BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- The Township Council held what should be its last-ever reorganization meeting in Town Hall last week -- next year the reorganization meeting should be held in the new municipal complex. 

The first order of business on Thursday, Jan. 2, was to swear in the two council members. Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz administered the oath of office to Republican Councilwoman Gentiana Brahimaj and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick swore in returning Republican Councilman Manuel Couto. Brahimaj replaces Peter Bavoso, who chose not to run for re-election after serving one term on the council.

There are three Republicans and three Democrats on the council, which makes Democratic Mayor Angie Devanney the person who will cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie. Which is exactly what happened when it was time to elect a president and vice president of the council.

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Councilmen Alvaro Medeiros, a Democrat, and Couto were each nominated for the position of president. The council voted 3-3 along party lines and the mayor cast her vote for Medeiros, who served as president last year. Council members Susan Poage, a Democrat, and Couto were then nominated for vice president. Again the vote was split along party lines, and the mayor cast the deciding vote for Poage, who served as vice president last year.

Council members then read their “statements,” and Mayor Devanney gave her “State of the Township” address.

Going in alphabetical order, the first person to speak was Brahimaj, who thanked her family for their “encouragement, and endless support during the election season.” She mentioned that her son is serving the country in the Navy on a submarine and this is the family’s first Christmas without him. She also thanked Munoz and Bramnick for swearing them into office, and “all my friends from near and far who are here tonight,” as well as her running mate, Couto, and the residents who trusted her with their vote.

She said she is “ready and excited to get to work and make this town better. I will not let you down.” Her interest lies in improving communication between the residents and the government and focusing on the economic development of this town. She promised to be loyal to the town and the people of Berkeley Heights and said, “I believe in a united town council and putting governance above politics.”  

Brahimaj said there are many talented people who can and do volunteer their talents for the town, and she encouraged people to volunteer for committees. “Together, we can accomplish a lot, so we can continue to make Berkeley Heights better for generations to come,” she said. 

Couto thanked the residents who voted for him and said he would work hard to gain the trust and support of those who didn’t.” He also thanked his wife and family for their patience and support as he attended meetings, clean-up events, fairs, winter walk and other community events. “It was a team that brought me here … that worked on inclusion, discussion, and transparency,” he said, adding when he first ran for council three years ago, “what impressed me most was the spirit and life of the town and its people, which grows stronger … with each new volunteer” who steps up to make the town better.

He pointed out the town has an excellent school system, an evolving downtown which is “a walkable hub of activity and commerce,” a rail link and a caring community, all of which help keep property values high and Berkeley Heights a desirable place to live.  Next to come will be the new municipal complex, providing more ways to serve the community in a modern facility. He said he has worked across all party lines in an open and transparent manner to bring ordinances more in line with state code, with the cooperation of stakeholders, residents and members of the business community. 

Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley said, “2020 is going to be a busy and exciting year in Berkeley Heights – in a few months we will open our new  municipal complex where we will finally have safe, comfortable working conditions for our employees, new and expanded recreation space for all of our residents, a new library, a new police department (meeting all codes), dedicated meeting space for our seniors and additional parking for our commuters!”

She also said she looks “forward to working with the Mayor and my fellow council members on the 2020 operating and capital budgets. My focus will be looking for ways to share services, where appropriate, and looking to ensure that planned development is managed well and on track, to ensure the additional tax revenues needed to offset any increases in expenses. Lastly, we will continue to take advantage of all relevant grant  opportunities. I was proud of receiving the largest non-paving grant (for $410 k) in 2019, based on my efforts in 2018.”

Medeiros said after his first year on council he finds people are asking him about his experience in government, to which he says, “It’s been great, but then I stop and think to myself, is that right?” After a second thought, he said, "Pete (Bavoso) got it righ"t when he said in his parting remarks, “The pay is lousy, the work considerable, the critics are plentiful and the room in the back is cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Governing and getting things done is not easy.”

Medeiros said he is very proud of the progress that has been made in the past year, “We worked together very well ...We have a great team, a great leader and an absolutely excellent administration.”

He noted there were a lot of “smart people” on the council and “amazing volunteers in this town” who never get the appreciation they deserve. He asked for a round of applause for the volunteers and said, “We can use more, many more,” and urged people to sign up on the “volunteer developed website.” 

He said he expects 2020 to be an even better year, and is looking forward to working with everyone on the dais to achieve more than they did in 2019.

Poage wished everyone a happy new year and reported on some accomplishments of the past year including the Grants Committee’s success effort which resulted in the township winning “the two grants for which we applied. We look forward to working our mission of getting money for township projects without burden to the taxpayer.” The Grants Committee has only been up and running since July, she said.

She thanked the local businesses and groups which supported the Hanukkah celebration and noted the event “came one day after yet another tragedy based in Anti-Semitism during this holiday season … Anti-Semitism is a reliable bellwether of the moral health of a nation, and its spread signals something is very wrong.”

Poage referenced an article on kindness and recommended a book “‘The War for Kindness,’ Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” She reminded everyone that in December Berkeley Heights promoted random acts of kindness for residents and suggested the township promote “kindness throughout the year. It will make for a happier, healthier township.”

Councilman Stephen Yellin, who just finished his first year on the council, called being on the council “an honor and privilege to give back to my hometown” and quoted the late Mario Cuomo who said “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Yellin said he thought Cuomo meant it is one thing to seek office, and quite another to learn the realities of that office” both in learning what one can do and what one cannot do. He said he found the past year to have been “quite a learning experience for me,” but it also had reaffirmed for him the joy and beauty of the community, “particularly the volunteers, especially those who rush into danger without being paid a dime.”

Yellin said he is proud of being part of the governing body, which has made great progress this year and “on a personal note, proud of the creation of the historical preservation committee.” 

He concluded by thanking his “family who have always been so supportive of me and the work I have sought to do,” and his friends and neighbors who have given him their support.

Mayor Devanney wrapped up the statements with her State of the Township Address for 2020, noting with pride, “For the first time in history, Berkeley Heights has a majority of women elected on its governing body.” 

Along with the issues which everyone knew needed to be tackled -- the municipal complex, six planned redevelopment projects, a workforce that needed to do more with a tight budget, and a state-wide recycling crisis which increased the cost of recycling, there were other problems which arose. In particular, Devanney said, “ What I was not aware of was how much administrative control and oversight was missing in how we spent tax dollars.”

Devanney said the responsible management of tax dollars “by taking significant steps in both the short- and long-term to get our fiscal house in order was - and is - our top priority.” To do this, the new CO Eugenia Poulos, the council and Township Administrator Liza Viana and department heads “fixed open-ended professional services contracts with no spending cap, annual agreements that had not been renewed, and various payments for services not authorized by the governing body.” This work has put the township in on a “better financial and managerial path forward,” she said. 

Devanney ended by saying, “2020 will be full of new challenges that will need innovative, collaborative solutions.  Together, I have confidence we will continue to make a difference and make Berkeley Heights a place we are proud to call home.” 

Her complete remarks can be found in the Mayor’s Corner on TAPinto Berkeley Heights.