Leonard R. “Lenny” Kaiser, the former mayor of North Arlington and a fixture in Bergen County politics and government for 34 years, died Sept. 11, 2021 after a short illness.
He was 73.
Kaiser was elected to the North Arlington Borough Council in 1977 and won election as Mayor in 1983. He went on to win four more consecutive terms, becoming the longest serving mayor in the borough’s history (1983-2002).
In 1985, Kaiser won election to the Bergen County Freeholder Board (now Board of County Commissioners). He ran and won again in 1986 because voters approved a change to the county’s form of government the previous year.
In 1987, Kaiser found himself running yet again for freeholder, but he lost by a narrow margin.
After serving two years as freeholder, Kaiser was tapped to serve as County Executive Bill McDowell’s chief of staff, and was later hired by County Executive William “Pat” Schuber to serve as his aide for municipal and labor relations.
In 2002, Kaiser was picked to serve as a commissioner at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), where he represented South Bergen’s citizenry until 2008. He was hired as executive director of the Bergen County Utilities Authority (BCUA), retiring in 2009.
During his six-year tenure at the BCUA, he undertook a number of initiatives, including the construction of the Overpeck Valley Relief Sewer, which is one of the largest capital projects in the organization’s history. He also oversaw the construction of a cogeneration power plant.
With his retirement from the BCUA, Kaiser ended 34 years of public service.
GETTING THINGS DONE
Kaiser leaves a legacy of many governmental accomplishments and a reputation for working with members of both political parties to accomplish important things for the people. Little highlights his bipartisan skills better than his handling of the North Arlington mine shaft crisis in the fall of 1989.
Residents on the eastern part of town woke up in late November to find that most of their backyards were gone, replaced by massive holes overlooking the New Jersey Meadowlands. Kaiser rushed to the scene with the borough administrator to evaluate the damage. By 9 p.m. that day, he called a meeting with affected residents, telling them not to worry, “we are going to find out what is causing this and fix the problem and return your neighborhood to normal.”
At stake for the residents was the loss of their homes. The cave-ins were caused by abandoned copper mines from the pre-and post-Revolutionary War era that were improperly closed and were now caving in. Among other things, copper was used during the war to line the hulls of U.S Navy ships. About 75 houses were built atop the maze of tunnels since the mine had closed and sealed in the early 1900s. There were about 40 vertical air shafts in town.
A team of mine experts assessed the problem and devised a way to fill in the mine shafts properly. The problem was how to pay for it.
In typical Lenny Kaiser fashion, he reached across the political aisle and called Democratic Congressman Robert Torricelli for help. Torricelli found a unique way to get federal money for the work. Working with his staff, he found information that one of the first U.S. Congresses vowed to pay reparations for materials used during the Revolutionary War.
Torricelli attached $2.2 million for North Arlington to a Defense Department appropriations bill – and the legislation passed – making North Arlington the last known community to receive federal payments for activities dating to the Revolutionary War.
Kaiser managed to get another $500,000 in federal grant money through the county government and an additional $200,000 from the state. With the money in hand, all the mine shafts were safely closed.
Recreation & senior citizens
Kaiser was most proud of being the Mayor of North Arlington. A graduate of Queen of Peace High School, Kaiser maintained a love for the borough throughout his life. As mayor, his priorities were recreation, senior citizens and tax relief.
As a former baseball and basketball coach, Kaiser made sure children had proper playing facilities. He updated playgrounds, carved out new parks and worked with the school board to add gymnasiums to two borough schools. He created the borough’s first Recreation Center to give school children a safe place to go after school. He created a soccer field at Skyline Park, later renamed Zadroga Park, after the son of a former borough police chief who died from complications after responding to Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
Kaiser was always attentive to needs of senior citizens and brought the Meals-on-Wheels program and paratransit bus service to the borough, along with a senior nutrition site. He created and financed the annual Senior Prom dinner dance for the elderly, and also developed a borough-financed visiting home health care program for seniors.
A strong supporter of community volunteers, Kaiser updated firefighting equipment in the borough and adopted an annuity program for the firefighters, called Length of Service Awards Program, that would allow them to collect a modest pension.
Kaiser pioneered the payment of Host Community Fees to the borough from the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission and later the NJMC, and the BCUA, which operated landfills and a trash baler in the borough. He demanded the agencies pay for the impact of their dumping activities. And they did. Kaiser’s administration began collecting millions of dollars a year in host fees from the trash business.
