A group of students holding a mock town commissioners’ meeting on May 1 learned what it feels like to make an unpopular political decision, after they “voted” to give generous property tax breaks to large corporations who move to North Bergen.
The annual May 1 (Law Day) event introduces North Bergen High School seniors to various town positions, including town attorney, municipal judge, and police chief. The kids then assume these roles for the day, an interactive way to learn about how government works. They later conclude with a mock Board of Commissioners’ meeting. Students also learn how the municipal court system operates.
Law Day honors the role of law in the U.S.
As one might expect, the commissioners’ decision to cut taxes for super rich companies didn’t go over well with the crowd, since it would mean that the average taxpayer had to chip in more for the town budget.
“How long will this tax break be [for]?” one curious student, acting as a concerned town resident, asked the commissioners.
“Case by case,” responded “Commissioner” Mario Pasquel, temporarily filling in for Parks and Recreation Commissioner Hugo Cabrera.
“Tell your parents they’ll have a $5,000 tax increase,” said actual North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco to the student commissioners, after they passed the resolution anyway.
Before the commissioners’ meeting, the students began their day debating marijuana legalization, in the town’s court room. Later, they traveled to Town Hall for a meeting with Sacco, before sitting in on an actual COMPSTAT meeting with the North Bergen Police Department at their headquarters
Police Chief Robert Dowd led the students on a tour of the department building. They saw the prisoner processing room, cell blocks, and perhaps the most intriguing part, the forensics evidence room. There, they were allowed to touch actual confiscated (but deactivated) weapons, including a pump shotgun, 357 magnum pistol, and AR-15 BB gun. No pictures were allowed.
After their tour, the students acclimated to their new roles in town.
Karel Gonzalez, 18, learned about the public information officer job from former Hudson Reporter employee Art Schwartz, who now works for Town Hall in that position. He takes pictures of town events, posts information on the municipal site, and acts as a media liaison.
“It’s very similar to what I do,” Gonzalez said. She is a design editor for the Paw Prints publication at the high school. “I enjoy taking pictures.”
In her temporary new role, she said she would like to promote local events via social media ads on Facebook and Instagram.
“It’s very similar to what I do.” – Karel Gonzalez
Schwartz was so impressed with Gonzalez that the two exchanged contact information. “Maybe she can pitch something to me in the future,” he said.
Arianna Diaz, 18, became mayor for the day, with Sacco teaching her how it’s done. She had suggestions, such as expanding the recreational center to include arcades and lacrosse.
“It’s been great,” Diaz said of her newfound job. In fact, she is now considering studying law and criminal justice later on.
“I found the job interesting,” said Megha Shah, 17, who “replaced” Erin Barillas as town clerk.
However, once Barillas explained what the job entails—overseeing records and municipal elections, among other duties—she said it was too much work for her. Shah is angling for a business career, but said she respects the clerk position more now.
As the temporary Revenue and Finance Commissioner, Amanda Garcia, 18, said she would look into reducing gas usage for municipal vehicles, maybe finding shorter routes for their daily duties. She also wanted to see if the town can purchase a safer chemical to clear snow, because rock salt can harm animals.
“I learned a lot about money, grants,” Garcia said, of becoming a commissioner. “A lot of people don’t get this information.”
Becoming the town’s deputy police chief for a day inspired Genesis Martinez, 18. She originally wanted to study to become a midwife, helping pregnant women.
But now, “I think I want to be a biologist,” she said, “because I saw forensic evidence.”
As deputy police chief she learned much about the job. “There’s a lot of auto thefts in town,” said Martinez, who sat in on the COMPSTAT meeting.
She said she would put more police in those areas, along with cameras as deterrents.
“They need to see the diversity of jobs available,” said Student Council Moderator Jeffrey Trifari. “They actually had a great time.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org