the meeting when she said, “I can’t figure out why the town is doing this. And I don’t understand why the rest of you [on the council] are just sitting by and letting it happen. As adults, if we see kids bullying another kid, don’t we step in to stop it?”
She added, “But you all refuse to take a stand. Why? Maybe you’re all scared or nervous. Maybe you’re all afraid to stand up for something. But I’m telling you, the community isn’t.”
Marra, a member of one of Secaucus’ most prominent families, sits on the local school board.