"I want to dwell on the positive. I want to make it clear that community service is the goal of all elected officials."
Why did you first become involved in your town’s government?
I grew up in my family’s business in Atlantic City which was called Russ Miller Record Shops. From the time I was 8 years old, I was behind the counter serving customers. In grade school, high school, and college I was elected to serve on student council and college council. Later in life, continuing that effort almost seemed like a natural course of events.
In 1979, I moved to the Milmay section of Buena Vista Township where my wife Cheryl’s family lived. In 1984, I became concerned about a bad intersection near my home. That intersection had 64 traffic accidents, 89 injuries, and 5 fatalities between 1980 and 1986. The intersection involved two county roads so we asked Atlantic County to put up a traffic signal. I thought it would be easy to improve the safety at a dangerous intersection, but I was in for a big surprise. This event started me on a journey of understanding the complexities of getting anything done on the local, county, or state levels of government.
With the help of neighbors we started a group called the “Concerned Citizens of Milmay” to fight for a traffic signal at the intersection. A petition drive led to 922 signatures. We were able to take the petition to the Buena Vista Township Committee and then to the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders. Atlantic County eventually improved the intersection over the course of 7 long years and the accidents finally stopped happening. We never got our traffic signal, but I still thought that I had accomplished something important.
Since my home was close to the intersection, whenever I heard the fire sirens going off I would go to the intersection. Eventually, the Milmay Volunteer Fire Company recruited me to join them since we were always there together. I attended fire school, became trained, and was elected fire company Secretary for a three year term. I served in the fire company for ten years which helped me to know more about Fire Companies, EMS and the value of volunteers.
It was easy to get involved in my community since my business as a government sales rep of recording media was located in my home. I had some flexibility in my work schedule which involved bidding on state contracts, phone sales, and customer service.
In 1990, with one seat open, I ran for Buena Vista Township Committee against an incumbent. I visited 1,500 of the 2,700 homes in my community. The results were a tie election with each candidate getting 1004 votes. I lost by 13 absentee votes—47 to 60 in the end. Still in all, it was a real learning experience!
In 1991, there were two seats up for election on the Buena Vista Township Committee. It was the anti-Florio year which was not good for Democrats. Many people in my own party did not want me to run two years in a row—but I did. Teresa Kelly became my running mate and we visited over 1,700 homes during the next 6 months even campaigning on bicycles. We were both elected to Buena Vista Township Committee by 300 vote margins in a year that only three Democrats won in all of Atlantic County—and we were two of the 3. Twenty years later we are both still serving and have been Mayor and Deputy Mayor for 17 years straight. During our time in office we have strived to serve fairly—going the extra mile for our citizens.
We have taken on some big projects like locating the New Jersey State Police Troop A Headquarters in Buena Vista (lobbying two governors), opening the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, rebuilding our roads, improving our parks, addressing Pinelands issues, and bringing in over 9 million dollars in grants to help our township. Buena Vista has been the leader in the fight to keep State Police services cost-free for growth restricted rural communities—even fighting the process all the way to the Council on Local Mandates and winning. We have fought to control the misuse and damage caused by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on our public and private properties in the Pinelands. Buena Vista has also spoken out on countless statewide issues.
What are the most significant challenges facing local governments?
Unquestionably, we have entered into a new era of change in both how government is run and the public’s expectations of government. Many factors have brought about this change including the state of our national economy, increased pressure to reduce the size of government, and the somewhat bad image that government, in general, gets in the media.
Local governments are facing an ever shrinking amount of financial support from our state government. I also find that state legislators are making more and more decisions on behalf of local government. Many times, decisions are made without our input or our blessing!
Local government is still the first line of defense for our taxpayers and citizens to solve problems or voice their complaints.
Since the most recent Governor’s election I have seen a trend of more citizens complaining about more issues. Those citizens want to pay fewer taxes and get more services or, at least, not lose any services. We are, however, reaching a point where local government may not be able to accomplish the full expectations of our taxpayers and residents.
How would you describe your style
I have always tried to communicate by explaining issues simply and factually for our citizens. People tend to hear different messages depending on how the information is communicated. I believe in being as open with the public as possible. I want them to hear the facts, whether they want to or not.
I have set an example of better communications by having televised township meetings which are shown as often as eight times per month. During our televised township meetings we bring information, announcements, and guest speakers to our residents. We recognize school accomplishments and sports achievements with our “Making Buena Vista Township Proud Awards.” We also conduct regular township business at these meetings and tell residents what happened at the other meetings that were not televised. We also do frequent newsletters, have an active internet website (www.buenavistatownship.org), plus an annual community calendar. We use our cable channel message board to constantly put out information about events and services provided by our community.
Also, I don’t avoid the media. I try to work with them as much as possible. Sometimes, the media doesn’t get all the facts correct—surprise!
Over the 20 years I have served in office I have given our residents the comfort of knowing where our community stands on issues. Most of the time people will respect your opinion—even if they don’t always agree with you.
What do citizens want from their local government and has it changed?
The expectations of our citizens have changed. Most believe their individual problem should be the number one priority of the municipality at that moment. The problem could be trash that was not picked up, a pothole, or a dog running loose in the neighborhood.
Citizens want more from their local government than ever before. In fact, they are looking “for one stop shopping” whether their issues are on the local, school, county, state, or federal level of government.
