ROSELLE PARK, NJ — The Jan. 5 reorganization meeting of Roselle Park’s council brought with it not only some eloquent remarks from the borough’s mayor, Carl Hokanson, but some unexpected drama and, according to the mayor and some council members, actions on the part of some members of the council that they believe smacks of dirty politics.
Hokanson, a Democrat and mayor of the borough since 2015, addressed the council and assembled residents, speaking about the borough’s accomplishments and challenges in 2016, as well as plans for 2017.
But several council members managed to stymie some of Hokanson’s recommendations for appointments and vendor selections. The unanticipated turn of events caused a slew of surprise appointments and firings, with Hokanson stating that several council members carried out backroom politics in order to satisfy their own personal agendas.
During his remarks at the meeting, Hokanson touched on several issues, including the completion of the borough’s revaluation process and new business and land development.
“The financial condition of our borough remains a major concern,” Hokanson said in his speech. “For the borough officials, you know I couldn’t go through a major address without promptly referencing the Marine Corps. In its simple moral ground rules, the Marine Corps teaches to do the right thing, for the right reason — no exception exists that says: unless there’s criticism or risk. I believe that theme captures the sometimes tough but right decisions we made last year, like completing the borough-wide revaluation process.”
Hokanson noted that the revaluation process has had a positive impact on the borough’s finances.
“Looking back, I can say we now have a fair and equitable local tax system which has also lessened the costly number of tax appeals,” Hokanson said in his remarks. “As I see the growing state pressure on municipalities both in and outside Union County to undertake the difficult but needed process of revaluation, I can praise all involved and know that we did the right thing for the right reason. As elected officials, we learn quickly that to legitimately lessen the tax burden on residents, we must find alternate sources of revenue and cut spending, wherever possible.”
Hokanson also touched on the borough’s redevelopment efforts.
“With regards to our redevelopment efforts, I told an attorney just last week — no more letting the grass grow,” Hokanson said.
According to Hokanson, 2017 will see construction begin on West Westfield Avenue, the redevelopment of Leberco Labs on Hawthorne Street and a new Wawa on the Cranford border.
“Now, my sites are once again set on the redevelopment of the old Sullivan Chevrolet property,” Hokanson said, referring to the four-and-a-half acres of vacant property sitting in the center of town.
“This valuable piece of property in a prime location has been stagnant for six years,” Hokanson said. “While there may have been some false starts in the past, we are making every effort to see that it does not remain stagnant. Consequently, we are in the process of declaring the property an area in need of redevelopment. As such, we need to totally conform to complex ethics laws governing redevelopment, but with due diligence, I am confident that we will indeed move forward on this issue.”
Hokanson also spoke about new businesses coming to the borough.
“They are examples of business investing in Roselle Park because they see, as we do, that this is a borough moving on the upward trail while making every effort to improve the quality of life afforded to our citizens.”
Hokanson spoke with LocalSource regarding some of the issues he touched on during his address.
“The reval helped us a great deal,” Hokanson said in a phone call. “Now everyone is on a level playing field. It’s saving us a ton of money.”
According to Hokanson, the revaluation process saw 50 percent of the borough’s property taxes increase, 42 percent decrease, while 8 percent remained steady.
Hokanson also emphasized his desire to see the borough bring in new businesses.
“When I first became mayor, I wanted to get rid of the stigma of the borough not being business-friendly,” Hokanson said.
To that end, said Hokanson, he met with a prominent developer, who ended up purchasing six properties along Westfield Avenue, building more than 200 apartments and several restaurants.
“He is my field of dreams,” said Hokanson of the developer. “Now, more developers are wanting to come in. If he builds it, they will come.”
According to Hokanson, the Sullivan property has garnered much interest among developers. “We have contractors calling,” Hokanson said.
Plans for the property include mixed-use buildings, said Hokanson. On Dec. 29, the borough’s council approved a resolution to hire contractors for the property.
