After the New Jersey state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) received an anonymous complaint, they sent their own letter dated April 24 to Gonnelli stating what the complaint is:
"Michael Gonnelli's simultaneous holding of the position of councilman in the town of Secaucus and deputy fire chief in the town of Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department is a conflict of interest in violation of the Ethics Law."
Gonnelli received the state letter last month based on the anonymous complaint. He's not sure whom the complaint is from, but the same complaints were publicly made by political foes last fall when Gonnelli first ran for his council seat.
The letter from the state said that it was decided to begin an investigation based on this complaint because Gonnelli's position as deputy fire chief is subordinate to his position as council member in the same town, therefore making it possible that Gonnelli would have to take official council action on matters relating to his position as deputy chief.
Members of Secaucus' fire department are unpaid, although they can receive a stipend if they respond to a certain number of fires.
Gonnelli's battle is the latest in a long-simmering conflict between Gonnelli and the Elwell administration, whom he has accused of harassment in the past.
Gonnelli had a long battle with the Elwell administration in 2005 after they disagreed on his retirement package for his job as superintendent of public works. Gonnelli also complained of several instances of harassment of him and his wife, who worked for the city. Gonnelli retired from his job at public works when he became councilman earlier this year.
In October 2006, when Gonnelli was first running for the council, Town Attorney Frank Leanza released a memorandum outlining several cases of municipal law in which the positions of councilperson and deputy fire chief were found to be incompatible. But Gonnelli said it was a non-issue because the Secaucus Fire Department is all volunteer and Leanza's point was an attempt to dissuade voters from voting for him in the November council election. Gonnelli went on to a sweeping victory in that election, and was sworn in this past Jan. 1.
To Gonnelli, the fact that the issue has come up again is not surprising.
"There seems to be a clear pattern of someone sending anonymous letters to try to discredit me," he said. "They want to get me to spend money and my time concentrating on things other than government."
Regarding who "they" might be, Gonnelli was non-committal.
"I have an idea, but you can never say who somebody is when they don't have the courage or the guts to sign something."
Gonnelli also had to fight a previous anonymous ethics complaint when in 2004, local corporation Hartz Mountain donated $250 to Gonnelli's fire company, Engine No. 3. In 2005, Gonnelli voted on a variance for Hartz Mountain in his capacity as an unpaid commissioner of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC). Gonnelli did not benefit personally from the vote, but an anonymous complaint charged that it was a conflict of interest.
Gonnelli subsequently signed a consent agreement in which the state Ethics Commission said that they thought Gonnelli had violated an ethics standard, and Gonnelli maintained that he didn't. However, Gonnelli did agree to pay a $2,500 fine, putting the matter to rest without further litigation.
Looking at the new complaint, Gonnelli sees it as an additional waste of time and money.
"The administration spent taxpayers' money to have Frank Leanza give an opinion before the council election," he said. "I totally disagreed with that position. I knew that I would have to give up my previous position as superintendent of the town Department of Public Works if I won because it was a paid position. But to tell someone that they can't volunteer when it's happening all over the state of New Jersey is wrong. Secaucus alone has a long tradition of this. Current Secaucus councilman John Reilly (3rd Ward) was at one time a councilman, fire liaison, and a firefighter. Former Councilman Charlie Voorhees was a councilman, fire liaison, and a fire department captain. The precedent has already been set in Secaucus, as it has throughout the state."
Gonnelli pointed to various officials in other towns serving as volunteer firefighters and in elected office. He said that Eddie Hicks of nearby Guttenberg was a councilman and a fire chief, as well as the mayors of Paramus, Wallington, and Wildwood City, who either are or were firemen or fire chiefs. Although he feels that precedent is on his side, Gonnelli noted why he believes the complaint was filed.
"It's happening so that they can put pressure on me so that I have to give up something that I love," he said. "If they can hurt me, they're going to hurt me. I was sworn in by the mayor as both a councilman and as deputy fire chief. If they had an opinion that they thought was so strong, should they have sworn me in?"
Dan Amico, a political ally of Gonnelli and the nephew of former longtime mayor Paul Amico, pointed out what he believes has become the tenor and tone of Secaucus politics.
