Ever since their election to the Secaucus town council in 2009, the Independent “Moving Secaucus Forward” slate (formerly “Take Back Secaucus”) has enjoyed massive popularity, and an uncontested reelection in 2013. Mayor Michael Gonnelli originally led the slate to victory.
However, a new voice is stepping up this year.
Steven Kilawattie, 23, is challenging First Ward Councilman Robert Costantino for his seat Nov. 7. That makes it the only contested council race this year. The ward features much of the town’s southern end, including the Secaucus Junction NJ Transit station and the Xchange development.
First Ward Councilman John Gerbasio is running unopposed.
Second Ward Councilman Mark Dehnert and Third Ward Councilman William McKeever are also running unopposed. Normally, three councilpersons are up for election every four years. However, Gerbasio is running to finish the term of Gary Jeffas, the second First Ward councilman who left his seat to become town administrator in January.
Mayor Gonnelli is also running unopposed.
Repeated efforts to contact Councilman Costantino, Kilawattie’s opponent, went unanswered.
The only challenger
Kilawattie, a Secaucus native, said he is running because he wants to bring change at a high level. He is also an Independent.
“I’ve always had a passion for civic engagement,” he said. “Helping people, solving problems, finding solutions to some of the problems that we have in town, listening to people. That’s part of what’s inspired this run.”
Though he graduated from High-Tech High School, he was part of Secaucus High’s jazz band, concert band, and part of the school’s Junior State of America chapter, for the two years he attended that campus.
This isn’t the first time Kilawattie has run for an elected position. Last year, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Board of Education, “to give a lot of people a voice in the school system.”
His platform for the 2017 election focuses on issues such as keeping corporations in town to sustain the economy, working on solving heavy traffic in the First Ward, making housing development proportional to infrastructure growth in town, and bringing more racial diversity to local boards, committees, and government institutions.
“I’ve always had a passion for civic engagement. – Steven Kilawattie
As the son of Indo-Guyanese immigrants who came to America in the 1970s, Kilawattie has noticed shifting demographics in the town, and believes local institutions needs to reflect that. He sees his election as a first step in encouraging that change.
“This town has become increasingly diverse,” he said. “You want to make sure that the demographics of our town are represented in the Board of Education, within institutions. I think that’s important. There’s a lack of diversity in the town council.”
If elected, Kilawattie would be the only non-white councilmember.
Safer walking options
Kilawattie’s platform includes fighting for either a foot bridge or safer walk way at a traffic-heavy intersection at New County Road, Paul Amico Way, and Seaview Drive. That four-way intersection is near the Secaucus Junction station and Xchange development, and often features many trucks, a danger for residents walking through to access the station.
County Avenue also connects to the intersection via New County Road.
“It’s a very busy place to try to cross the street at,” Kilawattie said.
“The people over at Xchange, they have a pretty nice pathway to get over to the train station, and this side of town doesn’t,” he said.
“People here, like myself, who live here in the First Ward, who walk down County Avenue and back are caught there at that intersection, trying to cross.”
Keeping corporations in town
Given the high number of corporations/businesses in town contributing to the city’s tax and employment base, Kilawattie’s platform aims to keep them local.
“We have to make sure that the taxes are fair,” he said. “That they’re receiving a fair tax rate, compared to other towns around us. We don’t want to see businesses leave Secaucus to go to another town. A lot of people work at these businesses, and I’m sure there’s a percentage of them that live in Secaucus. And local businesses here in town play a big role in our economy, and we want to make sure they stay here.”
Kilawattie also warned of possible competition from neighboring towns. “There are a lot of towns nearby that are trying to grow their talent,” he said. “Part of that might be the idea that they might try to attract businesses.”
The First Ward has been known to have heavy parking issues, another issue Kilawattie wants to tackle.
“We’d have to sit down with the town engineer and possibly the planning board,” he said. “People who have a concentration in that area. I’m not an engineer. I don’t have any experience in planning. But we can sit down with them and see where we can carve up space for parking lots in the First Ward. That might be a suggestion.”
Kilawattie would also look into consulting with other experts in local planning.
Traffic issues and infrastructure
Heavy traffic flow also plagues the First Ward.
Compounding the issue will be the planned opening for the American Dream retail and entertainment complex in nearby East Rutherford, in 2019. Once that happens, more traffic from New York City and East Rutherford is expected, with Secaucus likely feeling the squeeze.
“One of the things that we have to recognize is that while the American Dream is being built, there’s going to be things being built around our area,” Kilawattie said.
“Secaucus is a small town. Our roads were designed for that small town. There’s a certain capacity they can fill and handle.”
Though he admitted to not having an exact answer to solving traffic in the area, Kilawattie floated ideas such as expanding roads and redirecting traffic.
He would also like to consult the town engineer as well. “How much more can we build in this town?” he asked.
“There are already properties being built behind Walmart [in Harmon Meadows].”
“When it comes to building property, we have to think strategically. How many people are going to be in those properties? Can our roads handle 600 more cars on the road at rush hour? There are experts in our town government who can put together models for us to see how these things behave.”
He brought up a proposal by think tank ReThink Studios that would turn Secaucus Junction into a massive commuter hub mirroring Penn Station.
That plan would see a New York City subway line, PATH, and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail serve the station.
“It’s just talk now,” he said. “But just imagine if it happens.” He said he would support such a proposal if elected.
Housing for disabled veterans
Kilawattie, a veteran, recently added a proposal for building discounted home units for disabled veterans as part of his platform. “I’m a big supporter of the military,” he said. “Big supporter of VFW.”
Maintaining a stable budget
“We have to spend responsibly,” Kilawattie said, about how he would continue to help balance the town budget.
“We have to tax fairly.”
When putting a budget together, “sometimes things do happen and you can’t budget all the variables,” he said. But “I don’t believe in spending money we don’t have. I don’t believe in giving our town a deficit. If for some reason our budget does go unbalanced, there should be a way to pay back whatever we take out.”
Kilawattie also wants to focus the budget towards long term investments such as green infrastructure and flood prevention methods.
Kilawattie wants voters to know that “regardless of the outcome of this election, I hope that I reach out to as many people in this town and hope that they would run one day as well, including the young generation in this town.”
Councilman Costantino did not respond to repeated calls, voicemails, or text messages for participation in this story.
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