But Hokanson also remains uncertain about the ability of the borough’s council to work together, noting that he believes that some of the council members are paying more attention to their own agendas than the borough’s residents. Hokanson also questioned the secrecy behind some of the decisions made by the council that came to fruition at the meeting.
One issue arose when former borough Mayor Joseph DeIorio spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, bringing to light the fact that First-Ward Councilman Eugene Meola had switched political parties, from Democrat to Independent.
“I was also told today, and I had had a conversation with Councilman Meola, about party affiliation and I wanted to clarify that,” said DeIorio at the meeting. “He’s not a Republican nor is he a Democrat at this point. I just want to put that out there, just to set the record straight.”
Meola confirmed at the meeting that he had, indeed, changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Independent.
Meola did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Meola’s decision affected the outcome of several votes, overriding appointments by Hokanson, as well
as affecting the selection of vendors for professional services.
According to Hokanson, he put forth a recommendation for Second-Ward Councilman Joseph Petrosky to be voted in as council president, to replace 2016 council president Charlene Storey. Instead, Republican Thos Shipley, currently a Fifth-Ward councilman, will serve as council president in 2017.
The council now consists of a Democratic mayor, one Independent, two Republicans and two Democrats.
Hokanson said that he believes that the turn of events at the meeting were pre-planned and orchestrated.
“This was all planned, Hokanson said. “This was all backroom deals. Two Democrats and one Republican went upstairs and made their deal in the back room. Where’s the transparency? My biggest problem after last night’s debacle is that you may have a council that does not work together. Everyone has their own agenda. I see it’s going to be games. It’s going to be the old ways of the political game plan.”
Hokanson said that he can no longer predict any moves the council may make in the coming year.
“I can honestly tell you that I have no idea as to the direction the council is going in,” Hokanson said. “It’s a sin; it’s as plain as day. A certain council person that yells and screams about transparency — well, where is his transparency? He talks about being above board, but after last night, it’s below board.”
Petrosky, who was passed over as council president by several of his fellow council members, including Storey, Third-Ward Councilman William Fahoury and Fifth-Ward Councilman Thos Shipley, told LocalSource in a phone call that he was supposed to have the support of Meola, who allegedly told Petrosky that he would support his appointment as council president.
“When we originally discussed the positions for 2017, I asked him if he wanted to be council president, and he said no and that he would support me,” Petrosky said of Meola. “I assumed he was a man of his word. If a man tells you he is going to do something, you take him at his word. There was no indication that he wouldn’t support me.”
But Petrosky was in for a shock when Meola, who promised him his support, voted instead for Shipley, who is a Republican, as council president.
Petrosky also noted that Meola wanted the position of representative for the Joint Meeting of Essex & Union County, a post that Hokanson has held for the last two years. Meola received the support of Shipley, Fahoury and Storey, and he will now serve as representative to the JMEUC at an annual salary of $6,500.
“Meola felt he should get it,” Petrosky said. “I felt that the mayor should have it — that it would be the best thing for Roselle Park and for Union County.”
Petrosky said that he asked Meola if he needed the job.
“I asked him if he was hurting for money,” Petrosky said. “If that was the case, then I’d support him getting it. I understand it if someone needs the money.”
But according to Petrosky, Meola told him that it was his turn.
Petrosky said that he suggested to Meola that he serve as an alternate in the event that Hokanson could not attend a meeting.
According to Petrosky, there may be rough times ahead.
“It’s going to be a rough year. I’ll just hold my head up and do what I have to do.”
Hokanson said that despite the actions of some council members, he has just one plan in mind.
“I have to do what’s best for this borough,” Hokanson said. “I have to bring in businesses and revenue, and to give the taxpayers a break. I’m going to work my butt off. I have a job to do, and my job is to keep this borough going. You’re elected by the people, for the people, but the people last night have their own agenda,” he said of the council. “I pray to God that this council works together.”