UNION COUNTY — Amid a sea of more than 40 political dignitaries and the largest number of attendees ever present, Freeholder Chris Hudak took the oath of office as the new chairman at the 157th annual Union County reorganization meeting.
More than 250 people jammed the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth, spilling out into the hall to watch Hudak, as well as Sheriff Ralph Froehlich, new Freeholder Sergio Granados and incumbent freeholders Linda Carter and Bette Jane Kowalski place their hand on the bible to take the oath of office.
The 2014 reorganization meeting had the usual highlights, but there was one announcement that brought the house down.
The county will be the second in the nation to require vendors wanting to sell guns to Union County to answer gun control questions, a move that only Jersey City can also take credit for in the entire nation.
Hudak made the announcement while discussing a series of initiatives for 2014 that included the creation of free Wi-Fi in several county locations, steps towards increased economic development, planning, recreation and health and wellness.
The new chairman, a resident of Linden, did not mince words when announcing the county’s stance on gun vendors.
“Union County residents are tired of waiting for meaningful gun laws,” Hudak said, adding “and so is this board.”
“This freeholder board does not have the authority to regulate firearms, but we do have the ability to do business with responsible vendors of guns and ammunition,” he said.
Hudak also focused on those in need, noting the nation was in the midst of a recovery. He pointed out there were still many that needed help locally; announcing one of his focuses for 2014 would be to provide “strong government and strong services.”
Outlining priorities for the coming year, the new chairman said he would be putting the focus on economic development projects that create new jobs and “Union County 2030,” a multi-planning endeavor.
New developments included the new Family Center building, expansion and renovation of Union County College’s Cranford and Plainfield campuses, and the expansion of the Vocational and Technical school’s west hall building. This will create 150 new construction jobs this year and “add to the economic impacts in their communities.”
“Sustaining our economic growth requires planning. If we fail to plan, we plan to fail,” Hudak said.
The new chairman also intends on pushing the expansion of the Raritan Valley Midtown Direct service as a critical economic development component and identifying storm vulnerabilities “and fixing them.”
Hudak added that with strategic planning “we will be stronger than the storm.”
As part of this particular initiative the freeholder chairman announced there would be four new turf field installations along with recreational improvements, including lights and track improvements. The projects, entitled “Turf and Build,” will be initiated over the course of the next few years at Warinanco Park in Roselle, Mattano Park in Elizabeth, Madison Avenue Park and Rahway River Park in Rahway.
Hudak explained that during the last several years the county had great success with turf installations in Rizzuto Park, Snyder Avenue field, and Glenside Avenue and Wheeler Park fields.
“Turf fields, a synthetic grass surface consisting of a mixture of rubber and sand underneath, allows for playing fields to endure intense usage. It requires less maintenance, saves money and manpower hours and is safe for our children to compete on,” the freeholder chairman noted.
One of the larger projects in Warinanco Park, expected to break ground in the fall, will involve reconstruction of the track and former stadium area to include a new field, lights and a new track area.
Another initiative, Union County Knows HOW, focuses on health, opportunity and wellness, which will be directed at increasing health awareness countywide.
“We will partner with Overlook Medical Center, which is developing its “Healthy Neighbor, Healthy Neighborhood,” Hudak said, explaining the hospital and county will sponsor free health screenings, inoculations and information distribution. Overlook will also work with community leaders to identify local health needs as part of their overall plan.
“We will work to promote health awareness among our employees which will not only promote good health but also help stabilize our insurance costs,” the chairman said, adding that the personnel department will introduce an office weight loss program, conduct a wellness fair and continue to offer biometric screenings.
Hudak’s fourth initiative, he said, will address the importance of social media and the Internet in today’s supercharged informational age. Explaining that the internet has “fundamentally dismantled and reworked” how governments distribute information, the chairman said the county will be revamping the county webpage to allow residents to better navigate the site.
The county has also opened an Instagram account to increase social media outreach.
“I am also proud to announce that as apart of this initiative, Union County will begin offering free Wi-Fi service in some of our parks and county facilities,” Hudak said, noting, for example, that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have all embarked on successful Wi-Fi programs. While he admitted most of these projects have a cost component, the county’s initial service offering will be free, but focused on a smaller, targeted scale with an eye toward future expansion.
The county is conducting an analysis with the goal of offering this service by summer at Wheeler Pool in Linden, Ulrich Pool at Rahway River Park, Warinanco Park skating rink in Roselle, the county clerk’s office in Westfield, Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside and possibly part of Nomahegan Park in Cranford. Presently the county offers free Wi-Fi at the administration building in Elizabeth, Runnells Hospital and Galloping Hill Clubhouse.
“Imagine surfing the web pool side at Wheeler Park during those lazy summer days, posting videos of your child’s first ice skating lesson or hockey game at Warinanco’s skating rink, using your cell phone at the Trailside center to explore and get information about the exhibits,” Hudak said, adding all this and more will be possible as the county develops this new initiative so residents have the services “they want and deserve.”
The new chairman’s fifth and final initiative addressed public safety, pointing out that residents have much to be proud of considering the county led the state with the largest decrease in crime, a 12 percent drop in 2012.
Hudak took this opportunity to explain further the epidemic of gun violence and their efforts to call on the reinstatement of the federal assault weapon ban.
“We have lobbied and pleaded, yet congress has failed to pass any meaningful reform,” the chairman explained, pointing out in the 13 months since the Newtown deaths, “more than 35,000 Americans have died from guns, a staggering 90 or so a day.”
“Here is another statistic that should shock you even if you aren’t a parent. Approximately 7,500 children go to hospitals with gun shot wounds each year and at least 500 are killed. In Union County there were 22 homicides in 2013. The vast majority resulted from gunfire,” he added, announcing the county’s intention to follow the lead of Jersey City’s Mayor Steve Fulop, who attended the reorganization meeting to support the initiative.
“We need to hold accountable those who sell and those who manufacture guns. We need to transform the thinking about guns and it starts today in Union County,” Hudak told the audience at the reorganization meeting, pounding his fist on the podium and getting thunderous applause from those gathered.
The county will be asking gun vendors who wish to do business with the Union County several questions, including what they do to combat illegal gun trafficking; whether they sell assault weapons for civilian use; if they agree not to sell certain models of guns for civilian use and if they fund research related to gun violence and smart gun technology.
Backing that up, Hudak announced the county will be holding another gun buyback program, mentioning that last summer, more than 1,000 guns were handed over to authorities as a result of the gun buyback program conducted in Elizabeth, Linden and Plainfield.
“It was one of the most successful buy backs conducted throughout the state in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office,” he said, adding “we are striving to have an announcement for the 2014 buyback in time for summer.”
The new chairman, though, did bring up that the Union County Improvement Authority continues to scrutinize responses to the request for proposals put out regarding the operation of Runnells Hospital.
“Within the next year we will strive to take action that will secure the future of the facility that cares for our most vulnerable residents. This is a crucial decision as the facility continues to face financial hardship in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements,” he said.
Summing up, Hudak noted, “As you can see it takes teamwork to provide strong government and strong services.”
“So I call on you to join together, my colleagues, our workers, residents and the many partners and friends in this room today. Any great change or improvement rarely comes as the result of an individual effort.”