This year, a group of 40 high school students took to North Bergen’s municipal police station and government chambers as part of a Law Day event. They were assigned to officials and government employees who mentored them. The pairing was based on students’ individual interests.
The annual outing, which has taken place in North Bergen for about 30 years, was organized this year by Jeff Trifari, a North Bergen High School biology teacher who also serves as a moderator for the school’s student council.
The students were mostly selected on a first-come, first-serve basis through an elective list, which as in high demand this year, with seniors as a priority.
“A lot of the students want to be attorneys, or accountants or something in that area,” Trifari said. “We wanted them to see, at least in terms of the town government, how it all works. Even if kids don’t have a great understanding, they all learn something, and it might pique their interest.”
He said that after the trip, students often express interest in local politics that they didn’t have before.
After the group was divvied up among mentors, the students shadowed different departments, which included Parks and Recreation, Public Safety, Revenue and Finance, Public Affairs, and Public Works. The grand tour focused on the responsibilities of elected officials, and local government as a whole, with the goal of having students walk away with a crash course in what local government can do for them.
A tour of the North Bergen Police Department showed students where this arm of public safety is headquartered. Students checked out some cells, communications rooms, and the place where evidence is stored and processed.
The day ended with a mock board of commissioners meeting, run entirely by students who played the roles of mayor, commissioners, town attorney, town engineer, and clerk.
But what would a meeting be if not for the gadflies?
“At the end of the three minutes, your time is up, and you’ll have to either leave the podium or get arrested,” Sacco joked to the students who were filling in for the public comment portion. “Your job may be to call out votes if you think the bills are too nonsensical or expensive. Good luck.”
Plenty of students gave it their all, advocating for or against a series of mock resolutions that students crafted with some help from commissioners to make sure that the new policies would be bold and prone to much debate.
The mock meeting
The meeting was led by five students who served as elected officials. Alessandra Alvarez, who happens to be the student council president at the high school, sat in as the mayor. Pierina Delgado, Laura Barrios, Jhoana Romero, and Dara Hernandez served as commissioners.
Students debated topics that included major infrastructure overhauls, measures for environmentally-friendly development, a new neighborhood watch program, and a new utility bill policy.
While the first vote would have preemptively raised the township’s budget by more than 10 percent, the gadflies quickly caught on, and some lively debate followed for the rest of the meeting, relying heavily on on-the-fly consulting from actual township administrators, engineers, and police officers before making any bold decisions.
The student commissioners, each assigned to one of the five departments, had to elaborate on the resolutions with a line of questioning similar to what might be heard in real government meetings.
Sacco served as a moderator, sharing his policy experience and offering a brief analysis of the mock government exchange at the end of each vote.
“I’m going to Stockton University for education,” Alessandra Alvarez said. “I shadowed the mayor today, and it was really eye-opening to see what he does for North Bergen through everything he explained.”
Alvarez said that while she’s not interested in going into politics, learning how local government influences her career choice piqued her interest in how government can affect her life and the lives of her neighbors.