Holding to old traditions, Nutley strives for new rateables

NUTLEY – What passes for civic pride in most places would be a form of
indifference in Nutley, where anything less than total commitment to the
town probably means a person is not a Nutley native.

A transplant can endeavor to be a Nutleyite, but it’s a running joke that
one can never put in enough time.

“I’ve been in the community for 35 years,” Planning Board Chairman Phil McGovern told the Nutley Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night in Town Hall, and he paused, seeming to expect the moment of agitation in the room that followed his remark.

“I’m from Jersey City,” he explained, as if the proximity of that Hudson
County town might improve his case.

“In another five years, you can call yourself a Nutleyite,” Commissioner
Tom Evans told him, and when Mayor Joanne Cocchiola-Oliver added of
McGovern, “His wife is from Nutley,” the resulting laughter let McGovern
know it was all right.

There are the block parties, parades, Easter Egg hunts, high school sports and theatrical productions. But a big part of what makes public life special to those from this quiet northern Essex County town of 27,000 is politics.

Of Nutley’s 17,000 registered voters, an average of 8,000 – 9,000 or 50% turn out for municipal elections.

As in any Jersey burgh, nail salons, pizza parlors and pharmacies fill up
the downtown, but it doesn’t take a second look to see storefronts
everywhere decked out with oversized campaign signs less than two months before Election Day May 13.

Part of what makes politics unique is the commissioner form of government in Nutley, one of just a handful of New Jersey towns to employ such a model.

“When I grew up here, the commissioners were the town fathers,” said
Evans. “If you’re a commissioner, it means you stand for someone greater than yourself.”

Housed on the third floor of Town Hall, the commissioners’ chamber
features gold leaf on the glass door leading to the stairs, but otherwise
appears almost Dutch Reform-like in its pared-down paneled features.

“Each of the five commissioners runs his or her own department, and is
responsible for the budget of that department. That means there’s complete accountability,” said Assemblyman Fred Scalara (D-Essex), a Nutley native, deputy fire chief and career Nutley firefighter. “You can’t hide on the
commission.”

Come the campaign season, neither can those running for commissioner hide on a slate of candidates, depend on a party slogan, a distinguishing A line or powerful organization to carry them.

Races are nonpartisan, and each candidate runs alone. The top five vote getters win, and traditionally the person who receives the most votes becomes mayor. Commissioners make $2,200 apiece. The mayor earns $2,700.

“I remember a friend from Hudson County came in to help in one of our
campaigns here, and he pointed out that our candidate had the A line,”
recalled Scalara. “He, of course, noted this as an advantage, which it
would be in Hudson. But we had to tell him, here in Nutley, all of those
running have the A line.”

This year, the ballot features four incumbents: Mayor Joanne
Cocchiola, commissioner of public affairs; Parks and Recreation
Commissioner Mauro Tucci; Revenue and Finance Commissioner Thomas Evans; and Public Safety Commissioner Carmen Orechio. A fifth commissioner, Peter Scarpelli, who heads the Department of Public Works, is retiring.

The challengers include Sal Olivo, Al Petracco, Joseph Scarpelli and Frank Turano, all Nutley business owners.

Everyone running for office acknowledges that Nutley needs rateables to
offset dwindling state aid and the higher residential taxes accompanying
increased property valuations. The flip side of that worry is that no one
wants development that would threaten Nutley’s traditions.

Pharmaceuticals giant Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. generates the most revenue for the town with $8 million per year in taxes. Now the candidates say Nutley needs another anchor.

But unless the business newcomer understands the particular culture here and respects what Nutley means to the families who have made it what it is – forget about it, say the locals.

Holding to old traditions, Nutley strives for new rateables