He used the money to make improvements to the town and to offset property taxes.
Among Kaiser’s most significant accomplishments was the creation of the Porete Avenue Redevelopment Area – the first such designation in Bergen County. He brought sanitary sewers to the area and established zoning criteria, which transformed a rundown, overgrown area of the Meadowlands into land suitable for development that raised revenue for the borough and created jobs.
While he was mayor, Kaiser formed the North Arlington Education Foundation to save sports programs the board of education was going to abolish at North Arlington High School.
The Education Foundation went on to form the North Arlington School Age Child Care program (SACC) filling the borough’s need for after-school child care. Over time, before-school care and summer day camp programs were added to the list of services provided to the community. The board of education supplies the facilities and the foundation raises the funds to provide the programs.
The SACC program was the first of its kind in New Jersey, and it was recognized at the time by Gov. James Florio as a model for all.
While working in county government for the Schuber Administration, Kaiser shepherded a bill through the state legislature creating the Bergen County Central Municipal Court. This first-of-its-kind legislation, approved in 1996, allowed the county to adjudicate cases filed by agents of the county government at a special court in the county court system.
While a member of The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission from 2002 to 2008, Kaiser helped oversee the transformation of the wetlands area into both an economic engine for Bergen and Hudson counties and a natural, protected environmental landscape.
He valued loyalty
Despite all his governmental and political accomplishments, Kaiser is perhaps best well known for his loyalty and his desire to help people in need. Anyone with a legitimate need for assistance, be it a job, health benefits or transportation, Kaiser stepped up to help – regardless of the person’s political affiliation. He was proud that he never turned his back on a friend and was loyal to a fault – although that loyalty was not always returned.
Possessed with an encyclopedic mind on decades of politics, Kaiser could recall the results of political races decades ago, the names of nearly every person who served in local government and background stories on issues that never make the media. He could spend hours talking about politics and government and was a terrific resource for anyone who cared about local events. He also had a great sense of humor serving up deadpan expressions and witty sarcasm.
Born in Jersey City, Kaiser was predeceased by his parents Harry and Edna Kaiser. He is survived by his loving wife Barbara, cherished daughter Amy Coleman (Chris), cherished stepchildren Michael Kraft (Christina) and Cindy Smithlin (Zachary) and five adoring grandchildren: Jack and Kayla Coleman, Cameron Kraft, and Luke and Jared Smithlin. In addition, he is survived by his sister Catherine Quigley, and three nephews.
The Kaiser family is in the care of the Costa Memorial Home, 170 Central Ave., Hasbrouck Heights. (costamemorialhome.com) In lieu of flowers, donations to The W. Cary Edwards Foundation, 6 Mill Brook Lane, Franklin Lakes, N.J. 07417 are appreciated.
What People Have to Say About Leonard ‘Lenny” Kaiser
Former Congressman and U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli
“Lenny Kaiser was model of civic leadership who reached across the aisle to anyone to address the interests of his community. I couldn’t speak more highly of him.”
Bergen County Commissioner Steve Tanelli
“My thoughts and prayers are with the Keiser family during this difficult time. Lenny demonstrated that there was no Democrat or Republican way to pave a street. He knew that once the elections were over, everyone needed to work together for our constituents. People in government today should take a page out of Lenny’s book and learn to work together – it can’t always be about campaigning.
Former Bergen County Executive William “Pat” Schuber
Lenny Kaiser served my administration and the people of Bergen County with distinction. What he did for us – serving as a liaison between county government, labor unions and municipalities was important work that he was ideally qualified for. The effort he put in that resulted in Bergen County having the first central municipal court in the state was immensely beneficial to the county. Lenny was a rare talent and he will be missed by the many lives he touched.
Former Lyndhurst Mayor and Bergen County Democratic Party Chairman Lou Stellato
We served as mayors at about the same time in the 1980’s and 1990’s and Lenny was a true champion for South Bergen. We were on different sides of the political aisle, but after the election, differences were put aside and it was about helping people. He was a good speaker with a keen wit and a strong institutional knowledge of South Bergen government that few people today can match.
Former East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella
Lenny was a good friend and great person. He learned how to govern from one of the best leaders – Bill McDowell – and he passed that on to me. He taught me how to govern in the Meadowlands Districts and most importantly, how a mayor should first and foremost work for the community.