At his last meet & greet of 2015 at Costa’s, Mayor Carl Hokanson talked about his first year in office as the head of the borough. Starting with the most basic question, of how his year was, the mayor answered with a slight smile, “Very, very long… and tough.”
In between residents who talked with the mayor while somehow-out-of-place pop songs like “Hotline Bling” and “Take Me To Church” played in the background, the man who is learning to replace his notepad – which he calls his ‘Bookberry’ – with an iPhone talked about how he is trying to become the man for his time in Roselle Park.
Being asked about highlights during his first year, the mayor spoke about having development on the Domani’s area start to move while two other locations – the Ryan property by the train station and the Sullivan property – are in various stages of talks. Mayor Hokanson also pointed to the Roselle Park Business Chamber, cultural events at the Casano Community Center, library lawn renovations, free parking on municipal lots, business openings, the Roselle Park Loves Arts festival, and even changing a plaque for the second row seat on the outer left side of council chambers to ‘The Official Seat of Jacob Magiera’. Previously, when it was commemorated during Joseph Accardi’s tenure as mayor, it was purposely labeled ‘unofficial’, with some perceiving it to be a slight against the critic of numerous governing bodies throughout the years. It was something the current mayor took note of and acted to have corrected. Mayor Hokanson knows, and said, that he did not do many of these things on his own and freely gave credit where it was due.
On the downside, the mayor relayed his concern regarding the upcoming necessary repairs to the water/sewer system under Galloping Hill Road at an estimated cost of $5,000,000 to $8,000,000.
As for the biggest surprise he had as the borough’s leader, it was the difference between being Council-At-Large, which he was for six years, and being Mayor because the buck really does stop with him. Even though when it comes to a vote it is a weak-mayor strong-council, in many other aspects the mayor takes the lead. Almost everything eventually ends up on his desk and sometimes that happened because things were not taken care of by those elected or paid to do so. The mayor has plans to change that for the better.
First, he is seriously considering appointing a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to help handle things on a day-to-day basis. Previously, Mayor Accardi had requested one but council at that time voted against the position with the consensus being that council did not approve of the person Mayor Accardi recommended. Mayor Hokanson will research and propose the idea again, planning to appoint a different person. Whatever council decides, the mayor stated he will continue to be in his office almost every weekday to make himself available. In 2015, he logged in over 500 hours, not including meetings and events, in his second floor office at the municipal complex, clocking in around three o’clock in the afternoon.
Second, he plans to begin documenting everything from complaints to follow-ups to status updates. The mayor will use e-mails to create a paper trail in order to hold those charged with a task, even himself, accountable to the residents. The goal is to have everyone in Roselle Park’s government, including himself, follow a personal belief he knows every resident wants, “Do the job you were hired or elected to do. It’s just that simple. It don’t matter if you were just hired or have been here for years, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re here to work for everyone.”
He recalled how, when he went on vacation in October, he had asked that a meeting with Bender Avenue residents regarding the annual Halloween event on their street be held in his absence. Upon his return he came to find out it had not been done and he had to hurriedly schedule it a week before the event. Then, in order to accommodate residents’ schedules, he ended up having it just five days before Halloween. Still, he did it because it had to get done.
Just like with the townwide revaluation. While he understood and agreed that it was necessary, his administration is the one getting the brunt of the criticism for something that a previous mayor had pushed for. But, knowing it needed to get it done, he did as much as he could to keep residents informed. He reflected, “We’re finishing what another started but we needed to do it. Just look at the newspapers about other towns now being forced to have a townwide assessment.”
Things like the revaluation and the Galloping Hill Road sewer repairs as well as development and other high points are the things Mayor Hokanson wants residents to know about. As he has repeatedly stated, “I’m going to give it to you straight, good or bad.”
He also talked about how he does not say things to make them sound better than they are. He illustrated his case by asking, “Did you know I can tell you that I actually lowered your taxes? You see, the amount required to be paid to the library actually went down by $7? Is that technically true? Yes. Is it a play on words?”
He left the obvious response unanswered. He discussed taxes, something residents ask about the most. He said that he could reduce taxes by over $200 for the average taxpayer but it would mean getting rid of the Department of Public Works (DPW), garbage pick-up, and two police officers. On the books it might look great but he knows that most residents would want the services instead of the reduction in taxes. One way or another he sees that everyone will end up paying more by contracting for private garbage collection, hiring for individual services or sacrificing safety. He went on further to prove his point, “The top average highest property taxes in the borough are around $19,500. The average taxes on the low end are around $5,800. Those with the lowest taxes might take the reduction but those on the high end, or even in the middle, will want the services because $200 out of $20,000 isn’t worth what they’re losing. They’ll say ‘I want those services for the taxes I pay.’”