Since local municipalities generate the tax bills, citizens tend to come to us first. Many times they are addressing issues that we can not help them with on the local level. Our municipality has always tried to help our residents get answers, even if they are out of our jurisdiction.
People have become very cynical of government. There is a belief that everyone in government is in it for themselves and that other residents are getting a better deal than they are. It is our job as elected officials to try to change that mind set. I have always spoken very positively about the value of government.
What advice would you give to newly elected officials?
Some of my proudest moments have been in having the opportunity to speak and educate newly elected officials through the New Jersey State League of Municipalities (NJLM). I have been involved in educational training programs for over 16 years.
Many newly elected officials got involved in local government based on a specific issue. I have found that there are literally a hundred or more different topics that will cross an elected official’s desk during their career in government.
Whether it is through the NJLM, Rutgers University, or dozens of other groups that offer seminars and educational opportunities, you should make an extra effort to build your educational skills.
In the early stages of getting elected, it is best to listen to citizen’s concerns before jumping in with your personal opinion. It is better to say “let me get back to you on that issue,” than for you to give out the wrong information. It is always best to be non-confrontational. Even if a resident makes you feel like they have insulted your intelligence, you are the better person for keeping a cool head. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, do some research, and to even say you were wrong on an issue when you were wrong. You will get more respect from your citizens.
What are the biggest legislative challenges facing municipalities?
The biggest legislative challenges facing local government are the decisions that other people are making on our behalf. There are so many changes going on right now in state government that if we are not careful the rug can be pulled right out from under us. It is your responsibility as an elected official to make sure your town’s voice is heard at all levels of government. Most issues that we face in municipal government are not Democratic or Republican issues. You must not be afraid to speak up to your legislators and let them know how your town feels. Remember the famous Tip O’Neill comment that “all politics is local.”
The NJLM is the number one source for learning about legislative issues that impact our municipalities! NJLM has an excellent website with all the latest news. The NJLM has an open door policy that allows you to reach out and bring your concerns directly to them. Not every issue can be resolved, but more than likely a problem that is affecting your community is also affecting other communities.
Cutbacks in state aid along with rising healthcare, insurance, fuel, and other expenses are issues that many local officials have little or no control over. The state’s process of developing the “toolkit” has not happened quickly enough for local governments to react to the new 2 percent budget cap. Without the proper tools, towns may be forced to cut additional services and staff.
What are your goals as League President?
My main goal as League President is to work with the new Administration and Legislature to develop a better understanding of our concerns on the municipal level.
I have been disappointed by the lack of input that has been taken from municipal officials by leadership in Trenton. My goal would be to close that gap and find common ground that both reduces the cost of government, but does not take away from local government’s ability to serve the public.
I would also like to see more local elected officials getting involved with the NJLM. I want Trenton and our citizens to understand that most of what local government does is both good and cost effective.
It has been a difficult time. The news media tends to only show the negative side of government and the few bad apples that spoil it for everyone. I want to dwell on the positive. I want to make it clear that community service is the goal of all local elected officials.
Pictured, left to right are League General Counsel Bill Kearns, League Past President Paul Matacera,
League Past President James Anzaldi, League President Chuck Chiarello
Remarks of the
Honorable Chuck Chiarello
President, New Jersey State League of Municipalities
Mayor, Buena Vista
President Chiarello gave the following address at the League’s Business Meeting on November 19, 2009 during the 95th Annual League Conference in Atlantic City.
It’s an honor, but it’s also a challenge, to succeed my friend, Jim Anzaldi, as President of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. It’s an honor to know that you trust a small town, rural mayor from the Pinelands to lead this organization into the coming year.
It is a challenge, as it looks like it will be another difficult year ahead. And each community faces it’s own special challenges. I’m honored to preside over an association that has weathered the storms of 94 years. I’m honored to preside over a League that has continued to find new and better ways to help municipal officials serve their fellow citizens. But it’s a challenge, because I know that you expect me to preserve that record of steady progress.
I am honored to be given the chance to preside over an association that unites Democrats, Independents and Republicans—that serves the interests of cities, suburbs and rural communities—an association that reconciles the differences that can strain relations among South, Central and Northern New Jersey. It is challenging to know that you expect me to hold that union together.
Although I’m from a town of only 7,500 people, covering 42.5 square miles, I believe each town is faced with the same challenges in providing services and
maintaining financial stability—no matter what the
population or size!
I am honored to have the opportunity to preside over an organization that has never become a rigid bureaucracy. Despite the odds against local self government, this League has maintained its vitality, its energy, and its progressive dynamism by continually relying on its members for ideas and for action. Throughout it all, our League has always known, and always shown, that when all who truly value home rule work together, nothing is impossible.
I am challenged by the fact that it is now, to a great extent, up to me to energize all who appreciate the importance of municipal government—whether they serve their citizens in elective or appointive office, full-time or part-time, paid or in a volunteer capacity. Through your efforts, the people of our 566 municipalities can continue to count on the vital life-sustaining and life-enhancing services, that only local governments can deliver—effectively, efficiently and economically.
I have always said that local government offers the best return for the dollars our taxpayers spend. I am honored to offer my leadership skills to the League and I am humbly challenged to meet the standard of service set by my immediate predecessor in this office, Mayor Jim Anzaldi of Clifton and many others who have risen to achieve this great honor.
I will do my best. I ask you all to do the same. Without your help, I will fail. With your support, our success is inevitable!
First published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 1, January 2011