The Tanelli effect: Bergen freeholder from North Arlington discusses how board’s fight with Donovan could affect mayoral, County Exec’s races

Bergen County Freeholder Steve Tanelli.

NORTH ARLINGTON – A local joke in North Arlington, Bergen County’s southernmost borough, is that the town is “more dead than alive,” with the 250,000 permanent residents of Holy Cross Cemetery far outnumbering the 15,000 living citizens.

But North Arlington’s own Steve Tanelli, a Bergen County freeholder, told PolitickerNJ how his hometown could play a lively role in two key elections: the North Arlington mayor’s race and the Bergen County executive’s race.

Tanelli, a Democrat, served on the North Arlington borough council until he was elected to the freeholder board in 2012. Tanelli’s time on the board has been at times tough, largely because of some contentious interactions with Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, a Republican.

Donovan and the freeholder board are engaged in a protracted political and legal struggle over the the proposed merger of the Bergen County Police Department and the county’s Sheriff’s Office. Donovan is opposed to the plan, while the majority of the freeholder board, now controlled by the Democrats by a 5-2 veto-proof margin, supports the move. The final decision depends on the outcome of ongoing legal battles related to the merger proposal.

As part of this wider struggle, Donovan has called on two Democratic freeholders, Steve Tanelli and David Ganz, whose son and daughter respectively are employed by the Sheriff’s Office, to recuse themselves from law enforcement issues.

Tanelli, whose son Dan is an investigator with the crime scene unit, and Ganz, whose daughter Pam works as a clerk for the sheriff, declined to do so. Then in March, Donovan attempted to add an ethics complaint against Tanelli and Ganz into the continuing police merger lawsuit. A Bergen County Superior Court Judge ultimately decided not to allow Donovan to amend the suit to include the ethics complaint.

Tanelli stuck to his stance that any suggested relationship between his position supporting the police merger and his son’s employment is “a non-factor.”

“My son got his job long before I was even a candidate for freeholder, let alone an actual, sitting freeholder,” Tanelli said. “That was one of my biggest problems with [Donovan] bringing him up.”

Two elections are coming in up in November that resonate for Tanelli. In North Arlington, Democratic incumbent Mayor Peter Massa and his Republican challenger, Councilman Joe Bianchi, are locked in what some observers see as a potentially close contest befitting a town in which the six-member council is evenly divided.

One key issue in the race centers on North Arlington’s redevelopment efforts. Massa doesn’t believe that a separate redevelopment authority is necessary to generate more revenue and subsequent tax relief for the town. Bianchi, however, believes that North Arlington needs an independent redevelopment board, one not comprised of the mayor and council as it is now, to institute these plans more effectively.

“[The North Arlington mayoral candidates] are both well-liked gentlemen, and both served on the council for years. They’re both lifers in town. The difference, in my opinion, is that you have a person who is a leader and person who is not a leader,” said Tanelli, explaining his support for Massa. “In a small community that’s strapped for money, you need a person that can step up and make decisions.

“I never lost an election in North Arlington. I believe people trust me. If I back a candidate, it may have some influence on some people in the borough,” Tanelli added, addressing the borough’s 8,000 registered voters. “I think [Donovan] is going to be held accountable by the way she governs, and she governs by lawsuit, not compromise. She continues to lose on the sheriff’s contract. That’s been heard and heard again, and she lost at every turn. But she continues to not honor the contract. Again, it’s her way or a lawsuit.”

One reason Donovan remains convinced of victory is her ties to the South Bergen municipalities of Lyndhurst, North Arlington and Rutherford, where Donovan grew up, went to high school, and currently resides, respectively. Conventional political wisdom holds that Democratic candidates, including Donovan’s challenger, Freeholder Jim Tedesco, do better south of Route 4, while Republicans rule to the north of the road. Donovan believes she will buck this trend.

Tanelli, viewing this election from the prism of his blue-collar, middle-class, Meadowlands municipality, thinks otherwise.

“Having a tightly-contested mayoral race in North Arlington will generate people to go out to the polls. I believe that’s a good thing for the county executive’s race,” Tanelli said. “I think that in towns like North Arlington and Lyndhurst, there is more support for Jim Tedesco than Kathe Donovan. She’s in the last year of a term that she’s done nothing but sue everyone. And I hope that I can have a positive impact on the results.” The Tanelli effect: Bergen freeholder from North Arlington discusses how board’s fight with Donovan could affect mayoral, County Exec’s races