"Up until about 10 years ago, Secaucus was an oasis in Hudson County," he said. "We had an independent administration here where my uncle won 10 elections as an independent. But Anthony Iacono has brought a whole new perspective to Secaucus politics. He's changed the dynamics, and I don't in any way think that's it's for the better."
Administration makes rebuttal
The man that Amico pointed to as the source of this era of bad feelings in Secaucus politics was not convinced that he is part of the problem.
"I'm used to everybody pointing the finger at me, but Dennis [Elwell] and Anthony [Iacono] didn't write this law," Iacono said. "If Mike has a problem, he should get in his car and go down to Trenton. He should go through the appeal process through the DCA. I don't have a problem with Mike being a councilman and a fire chief at the same time, but it's not for me to decide."
Iacono also refuted the idea that he was the one who pointed the finger at Gonnelli.
"This letter could have been written by anybody, and the issue could have been raised by anybody," he said. "This is not a municipal issue; it's a state issue. It's not personal against Mike. If he does take it personal, that's just the story of Mike's life. You have to think that he should have done his due diligence about this to see if there was going to be a conflict. If the town had any problem with Mike serving in both positions, the mayor wouldn't have stood next to him when he was sworn in. This issue has to be addressed in Trenton, not in Secaucus. If you ask me point blank, we didn't do this."
Mayor Elwell concurred with Iacono's assessment of the situation.
"I think this is Mike Gonnelli giving the same misinformation he's given everybody his entire career," he said. "We're not out to get him. The town just gave him a check for $120,000 at the beginning of the year" [a reference to the still-ongoing dispute between Gonnelli and the town over the terms of his retirement package, including unused vacation and sick days].
Elwell continued, "The question is whether someone can be a councilman and a fire chief, not a firefighter. John Reilly was a firefighter and a councilman for years. But Mr. Leanza gave the opinion in October 2006 that you can't be both councilman and a fire chief. What this complaint letter is about, I don't know. Mike's been telling people that we're trying to hurt him. His problem is with the state of New Jersey, not with us. But if I was Mr. Gonnelli, I would've gone to Trenton after I was elected and before I was sworn in to definitively find out if Mr. Leanza was right or wrong. Mike may not have done his due diligence."
Elwell's conscience in clear about any role he supposedly may have had in writing any anonymous letter.
"I have no idea who wrote the letter," he said. "But people write letters and make accusations all the time. If Mike did nothing wrong, he has no reason to worry. But I think one of Mike's problems is that he thinks that he stands on different grounds than other people in Secaucus. The law is the law, and he has to live within it."
He added, "If I had a problem with this, I would have signed the letter and sent it to the ethics committee and I would show you a copy right now."
In fact, at Tuesday's Town Council meeting, the council voted to send a letter to the state in support of Gonnelli's two positions (see story, p. 3).
Gonnelli geared up for a fight
Regardless of who did or didn't write the anonymous ethics complaint letter, Gonnelli is ready and more than willing to fight the charge. He is beginning the appeals process immediately, and is determined to go to court if necessary.
"I'm not going to pay any fine," he said. "I'll mortgage my house three times to fight this complaint before I give up. It's a matter of principle. It's funny, because since I've been on the council, I've gone along with them about 90 percent of the time. If there's a conflict, that's why you have abstentions. They want to get me to crack. Maybe they fear me more than I fear myself. Maybe they're afraid of the future. I don't know. The point is that I'm a volunteer, and they're trying to discredit a great bunch of guys in the Fire Department."
Gonnelli believes that he will have the support of not only the volunteers in the Secaucus Fire Department in the days ahead, but of people outside the area.
"This is going to have statewide ramifications," he said. "If this goes much further, the entire New Jersey State Volunteer Firemen's Association will be lined up by my side. I'm a firefighter; that's what I do."
Gonnelli's ally Amico looked forward to the looming fight.
"Apparently, the administration is not done harassing Mike," he said. "Let the people of Secaucus decide whether or nor it's harassment, a pattern of misinformation by the powers that be, or if the charges are real or trumped up."
Gonnelli's wish for the future was even simpler.
"Let it stop," he said.
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.