By Ron Leir
Local Democrats – facing a lone independent candidate – maintained a stranglehold on local government with an 8-0 majority on the Kearny Town Council and Democratic Mayor Alberto Santos retaining the mayoralty with no opposition in the Nov. 5 municipal election.
In nearby North Arlington, meanwhile, the two remaining Republican incumbents on the Borough Council withstood a challenge by Democrats and the GOP even gained an additional seat in that local contest.
Borough Democrats, however, continue to hold a 4-3 majority, with Democratic Mayor Peter Massa able to vote as a tie-breaker.
Republicans Richard Hughes and Joseph Bianchi each won the right to a third three-year term on the governing body and newcomer Daniel Pronti will join them as the third GOP member. Pronti will serve out the unexpired term of former Councilman Steve Tanelli, who gave up his seat to make a successful run for freeholder last November.
The unofficial tally, as reported by the Borough Clerk, had Bianchi on top with 1,985 votes, followed by Pronti with 1,935 and Hughes with 1,889. For the defeated Dems, incumbent Peter Norcia led the way with 1,738, and newcomers Daniel Castro and Jean Williams garnered 1,736 and 1,729, respectively.
In their campaign material, local Dems took credit for restructuring the borough’s debt, getting the county to renovate playing fields in Riverside County Park for borough use and engineering the sale of the old transfer station property. And they slammed the GOP incumbents for what they characterized as big spending habits, voting for an expensive suit against a regional water utility and neglecting redevelopment opportunities. But voters didn’t buy it.
Asked to assess the damage to his party, Massa blamed a disappointing voter turnout, coupled with local GOP benefiting from the “long coattails” of the huge victory margin of Gov. Chris Christie in his bid for re-election, plus “the local Republicans put up candidates who were popular with voters.”
“But, like they used to say in Brooklyn,” Massa added, “wait ‘till next year! The local Democrats will regroup and fight for the good of the community. And I’m anticipating I’ll be voting on some ties to break.”
Bianchi, who said he felt “humbled” by voters returning him to office, agreed that Christie’s walloping of Dems challenger State Sen. Barbara Buono “had a lot to do with it.” Also, by and large, he said, “the people we ran against nobody knew.”
Over the next three years, Bianchi said, residents can look forward to a “bright future” with new revenues flowing to the borough “as the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission begins selling off properties in North Arlington.” With those funds, Bianchi said, “we can start doing things for our children and we can start concentrating on fixing our streets and sidewalks.”
Back in Kearny, First Ward Councilwoman Alexa Arce handily defeated a bid by independent challenger Alex Valdez to unseat her by a margin of more than 3-to-1, with Arce garnering 541 votes to Valdez’s total of 161.
Valdez, 21, a member of the Kearny Municipal Utilities Authority who is completing a political science degree at Rutgers University, previously worked on the successful Jersey City mayoral campaign of Steven Fulop. In his campaign, Valdez, an infantryman with the N.J. National Guard, talked about such issues as widening “community policing” to beef up crime protection in the First Ward, expanding recreational opportunities for children and focusing on “open dialogue” with residents.
In the Second Ward, newcomer Richard Konopka was elected to the council seat being vacated at the end of the year by incumbent Madeline Peyko, who opted not to run again after having served since Nov. 2009.
Konopka, 50, had no opposition for the seat. Although this will mark his first elective office, he has served on the Kearny Zoning Board of Adjustment for 13 years, the last two as chairman. “After Madeline decided to retire, the mayor asked me if I would consider running for a council seat in the Second Ward where I’ve lived for almost 17 years,” he said.
A 32-year employee of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, where he’s worked since age 18, Konopka said he aims to work with his council mates to “keep taxes in line” and to provide for a “better quality of life.” One priority, he said, would be to implement a plan for a new pump station to prevent residential and business flooding on the east side of Schuyler Ave. He’s also keeping an eye on the proposed Schuyler Crossing residential development.
Konopka and his Brazilianborn wife Nelia have two sons, ages 3 and 10, and he has another son, 30, from a prior marriage.
Third Ward Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle and Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Landy, each running uncontested, were returned to their seats.
Santos, who will begin a new four-year term as mayor, anticipates increasing fiscal pressures in maintaining existing municipal services in the face of contracting state and federal aid. If that trend continues, Santos said, “there is going to be a collision between what residents want and what we can provide.” Suggestions to “regionalize” municipal services are misguided, Santos said, because “it doesn’t lead to significant savings” but it does “lead to reduction in services with fewer employees.”
“There is value to [the state-mandated] 2% budget cap so long as inflation is around that level,” the mayor said. But he said any gains from exercising that spending constraint have been overshadowed by the town’s loss of an estimated $20 million in energy and other revenues that the state has “captured” over the last decade.
“We’re still in the early stages of preparing our 2014 budget but I’m expecting it will be very tight again,” Santos said. “As people retire, we’ll have to hire part-timers as a band-aid approach to filling that gap.”