Potential mayoral battle looms in Secaucus

Secaucus can seem a little out of place in Hudson County.

Despite the looming New York City skyline, the Meadowlands-buffered town of about 16,000 is far more suburban than most of its county counterparts and seems to share more in common with neighboring South Bergen towns than Jersey City.

But just because everybody knows everybody doesn’t mean politics here are polite, and a race with the potential to get ugly is already shaping up.

Mayor Dennis Elwell, a Democrat who’s serving out the end of his third term, plans to run again. He has the support of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, and isn’t expected to face much of a challenge in the primary, though local attorney Peter Weiner has told at least one Hudson County official that he intends to run for the party’s nomination. And Republican Frank MacCormack, the octogenarian who ran a long-shot campaign against Elwell in 2005, is so disenchanted with the county’s Republican organization that he does not plan to run again.

The real challenge for Elwell will be if Councilman Michael Gonnelli runs. Gonnelli is town’s former Superintendent of Public Works and the all but official head of the socially important volunteer fire department – which makes up his political power base. Although he describes himself as a lifelong Democrat, he’s currently an independent, and if he runs, he will be challenging Elwell in the November general election rather than the primary.

Gonnelli, who is allied with half of the town’s six-member council and sits on the Meadowlands Commission, acknowledged this week that he is mulling a run.

“I’m definitely considering running, I haven’t made up my mind 100 percent yet,” he said.

Gonnelli said that he’s running on a platform of honest and open government: new pay-to-play restrictions and televised town council meetings.

“We’ve tried to push pay to play, televised meetings – we keep getting knocked down. There’s a need for more open government, and I don’t think currently it’s happening,” he said. “I think like anything else, it’s time for change, some fresh ideas, new ideas.”

This won’t be Gonnelli’s first confrontation with the mayor. He named him in a pending lawsuit – Gonnelli’s second involving the town – along with the town’s former Administrator, Anthony Iacoco, alleging harassment against him and his wife and a hostile work environment. Gonnelli claims the harassment stems from his refusal to vote the way the mayor wanted him to on a gas station project at the local Wal-Mart.

Gonnelli’s critics point to his association with Public Works Assistant Director Chuck Snyder, a former volunteer fireman who was sued for harassing a gay couple who lived next to the North End Firehouse. Ultimately, the town, which was sued for not doing anything about it, had to pay $4.8 million to the couple for damages and legal fees.

Snyder eventually stepped down from the fire department after Elwell and his council allies attempted to force him to quit, although Gonnelli and his allies did not call for his resignation. Snyder’s backers, however, argued that he was a fall man for the mayor.

But Gonnelli counters that he had nothing to do with the episode.

“They continually try to tie me into that, with something I had nothing to do with,” he said. “I wasn’t there. I wasn’t a chief, a councilman, I had absolutely no involvement. On the other hand the mayor was there, he did go to meetings with these guys and he didn’t take any action.”

Pat Politano, Elwell’s political consultant, argued that Gonnelli’s opposition only came after Elwell and the council refused a lucrative retirement package for him when he decided to retire as superintendent of public works.

“Mike was a very good Public Works superintendent,” he said. “Until the mayor and council said that [the retirement package] was unreasonable, Mike was all for the government. He was part of it. I don’t understand how he comes back and characterizes himself as something new.”

Politano said that Elwell has been a successful mayor, not raising taxes for most of his term and improving the town’s quality of life, even making it onto New Jersey Monthly’s list of best towns to live in. .

“I use him as a model to the [Marlboro Mayor] John Horniks of the world, these younger guys,” he said. “You move into town and within a couple weeks Dennis is going to knock on your door. They run very good, efficient government.”

Potential mayoral battle looms in Secaucus