CRANFORD — Changing political winds swept in a new governing body regime to Cranford on New Year’s Day.
At the New Year’s Day reorganization meeting, Republican Andy Kalnins, now in the third year of his first three-year term on the governing body, was nominated as chairman of the governing body, and was unanimously elected by the township committee to serve in the honorary role of mayor.
He touched on some of the issues facing the township in 2014 after being sworn in, providing insight to how this Republican majority intended to handle issues in the coming year.
“We have many challenges ahead of us. We need to continue to balance the services we need and want with the cost to provide them,” he said, adding “we need to ensure that our community is safe through a healthy police and fire department.”
The mayor went on to say the township needed to improve roads, the downtown, Centennial Village and public buildings while not creating an unbearable debt for taxpayers. Kalnins said he was confident that together the governing body could forge ahead and conquer the problems facing this municipality in 2014.
“We will get to where we want to be through planning and implementing those plans in a responsible way,” he said.
One of the issues Kalnins put particular emphasis on was the governing body’s continued effort to fight the Birchwood development, something that has been on-going for years.
“We are coming to a critical point in our Birchwood builder’s remedy lawsuit. We have a public DEP hearing on Jan. 16 right here in this room at 6 p.m. to have our story heard,” the mayor explained, pointing out that it was “ridiculous to build in an environmentally sensitive flood zone.”
“We continue to prepare for that hearing as well as getting the public involved to have their voices heard. At the same time we have the appeal of the case getting ready to be filed,” he said, adding “that appeal will give us the chance to prove that the project itself is not right.”
Kalnins also brought up the issue of flood control, which the township has been fighting for since Tropical Storm Floyd hit the northeastern side of the township in 1999, causing millions in damage.
“We have lost some of our steam in fighting for flood control here in Cranford. With the huge impact of superstorm Sandy some of the spotlight that was helping us with the Army Corps of Engineers and federal funding has been moved to other areas. We need to keep the focus on our needs by working with our surrounding towns that will also be affected by the new levels of flooding on the Rahway River,” the mayor explained.
He also noted that the township will push for the release of the Army Corps of Engineering report while “funding lobbyists in Washington to obtain the funding we need to mitigate the damage that we have seen too many times.”
Kalnins had no doubt, though, that the township would accomplish the tasks that lie ahead.
“We will be able to do these things and many more because we have five competent people on this township committee, all of whom are dedicated to this town and making it the kind of place we want to continue to live in and raise our families in,” he said.
While many of the winds of change on the governing body will come as the year progresses, the fact power shifted on the governing body from Democrat to Republican control is especially noteworthy.
Now, with four Republicans seated and lone Democrat and former mayor Tom Hannen left to fend for himself on the governing body, it remains to be seen exactly how this will bode for issues shot down by the Democrat controlled committee last year.
One pivotal moment was when Kalnins’s made his mayoral appointments assigning commissioners to the departments they would head.
For example, the mayor assigned Hannen, who spent last year entrenched in running the township, to oversee public affairs. This particular area, which includes health and recreation, is usually given to a newcomer on the governing body due to the fact there is little controversy, financial concern or employee issues at hand.
Kalnins handed newcomer and political party member Mary O’Connor, who has no municipal experience under her belt, the charge of overseeing the public safety department. This area, which includes police and fire, continually is weighed down with contractual issues, controversy and employee unrest due to leadership problems.
The mayor also charged newly elected Commisoner Robert D’Ambola with public works and engineering, while Deputy Mayor Lisa Abubato, with two years on the governing body, was left to oversee the challenged finance department.
Despite these decisions on the part of Kalnins, when it came down to who would serve as township attorney,political interests appeared to be set aside in favor of selecting a legal advisor without baggage.
Previously the township sent out a request for proposals to fill the 2014 township attorney position and Phil Morin’s firm Florio, Perucci Steinhardt & Fader responded to that request, along with Cranford’s 2013 attorney Dan McCarthy and his firm, Rogut, McCarthy, and local attorney Bob Donovan.
Although the public was not privy to discussions that surfaced involving the final decision, the fact that questions came up earlier this year about Morin having a conflict of interest in representing the township in a Birchwood matter appeared to weigh heavily in the final outcome.
According to sources, elected officials were concerned about the number of emails they received from residents who felt there was a conflict of interest in Morin being appointed as township attorney. Coupled with residents who spoke out at township meetings, the incoming governing body decided to appoint Rogut McCarthy, from Cranford, the same firm that filled this role last year under Democratic control.
The only exception is that the committee voted unanimously at the reorganization meeting for Diane Debulas, of Rogut McCarthy, to step in as township attorney for a one-year term, not Dan McCarthy, who previously held the position.
Debulas is no stranger to the township’s issues, having sat in on governing body meetings when McCarthy was not available. This move will allow township legal affairs to hit the ground running and not require bringing a new attorney up to speed.
Certainly other major issues, such as the controversial decision of whether the township should change its form of government, could be back on the table this year.
Last year that decision was strongly supported by the Republican minority which consisted of Kalnins and Adubato, but rejected by Hannen, who held the deciding vote on whether to move forward or not.