LINDEN — Four the second time in four years, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka is squaring off against 4th Ward Councilman Derek Armstead for the top job in Linden.
Four years ago, when Armstead threw his hat in the ring, he lost his bid for mayor by 200 votes. He did not make any friends among the Democratic hierarchy, either. In fact, when primary time rolled round this year, the local Democrats turned their back on Armstead and selected 5th Ward Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby-Hurling as their candidate of choice.
However, when all the votes were counted last June, Armstead won the primary and the Democrats were left with no choice but to put the 4th Ward councilman on their ticket.
The breach between Armstead and the Democratic party was clearly evident in an interview with Linden Democratic Municipal Chairman Chris Hudak late last week.
“Derek and I don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but I’m the Democratic Municipal Chairman and I will support all candidates on the Column A ticket,” said Hudak, who also is chairman of the Union County Freeholder Board, and running for reelection at the county level.
While Hudak preferred not going into detail about what took place four years ago, other sources revealed there was political backlash against Armstead in the primary because he refused to be a political team player when he challenged Gerbounka in the 2010 mayor’s race.
Hudak alluded to this when discussing Armstead running on the Democratic slate, but stopped short of publicly admitting the party was not happy with Armstead as an addition to the Democratic ticket. He praised Jorge Alverez, though, noting that the council president candidate had previously sat on the board of education and was currently a member of the Linden Planning Board.
Sources close to the Linden Democratic political circle indicated the party had no other choice but to put Armsted on the ticket because “that is how politics work.”
“The winner of the Democratic primary runs on the Democratic ticket,” was all Hudak would share regarding Armstead, admitting he had nothing more to say about the 4th Ward councilman.
Democrat sources in Linden also reported neither Linden Democrats nor higher party members were financially supporting Armstead’s campaign for mayor, or offering support by going door-to-door with him, which is the norm for when a party member is on the ticket.
Meanwhile, after almost eight years serving as the city’s mayor, Gerbounka is merely observing things from the sidelines and focusing on his own campaign for a third term overseeing the city. The current mayor is once again running as an independent.
“I have had to contend with what I was handed more than seven years ago,” the mayor said, adding and that the city is “finally beginning to see daylight.”
In an interview late last week with LocalSource, Gerbounka said that he “could not have been elected at a worse time eight years ago considering the economy was struggling to get out from under the worst recession since the great depression.”
One of the biggest challenges Gerbounka faced during his two terms was finding a way to attract buyers to former large industrial sites that were either abandoned or shut down due to the economy or the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection tightening up their requirements. This left Linden with critically reduced tax revenue desperately needed to balance the budget.
For decades, the mayor explained, the city had revenue flowing in from both light and heavy industrial companies, but that changed in the 1980s and ‘90s when many of these companies closed their doors.
However, the mayor is the first to point out that after two terms, the city is finally building a solid new tax base where heavy industry once reigned and it will put millions in Linden’s coffers.
“We finally cleared all the legal hurdles we faced on the South Wood Avenue development project and within a year we should have 176 apartment units that will be the spark that ignites the explosion on Wood Avenue,” said Gerbounka, adding young professionals will flock to the area because of easy access to the train to New York, which in turn will stimulate business in the area.
The mayor expects that within a year the city will see a dramatic change in the Wood Avenue area, in addition to $350,000 a year in tax revenue.
There are other major projects in various stages of progress throughout Linden, he said, all of which will generate millions in tax dollars for the city. One is the former General Motors site, which will be transformed into a retail and restaurant development once legal issues with ShopRite across Route 1 in Aviation Plaza are settled.
“These are frivolous lawsuits, which we are working our way through,” Gerbounka explained, fully certain that once these legal matters are resolved, it will be clear sailing ahead. For now, Duke Realty, the company handling the GM site, is completing the building of a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on the back portion of this acreage.
Another tax revenue project Gerbounka brought to the city during his tenure as mayor is an upscale warehouse project on 143 acres off of Lower Road, which will be to built by Goodman Bitcher in early 2015. The mayor pointed out that when completed the company will employ 2,000 to 3,000 people 24 hours day, seven days a week, and generate $6 million in tax revenue annually for the city.
One project that is getting the finishing touches, the mayor said, is located in the old Kmart building right off Route 1. Linden Commons is expected to open Nov. 3 with stores such as T.J. Max, Blink, and Kay Jewelers counted among the tenants.
The mayor is also very proud that Linden achieved Transit Village status, after trying for four years.
“That means we get a $1 million grant to beautify the train station,” Gerbounka said, adding that this will enable commuters to have one-stop shopping in the area, which he envisions as a “little Hoboken.”
“I’ve been working hard to bring revenue to the city of Linden,” he added, noting that negotiating a deal with Spectra Energy for a gas pipeline under the Turnpike resulted in $1.5 million in tax revenue annually going into city coffers.
But Gerbounka made it clear, negotiating deals with big business is only a small portion of what the mayor of a city the size of Linden does day to day
“I work 10 to 12 hours a day,” he said, adding he does not regret reducing the mayor’s salary by half, bringing his check down to $70,000 year. For this mayor, a former Marine who saw a tour of duty in Vietnam and later retired as a city police captain of detectives, being mayor has been about doing the right thing for city residents so they do not have to assume such a heavy tax burden.
Looking back, Gerbounka said he has everything to be proud of after two terms.
“No matter what happens Nov. 4, I’m going to wake up Nov. 5 and know I did a good job for eight years,” Gerbounka said.
Although Gerbounka was looking forward to a scheduled League of Women Voters Candidates night Oct. 7 when he and Armstead could spar over issues affecting the city, last week he heard the mayoral portion of this event was canceled because his challenger would not be available.
“I was extremely disappointed that Councilman Armstead doesn’t want to debate,” said Gerbounka, admitting that this was a loss for voters who could have seen where the councilman stood on the issues facing the city.
“I received notification about the debate from League of Women Voters member Dawn D’Beviano and sent back a letter saying I would be happy to participate. The next thing I know I received an email last week from another league member, Ada Brunner, who informed me the mayor’s portion was canceled. I was, and remain, ready and willing to participate,” the mayor said, adding that the five council president candidates will still be participating in the debate.
Although LocalSource tried multiple times last week to contact Armstead, he did not respond to these efforts.