By Ron Leir
With five months left in her term, Nutley Mayor Joanne Cocchiola is resigning Dec. 30 to become the township’s first female municipal court judge.
Cocchiola, who is serving her second 4-year term as the township’s chief executive, announced Dec. 9 she would step down as the Township Council appointed her to fill the vacancy created by the recent death of Judge Michael Viola.
The part-time mayor’s post carries a salary of $2,750 a year; the salary ordinance for municipal court judge provides for a minimum of $51,000 ranging up to $61,000 a year.
Township Attorney Kevin Harkins said that under state law, the four remaining township commissioners can select a temporary replacement for mayor from among the four of them to serve until the May 2012 municipal election.
Harkins said the commissioners would have to act within a certain statutory time limit which he said he’s currently researching.
If the commissioners can’t agree on a replacement, then, by state law, the Revenue and Finance commissioner – currently Tom Evan – would assume the mayor’s duties. By law, the interim mayor’s title would be “vice president of the board of commissioners,” according to Harkins.
In a phone interview Monday, Cocchiola – who has served the past 11 years as an associate counsel for the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority – said she’s asked the New Jersey Supreme Court if she could continue serving in that public job while working as a judge but she said she hasn’t yet received a reply. She said she’s prepared to step down from that job, if she has to.
Asked how the judgeship situation came about, Cocchiola said that Viola called her several months ago to say he was retiring. Then he fell ill and passed away Nov. 28, she said.
“Well, I’m a lawyer,” Cocchiola said. “And I never had an interest in a judgeship.”
But then it occurred to her, Cocchiola continued, that “it could be a way to trailblaze in this area. There’s never been a female judge in Nutley. And I thought it would be much more meaningful than being appointed a Superior Court judge because I’d be sitting right here in my town. And I had only intended to run for one more term (as commissioner), anyway.”
So Cocchiola said she approached her fellow commissioners “just to say I had this thought (of serving as municipal judge).”
After a thorough venting of all the issues associated with the move, the governing body concluded it was the right way to, she said.
Cocchiola will fill out the remainder of Viola’s term through the May 15, 2012 township commission reorganization meeting and, at that point, the commission will decide whether to reappoint her to a full three-year term.
Cocchiola said she feels “a little sad” about exiting political life “but very excited because I feel I can make a difference in another area, continuing to make a commitment to the town I love.”
Cocchiola, who was a deputy state attorney general for 15 years before entering the local political arena, winning election to the township commission in 2000, said she’s proud of “putting this town on the map” by getting state recognition for being one of eight “healthy” towns in New Jersey through her creation of the local “Wellness Challenge.”
Cocchiola said she’s also done her best to “add all kinds of programs for women in this town. I’ve done my best to serve as honorably as I can.”