UNION COUNTY — Amid a sea of political dignitaries and over 200 people, Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh took the oath of office as the new chairman at the annual Union County Freeholders reorganization meeting.
The 158th reorganization meeting had the usual highlights, with honored guests and political supporters jamming into the Union County Courthouse to watch as Jalloh took the oath of office with his wife Maria and other family members by his side. This was followed by Freeholder Bruce Bergen being sworn in as vice-chairman.
Also sworn in for additional three-year terms on the board were Angel Estrada, former chairman Christopher Hudak and Vernell Wright.
The reorganization meeting had the usual highlights and pomp and circumstance, including speeches and presentations by Republican Congressman for the 7th District Leonard Lance, Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak and Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, among others.
Jalloh, a resident of Union, reflected on a number of tough governmental decisions made by the board over the past several years because of the global recession, noting the county was rebounding and must continue to “play offense” through a series of strategic initiatives in the coming year.
“Those steps proved very effective and we have emerged a stronger county government because of it,” Jalloh said, adding, “It is time again for the county to focus on making the investments in our future that will help boost the economy and enhance the quality of life for our residents.”
The board chairman did not mention the sale of Runnells Specialized Hospital as one of those steps, or that the county put $26 million in its coffers as a result. Nor did he bring up the fact the county has been negotiating with Hudson County to possibly move all 700 adult inmates to their facility, which is underutilized.
Jalloh did, though, refer to what took place last year in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, mentioning that “it is incumbent upon all of us as government leaders to assist in the effort to maintain or restore the bond of trust between our different communities and our police department.”
Jalloh said in order to further this effort he initiated discussions with Democrat Assemblyman Jerry Green, also the Union County Democratic chairman, the Union County Prosecutor’s office, the Sheriff’s Office and county public safety director about initiating programs that could be offered at the Police Academy and through the county police.
“We want to raise the bar of tolerance and professionalism for those in the line of duty and in turn we hope to create an atmosphere of renewed respect that our officers deserve for making the ultimate sacrifice of putting their own lives on the line,” the new freeholder chairman added.
Jalloh did not, however, bring up that the county was also involved in a similar incident at the county jail where an inmate died as a result of six jail guards restraining him and cutting off his airway. This alleged incident resulted in the filing of a civil lawsuit in Superior Court in mid-December.
The new board chairman did announce the formation of a new “street crimes unit” through the Sheriff’s Department, which he said would focus on emerging public safety concerns. Jalloh also noted the county would be installing safety cameras in locations such as parks and the department of public works to deter crime. The county will also be continuing the successful gun buyback program, with another round coming in the summer.
Other initiatives involving the “Investing in Union County” initiative included a “road map to success,” which will involve commissioning a report from the Bloustein School at Rutgers. This report will focus on examining trends in Union County’s overall economy and finding strengths to focus resources on that ultimately have a positive outcome.
Jalloh did not, though, mention what this report would cost taxpayers, or when such results could be expected.
The new freeholder board chairman also mentioned that he will be focusing heavily on the arts. The “Build a Community of the Arts” initiative involves a set of initiatives that will build a county-wide “ecosystem.”
This included an arts master plan, assisted by former Rahway mayor Jim Kennedy, who would be charged with cataloging the county’s arts resources to determine how best to utilize, market and move forward with a plan for advancing the arts.
Also included was an effort to advance community theater through which the county will sponsor and promote five or more theater events at Union County Performing Arts Center. This program was designed to build on a recent success of the play “Rent,” a pilot the county initiated in November through a partnership with UCPAC.
The county will also be forming a new partnership with Union County College to offer acting, dance and public speaking classes that will be open to all residents.
Another arts related initiative will involve covering traffic control boxes with the work of local artists which is specifically aimed at enhancing community arts and revitalization.
An arts education initiative will focus on yet another partnership with Union County College to expand a pilot program that tests high school juniors at the end of the school year to ensure they are prepared for college.
The “Families First” initiative includes a partnership with the United Way of Greater Union County, the Workforce Investment Board and County Department of Human Services. This initiative, Jalloh said, is geared to provide after school programs, workforce investment training and family support.
The new board chairman is also setting up a pilot program with Community Coordinated Child Care, also known as “the four ‘C’s,’ to serve families that do not meet eligibility for state subsidized child care. Jalloh said the county also will be working on a series of economic development and workforce initiatives, including a $2.3 million expansion of the Union County Workforce Investment Board, an entrepreneurship training program to help those who want to start their own business, and the creation of a Union County economic response team to approach each municipality about their needs. This liaison, Jalloh explained, would open up a dialogue about sharing services, identifying opportunities and maximizing resources in order to spur economic growth.
Jalloh closed his speech by quoting President Barack Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” he said.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues, county staff and members of the community to effect this change,” the 2015 board chairman added.