Union County has historic 165th reorganization meeting

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — The 165th annual Union County government reorganization was full of firsts. It was the first time the reorganization was held virtually, although the swearing-in ceremonies were in person on the steps of the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth on Sunday, Jan. 3; it was the first meeting of the newly named Union County Board of Commissioners, formerly the Board of Chosen Freeholders; and it was beginning of the first term for several government officials.

Commissioner Rebecca L. Williams became vice chairperson, Commissioners Angela R. Garretson and Christopher Hudak began new terms; Commissioner Lourdes M. Leon began her first full term as the first Latina elected to the board; and Union County clerk Joanne Rajoppi and Sheriff Peter Corvelli began new terms. Gov. Phil Murphy conducted the oaths of office.

The meeting began with a moment of silence to honor all who had died due to the pandemic.

“It’s been quite a different year, as we enter a new year with hope and looking forward to a better year to come,” Union County Democratic Committee Chairperson Sen. Nick Scutari said on Sunday, Jan. 3. “Obviously, COVID-19 is the beginning and the end of everything that we’ve had over this past year.”

Scutari detailed the strides Union County has made this year, including the state’s first county-run COVID-19 drive-through testing center, in a partnership with Kean University.

“Union County, for the third year in a row, is the highest vote plurality in the state of New Jersey,” Scutari said. “Despite our smaller size than some of our bigger brothers and sisters, we are third behind Essex and Hudson counties. It has been quite a year, but the county of Union has responded.

“Our freeholder board, now known as our Board of Commissioners, has done an amazing job helping to respond to this pandemic … and we’ve expanded that to mobile testing throughout the county. The county of Union has been responsive and has done a great job,” he added.

According to Scutari, Union County worked with its partners to distribute 2 million meals to those in need and tens of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act funds, with a zero percent budget increase this year.

Rajoppi was recognized as the first female county clerk in the 164-year history of Union County. She was elected clerk in 1995 and reelected in 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020 and won by the largest plurality in recent history.

“She has not been left behind,” Scutari said. “Sometimes, people stay in these offices for too long, but Joanne Rajoppi has changed with the times, has used innovation and technology in her office, and she’s done a great job in this very trying year, helping and coordinating with us, with the Democratic Party, as well as with county government. I couldn’t be more appreciative, and she couldn’t have been more supportive.”

Scutari credited Garretson, a former school board member, mayor of Hillside and councilwoman at large, with 17 years of experience in government, with changing “freeholder” to “commissioner.”

“The Senate had already passed the title change, but when Freeholder Garretson had the opportunity to talk to Gov. Murphy, she brought that up to him, and she helped us get that done,” said Scutari. “Former Freeholder and future Commissioner Garretson, we can thank her for her tough work.”

Gov. Murphy congratulated everyone who was sworn in and acknowledged Rajoppi and Garretson.

“To residents of Union County, this is a homecoming for me,” Murphy said on Sunday, Jan. 3. “I don’t think I’ve missed this now in six or seven years. I’m incredibly honored to be here. When an institution, like Joanne, reaches out and asks me to swear in, there’s only one answer, and the answer’s ‘yes.’ I’m honored to stand with you as you get elected, yet again. Angela, it is true. You walked up, in a conversation, and said, ‘This title is getting really hard for me to bear.’ You had the same conversation in Hillside, and, to the credit of the Legislature, on both sides of the aisle, they turned on a dime, and that title was in the dustbin of history.

“To Peter, Chris and Lourdes, I wanted to make sure I witness history,” he continued. “Congratulations to each of you all and all of your families. This is a homecoming for me. I may live in Monmouth County, but Union County has been, from moment one, good to me, including when it was cold and lonely.”

Soon after, the motion to nominate Commissioner Alexander Mirabella as chairperson was seconded by Hudak, and there were nine votes in the affirmative. This is Mirabella’s sixth term as chairperson, having previously served in 2001, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2020.

“There’s a lot to talk about in Union County,” Mirabella said on Monday, Jan. 3. “I’m very proud of the effort. I’m thankful to the Board of Commissioners for nominating me and voting for me to be chairperson this year and lead this great team. All the fine directors that we have and the partnerships we have with our municipalities can’t be underestimated. We work well with our towns; we work well with our community; and we’ve been able to respond to this horrific COVID. But as the governor said, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s bright days ahead for Union County and for New Jersey.”

During the meeting, Mirabella announced a series of initiatives for 2021 under the title “Union County Rising.”

According to a press release concerning the meeting, the rundown of the initiatives are vaccinations, dispatch expansion and plans to turn the former Juvenile Detention Center in Linden into a fire academy.

Mirabella also discussed initiatives such as the Union County Economic Development Corporation taking applications for its Virtual Incubator Program; the Entrepreneurship as a Second Chance program; the Open for Business Initiative; Project Fresh Start; the reboot of the Union County Foreclosure Task Force; the Office of LGBTQ Affairs working with the national and New Jersey LGBT chambers of commerce to develop a virtual jobs fair with businesses that value LGBTQ diversity in the workplace; the county working with UCEDC to develop an Open for Business – Open for Everyone: Diversity and Inclusion Symposium; the Office of LGBTQ Affairs working with the Parks Department to develop plans for an inclusive and welcoming space for all to enjoy at Cedar Brook Park in Plainfield; and much more.

Photos Courtesy of Dave Pilmenstein, Union County