Q and A with the League President
My open-door policy has been a great experience in my life—and the hundreds I have met and served through that policy are the greatest treasures of my years in public service. I love to listen to people as they explain the issue of the day and engage them in conversation. My open-door policy has also allowed me to be a witness to tears as well as laughter that has absolutely nothing to do with government, but simply helps a person along in that day in their life.”
Why did you first become involved in your town’s government?
I have lived in Clifton in the home of my childhood for my entire life. Clifton has been a wonderful place for my entire family and for me. Growing up, the city provided great parks and recreation programs, and there was an elementary school in every neighborhood within walking distance of home. Clifton schools have always offered great opportunities for students. Possessing a burning desire to keep Clifton a great place in which to live and work, I kick-started my career in public service by joining city committees that included the celebration of our young people through the Annual Youth Week program, and the festivities of our Annual City Picnic. Forty years later, I am still deeply involved in both of those activities. In those early days, I became involved with the Clifton Jaycees, and I gratefully credit that organization for many leadership and speaking opportunities afforded to me; opportunities that gave me assurance and made me a lot more comfortable thinking about running for elected office.
Participation in all those activities led to my involvement in non-profit efforts, most especially the Boys’ & Girls’ Club of Clifton, an outstanding organization currently serving over 5,000 of our young people. Soon, I became interested in and worked on municipal elections, and not too much later I put my name on the ballot and was elected the youngest councilman in Clifton’s history. In 1990, I became Mayor and I’m still here 20 years later. It certainly has been an experience!
What are the most significant challenges facing local governments?
Finances and state mandates have been constant throughout these many years of my career in public service. Promises to do something have been made by many in Trenton; however, we still have the highest state property taxes in the nation! The cost of education and many salaries are higher in New Jersey than anywhere, and it certainly reflects in our property taxes. The state should be paying for more of the costs for its mandates. Significant changes have occurred since the 1970’s that have taken away much too much of “home rule,” which has been costly in all aspects of local government.
Mandate after mandate, unsettled state aid to the cities, skimming of dollars meant to help give property tax relief to taxpayers being used by other levels of government instead of local towns have all had a profound and unfavorable impact on local governments. The most striking example of this is the recent revelation made concerning the 9-1-1 tax, that cities are getting a lesser portion of those funds than they are entitled to. Demands made upon local governments to do so many things that they should have an option to do or not to do are the ones that disturb me the most.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
God-given conciliatory style dedicated to helping people in all walks of life. I strive to be a 24/7 on-call friend of the entire community. I have had the opportunity to interact with people from every corner of our great city. Clifton is the most diverse community in the state, with some 68 different languages other than English spoken in homes. The culture, customs and traditions of many nations reside here, but we have a common bond in family values and respect.
My open-door policy has been a great experience in my life—and the hundreds I have met and served through that policy are the greatest treasures of my years in public service. I love to listen to people as they explain the issue of the day and engage them in conversation so that they can get an understanding of how all the government gobbledygook at the state and federal level takes away local control. My open-door policy has also allowed me to be a witness to tears as well as laughter that has absolutely nothing to do with government, but simply helps a person along in that day in their life. It is especially rewarding to be able to help an elder resident, who sometimes doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. These people give you a good feeling of friendship and appreciation each and every time you are able to just listen and have a conversation with them. One of our older citizens nicknamed me the “Chaplain” after he came to translate for another senior citizen. It’s just part of the whole great experience!
What do citizens want from their local government and has it changed?
First and foremost, people want their government to be honest; to reflect high ideals of service above self. Most importantly, they want to be able to depend on government in time of need. These things have remained constant. If only we could do something about the regressive property taxes in the State of New Jersey, we would probably answer the wishes of the citizens of all communities.
From my very first days in office, I’ve learned that most folks respect people in public life and in many cases expect them to perform miracles. Their requests aren’t really that big, but when a student asks for a recommendation to a school or for a job, or a senior has a question or needs assistance with a state tax form, or how to get into a nursing facility, or how to get some help for a loved one, and I can help them, they respond with beautiful words that can never match any other riches of the world.
Also, people want to take pride in their communities, which Clifton folks have done each time we have received a national award for recycling, sustainability and cleanliness. One of our shining moments occurred in 2007, when we received the “Pride in America Award”—the only city in the country to receive that distinction in that year!
What advice would you give
to newly elected officials?
Always remember that you are a public SERVANT. Serve with honesty, integrity and always listen. Serve as long and as vigorously as you are able and to the best of your ability. And, once you’re not loving every minute of it, leave! When voting for anything, remember the people affected most by the issue and listen to what they have to say. People’s homes are usually their biggest investments.
Get involved with the League of Municipalities and other organizations where you can learn new ideas. Always beware of government “gobbledygook” and speak out against its effects on our state as well as the nation. Remember, you are here to serve, and the highest level of public trust and honesty should be your ever-continuing goal!
What are the biggest legislative challenges facing municipalities?
There have been onerous mandates placed upon local governments by the state for many years, and the list and costs continue to grow each and every year. Things like binding arbitration and the lack of school funding are two of the greatest battles I have witnessed these past 40 years. Although it is incumbent upon the state to address these issues, it has failed miserably. Other state’s property taxes are so much lower than New Jersey’s, and this is a blight and an embarrassment we continue to endure. The system needs change, not just talk about change.
A good example of a very dangerous matter facing local governments is COAH. If not controlled, COAH could cost local governments millions. This is an issue of great concern. The solution could come from a bipartisan effort to work toward the common goal of getting New Jersey out of the “#1 spot” of having the highest property taxes in the country.
Clifton is blessed with a non-partisan form of government that has overlooked party affiliation and has drawn up plans that lead to compromise and consensus. For sure, having the highest property taxes in the country should be a common cause to fight and combat. Other states are doing it differently than we are and are still able to provide needed services. We must find a way to meet the challenge and stand up to any special interests. Our only special interest should be the people who elect us and their families.
What are your goals as League President?
To listen to the various ideas of government colleagues, and to support those positions that hold promise for resolving the huge problems that face every municipality in New Jersey. Whether you lead a large city, a small town, borough or village, many of our problems have a common thread. I want to keep a watchful eye on each and every piece of legislation that could unjustly affect us, to continue the good fight that has been spearheaded by this great organization for many years, and to see progressive movement to get New Jersey out of that “#1 Spot” regarding property taxes.