Being introspective he said that he also needs to be more conscious of expressing himself and communicating better with others. One example was when he had a meeting to go over expenses associated with the library lawn improvements. Realizing a certain line item, the lawn benches, would put the project over budget, he stated that it would not be possible to keep them in. Before he had a chance to notify the councilmember who oversaw the project with possible suggestions, he received a defensive phone call about it before he had a chance to offer alternative solutions like having benches sponsored so they would be no cost to taxpayers. In future he plans to improve upon including all vested parties in discussions while they are happening to avoid miscommunication.
The mayor touched upon how every responsibility should be taken seriously. When he first came on council he was appointed to Animal Control. He knew it was a position that no one wanted to do but he took it seriously. Over the years his monthly reports became a meeting highlight and this year council appointed an Animal Canvass Marshal. It resulted in 107 people registering their pets. At an average of $17.70 per registration the amount collected was close to $1,800. The marshal’s salary was $700. Mayor Hokanson said, “It more than paid for the position.”
To this day the mayor takes his Animal Control position seriously. He said that he still answers phone calls from residents when they see a stray or dead animal, commenting, “You know I’m the only mayor in the county with a shovel and a bag in the back of my car?”
When asked if there was anything he would have done differently during his first year, he laughed for a bit then said, “Yes, but you have to do something and move on.”
During the evening, several residents approached him to ask about everything from changing the sign for Exit 137 on the Garden State Parkway to include Roselle Park to the high cost of emergency ambulance service to issues with parks in the borough to street repairs. Some issues the mayor could do something about while he had no control over others but he listened nonetheless; not in a patronizing way but willing to give as much information and advice as he could.
One resident asked about Aldene Park and Acker Park. She wanted to know when the orange fencing at Aldene Park would be coming down and if the garbage cans could be moved closer to the new basketball courts that are now being used in order to prevent litter. With Acker Park, she asked about the dead tree by the picnic table and when the swings that were removed in the summer would be replaced. She reached out to DPW and even talked with Second Ward Councilman Joseph Petrosky who said he would call the DPW. As of the meeting, the swings had not been replaced even though she was told they were on order since September. The mayor said he would look into it but this again brought up the point about why it had to get to his attention about it not being done for months. Not wanting to take any time to criticize, he took notes and told the resident he would reach out to find out what the status and time frame to have the swings put back up would be.
As for 2016, Mayor Hokanson discussed plans to expand the car shows to include motorcycles, sponsorships, participation from businesses along Chestnut Street with sidewalk sales and outdoor dining, to possibly having it on a Thursday night. He also wants to start taking advantage of technology to have applications and other transactions online so as to make things more efficient for everyone.
Beyond that, the mayor has set a goal for himself where there would be so much progress with business development that the borough would actually have to turn businesses away. With regard to how investment would increase commercial tax ratables possibly by millions of dollars while lessening the burden on residential property taxes, he remarked, “In the next three years, if two or more developments get built I could give you a million and a half reasons to vote for me.”
This is not to say that criticism about the mayor does not exist. There is his style of bringing up a subject he wants to pursue at a meeting as if it was a done deal and giving the impression that questions are not necessary. There were also issues of ‘he said, she said’ such as with the renaming of the Christmas Tree Lighting, when the councilwoman thought the name change would occur the following year, and when the mayor thought that Mrs. Pat Pagnetti wanted to relinquish both positions of Historical Society President and Historian when she still wanted to remain historian. There are also issues with procedures at meetings that, at times, have brought them to a halt. Reiterating what he mentioned before, the mayor plans to communicate better and include as many people in discussions as possible and he plans to document things better.
As the meet & greet was winding down, the subject of local politics was touched upon. From time to time the mayor stated that he has gotten pressure from some people in his own local political party to do things but that he wants to be remembered for making things better for everyone. He said that the decisions he has made, and continues to make, are not just for the benefit one group at the expense of hindering progress. He talked about how he is eternally grateful and appreciative of all the help that his Democratic supporters gave him before, and after, he became mayor but he also knows that there are Republicans and Independents that support him as well and they – and even those who did not vote for him – deserve to be regarded. He is loyal to the party but he is also loyal to the oath he took. The decisions he makes are done for what he feels are the right reasons, not because they are politically advantageous. He mentioned, “The whole aftermath with renaming the Christmas tree. I could have waited until my last year in office to do it. It would have easily gotten me a second term based on the calls of support and Christmas cards from all over the country that I still get to this day but that’s not why I did it.”
And as if to bring the point home, a noticeable absence from the informal get together Monday night were members of the Roselle Park Democratic Committee and other councilmembers who were regular attendees at previous meet & greets. It was just the mayor by himself sitting with residents talking and listening and answering questions and taking the criticism.
Maybe it is a sign of things to come that a mayor who stands on his own is what Roselle Park really needs.
As the impromptu interview came to a close after the mayor spent some time reflecting and looking ahead through conversation, the initial question was asked again about his first year. This time, still with a slight smile, he answered, “It was all right.”