HILLSIDE – Although Mayor Joe Menza was hoping to receive the support of voters in a run-off mayoral election last week against Councilwoman Angela Garretson, it failed to materialize. Garretson’s supporters flooded the polls, ushering her into the seat by a margin of 380 votes.
The special election was held because during the general election on Nov. 5 neither candidate managed to garner 50 percent of the vote, which is required by Hillside’s form of government in order to be declared the winner.
According to the Union County Board of Elections Administrator Dennis Kobitz, Garretson ended up with 1,936 votes and Menza 1,556. These numbers did not include the 10 provisional, or paper ballots.
In an interview with LocalSource, Garretson admitted she was experiencing a wide range of emotions since hearing she won the mayor’s seat.
“This has been amazing journey and very humbling,” said the Democrat councilwoman who is wrapping up her first four-year term on the governing body.
The mayor elect said she felt very strongly that her campaign of focusing on bringing the community together and not being divisive helped voters decide she would be able to provide the leadership Hillside needs at this time.
“I think the residents of Hillside are tired of divisiveness. They want a mayor who can provide the leadership needed,” said Garretson, adding she ran for the mayors seat because she “had pride as a Hillside resident and I want our residents to feel that same pride in our town.”
Garretson said she plans to take her seat as mayor with a plan in hand and a transition team in place on Jan. 1 when she takes the oath of office at 1 p.m. in town hall.
“We need to go into town hall with a plan and a vision. I’m not going in blindly. I intend to give each employee and every resident the respect they deserve and provide transparency and accessibility,” she said, pointing out that she strongly felt people truly wanted change.
The mayor elect, though, is well aware she has her work cut out, but stressed that her mayoral style will be quite different from Menza’s.
“My leadership style is different than Joe’s. I plan to be receptive to what council’s vision is for Hillside and I will share my own vision with them,” Garretson said, adding that she intends to represent the people, not political interests.
Although Garretson did not have the support of Hillside’s Democrat Municipal Chairman Charlotte D’Filippo, who remained neutral during the run off election, she did have many political allies, including Union County Democratic County Chairman Jerry Green, who rolled out the political red carpet when it came to standing behind the Hillside mayoral candidate. Garretson explained that thanks to Democrat leaders such as State Sen. Ray Lesniak and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, she was able to get her message to the community, who then rallied to her support.
“I believe having the support of the unions and campaigning for more transparency really was effective,” she added.
Menza, on the other hand, was gracious about the loss, preferring to focus on what he achieved as mayor the last four years.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done. I think I was the right person at the right time for the job,” the mayor added.
“Look, I can be proud because when I became mayor four years ago I inherited a $3.6 million deficit and today we have no deficit, $800,000 in surplus, and two years running with a zero tax increase,” Menza explained, adding Garretson “has her work cut out.”
“In Hillside you aren’t a ribbon cutting mayor, you are a working mayor and things get tough,” he said, mentioning that Garretson will face the same challenges he did – a council that controls the purse strings.
Would he do it all again if given the opportunity? Laughing heartily, Menza confesses that things were different four years ago.
“First of all I had a lot more hair and it wasn’t so gray,” he quipped, but added there were moments that made it all worth it, such as in 2012 when he earned the title of Gateway Regional Chamber’s Mayor of the year.
“You have to love a moment like that because it speaks to who you are as a mayor of a community. Was it easy? No, it was a lot of work, but I’m proud to say I made changes that were needed and the taxpayers were the benefit of that,” Menza said.