Monday, September 25, 2017

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Troyer (school district) and Simone (business district) bring concerns to council

The town council meeting of June 27 was not without controversy. The bulk of the meeting was reserved for community award presentations and the like; council members announced upcoming events and programs; a large number of town hires was made (front page for article on this part of the meeting.) When Mayor Mike Gonnelli called for citizens’ comments at the end of the business portion of the meeting, and perennial provocateur Tom Troyer approached the microphone, the fireworks began. Troyer has a knack for interjecting controversy with his questions and commentaries at both town council and school board meetings; however, history has shown that he very often is correct in his predictions and observations.

Troyer, who served as an elected member of the school board for many years, and who, therefore, has a vast knowledge of the inner workings of the board, came before the mayor and council last Tuesday evening with commentary and questions about the school board’s recent quest to hire a new superintendent of schools. The Garry Street resident, who is also a former teacher, expressed his disappointment that one of the applicants for the superintendent’s job was bypassed by the board of education. Dr. Robert Berckes, principal of Secaucus High School, applied for the superintendent’s position, but after two interviews with the board, was not asked back. Troyer explained that at the most recent school board meeting of June 15 he planned on inquiring about the status of the superintendent search and more particularly, about Berckes’ standing. However, when the SHS principal arrived at the meeting and told Troyer that he was no longer being considered for the job, Troyer left before the meeting even started. Troyer, at the council meeting, slowly wended his way to his main point for addressing the council, and especially his frequent sparring partner, Mayor Gonnelli. Troyer offered that when one forms an opinion, it’s usually based on life experience. “It’s even slower [harder] to change an opinion, and, in my opinion, the school board is making a mistake by not hiring Bob Berckes.”

The resident and former school trustee argued that the new superintendent should come from within the district. In an attempt to prove that his opinions were often right, Troyer brought up the board’s hiring of John Scheiner in July 2015 at a special meeting as the new buildings and grounds supervisor for the district. (That meeting was technically an illegal one as notice of the meeting was not given to the press.) When Troyer learned at a subsequent board meeting about Scheiner’s hiring, he asked for Scheiner’s qualifications and questioned then and at subsequent meetings whether he (Scheiner) was qualified for the job. (Troyer reiterated on several occasions that he liked Scheiner and had nothing personal against the man.) Board trustees at the time praised Scheiner expansively, and one (Kathy O’Connell) pointed to his saving the board $700,000 on the high school construction job only one month into the job. Kelli D’Addetta, who is no longer a school trustee, admonished Troyer for “insulting” the board with his remarks. Troyer asked how Scheiner had saved the board such a large sum in only one month, but the board attorney advised the trustees to not divulge the information. Mayor Gonnelli did, however. Gonnelli was permitted to speak at the meeting, even though he had not signed in to speak (the board follows a strict procedure for citizen comments). The mayor said that Scheiner had “sealed the deal” on the purchase of concrete barriers at the construction site. Turning to Scheiner, Gonnelli said, “So, John, good job.”

John Scheiner tendered his resignation to the school board at its September 22, 2016, meeting, a little over a year after he was hired. The town later rehired him to its Department of Public Works where he was previously employed. Troyer, at the current town council meeting, seemed to imply that Mayor Gonnelli was involved with the hiring of Scheiner to the school job, and is currently involved in the decision on who will be the next superintendent of schools. Gonnelli adamantly denied these allegations.

Troyer asked the council members, but especially the mayor, their opinions on the hiring of the school superintendent. “No one understands you,” Gonnelli flatly told Troyer. “We don’t know what you’re talking about. We have no say in school board matters and we have no opinions [on the search for the superintendent].” He advised Troyer to take his inquiries to the school board. Troyer said he would, and while leaving the lectern, uttered one word: “Ridiculous.”

The controversy didn’t end there, however, as Stefano Simone approached the council. The owner of Stefano’s Jewelry and Art Gallery on the Plank Road near the post office, Simone is the unofficial spokesperson for Plaza Center storeowners who are being asked by the town to take out no-interest loans offered by the town to improve their storefront facades. This is one of the mayor’s pet projects in his quest to beautify the downtown area. Stefano Simone himself recently completed a major renovation of his building while the CVS lot owner redid all the storefronts so they look uniform. The town has held several meetings with storeowners, but only two showed up at the most recent session. A letter was sent to the owners by town administrator Gary Jeffas urging them to decide to enroll in the program. Jeffas said that at least 10 owners are needed for the town to proceed with the project. Simone said that his colleagues were upset that some of the terms had been changed from the original proposal, including only a 10-year loan instead of the original 20 years that was offered. Another change he mentioned was that only one contractor was now being offered by the town, instead of the original choice of three. Simone also commented on the long, drawn-out time frame of the project, to which Mayor Gonnelli explained that the town was getting a very slow response from the owners. The arguments between the town and business owners run in circles over these improvements.

Simone said that the Chinese restaurant wants to look Chinese, the Indian, Indian, implying that the owners aren’t keen on the “uniform” look that the CVS lot has morphed into. He said that some might like an antique look, others a modern or classical look. He pointed to Papa’s Travel Store that maintains its antique (old Secaucus façade). “Phil Papa wants no one to touch his building.” Simone asked, “How can these issues be fixed? People want to know what it will cost. Everybody’s question is, how will it be done, when will it start?” In other words, we surmised from Stefano’s comments that storeowners are at sea about the project and are hesitant to spend any money on it when they’re not sure what the end results will be. Mayor Gonnelli agreed with Stefano Simone. “I agree with you one hundred percent.” The mayor then offered to have Simone and several other storeowners in the audience meet with Administrator Jeffas after the meeting to discuss their concerns.

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