UNION COUNTY, NJ — On Monday night the Gateway Chamber of Commerce held its annual Mayors Dinner, not only naming the 26th mayor of the year but also doling out awards for the brightest stars in a nonpartisanship atmosphere attended by more than 350 local officials and business sponsors.
Non-partisanship was the rule of the evening at the dinner held at the Renaissance Newark Airport Hotel where officials from the majority of municipalities in the county celebrated the accomplishments of each community and honored those who stood out this year.
Former Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley took the honor this year as mayor of the year, Cherron Rountree of Rahway received the business administrator of the year award, Carlos Sanchez of Plainfield was touted as economic development official of the year, and Rahway Mayor Sam Steinman won best speech of the evening.
Holley was especially surprised to receive the mayor of the year award because he had to resign as mayor after he was appointed to serve out the remaining term of Assemblyman Joe Cryan, who was elected Union County Sheriff.
Gateway Chamber President James Coyle explained earlier that nominations for mayor of the year were made prior to Holley stepping down, and the award was based on achievement during the prior year.
Gracious to the end, the former Roselle mayor held up the trophy he received, confessing he was shocked by the recognition.
“I’m eternally grateful tonight,” he said, adding that mayors have a very tough job and it is a thankless one.
“Four years ago when I became mayor people wanted to leave Roselle, but in four short years we were able to put together a team that worked together to improve the borough,” Holley told the audience.
But it was when he spoke of his upbringing that the room grew still as they listened to this dynamic speaker explain that the fact he began his life as the son of a single unwed mother never defined him.
“For all your human struggles, do not allow that to dictate where you go,” he said, noting “this award is not about me but every person that touched my life since I was growing up in Roselle.”
Holley, who is running for Cryan’s assembly seat, faces a contested primary race in June, but Monday night politics was not the focus. Instead, his comments focused on what it took for him to get where he is today, honoring both his mother, grandmother and others for their strength and commitment in guiding him during his youth.
“I am so fortunate to receive this award and so humbled tonight,” said the former mayor, later adding that he was “grateful to God, my family and all of team Holley that made this possible.”
“All I can say is thank you,” said the former mayor.
As the evening festivities kicked off, Gateway Chamber President James Coyle began his annual trek around the room, handing over the microphone to each mayor, who in some instances surprised the audience with their off the cuff rendition of how their town fared the year before.
Each year the mayors of their respective towns share with the audience the accomplishments of their communities, including the challenges they have had to encounter, but each has only five minutes to wrap up their comments or suffer the dreaded “gong” cutting them off.
Although the majority of mayors stayed the course by modestly providing the advancements their municipalities had made during the past year, others pushed the envelope, much to the delight of the large and more than willing participation of a cheering audience.
Steinman, who took the award for best speech of the evening, provided a running comedic banter about all the positive and negative things happening in Rahway, joking that the city was being “sued by everyone.” He also invited Merck to consolidate all their facilities in Rahway, targeting the branch in Kenilworth and vowing he would personally “help them move.”
Giving Steinman a run for his money was Cranford Mayor Andis Kalnins, who left the audience roaring when he kicked off his speech with his “Ode to Cranford,” which began with “there was a man from Nantucket.”
“Oh, wrong copy,” he said with a sly grin, going into a poem about the township that he admitted was “borrowed” from several literary poets.
“Oh Cranford, Cranford, wherefore art thou Cranford. Rebuild thy downtown and renew thy streets. Or, if thou wilt not, be but swarming with crowds. And I’ll no longer be a sleepy town,” he said, going on to leave the audience laughing at the remainder of his ditty.
Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso was not about to be left out of the comedy slant that speeches had taken, noting that people should “stay the heck out of Clark for the next four or five weeks.”
The mayor was referring to the fact that Raritan Road and Central Avenue are undergoing considerable renovation as a result of the construction of Clark Commons, which has caused a considerable backup in traffic.
Kenilworth Mayor Fred Pugliese brought the house down when he kicked off his speech by mentioning that no one really hears much about Kenilworth unless there is an accident on the Parkway at exit 138. But he also referenced a news story that made headlines the year before.
“None of the Italian-American clubs were raided this past year, which is a good thing,” he said referring to organized crime arrests last year and leaving the audience clapping and whooping their approval at his humor.
As the evening came to an end, Coyle was recognized by Gateway for being the “consummate head of the chamber,” despite his role the entire evening as chief microphone holder.
With just a nod, the Gateway Chamber president turned back to his duties of the evening, which kept him moving quickly all over the huge banquet room.
The Gateway Regional Chamber of Commerce is the largest business association in the New York and Northern New Jersey region, comprising 12 regional and local chambers. With 1,200 members, Gateway has a 95 percent retention rate, the highest in the country.
This was clearly evident Monday night as the huge banquet hall filled with mayors, elected officials, municipal employees and business and corporate sponsors such as Connect One Bank, Elizabethtown Gas Company, PSE&G, Northfield Bank and Merck among many others.