FLEMINGTON, NJ – Heart-felt hugs aren’t particularly common at Hunterdon County Freeholder meetings, but they were in abundant supply this week.
That’s because Tuesday’s Freeholder meeting was not only the board’s last scheduled meeting of the year, but the last where Suzanne Lagay would be in office.
Lagay, after serving two terms as Freeholder, decided to not seek re-election this year. Many who attended Tuesday’s meeting came to praise Lagay, who worked as President of the Hunterdon Chamber of Commerce before being elected as Freeholder.
Hunterdon Administrator Kevin Davis said Lagay, “conquered the bureaucracy” of County government, saying she successfully “mentored, coached, encouraged and – yes – demanded personal responsibility and accountability from the staff.”
Davis said Lagay’s tenure as Freeholder could be summarized by paraphrasing Julius Caesar: “Veni, vidi, vici: You came, you saw and you conquered.”
Perhaps because of her business background, Lagay didn’t avoid or conceal obstacles in government, but saw them as challenges to be mastered. When errors and inconsistencies were revealed in a new draft County parks and open space plan, Lagay paused the approval process until the issues could be resolved. When members of the public approached the Freeholder board with difficulties interacting with County government, Lagay offten followed through to resolve the conflicts.
Freeholder Matt Holt said Lagay’s presence changed the tenor of the Board, and helped establish policies, procedures, goals “that will survive all of us.”
Freeholder John Lanza recalled that, “We’ve been together since the beginning, since December 2012,” when Holt and Mary Melfi encouraged the pair to run for office. Lanza said he quickly recognized that Lagay was someone “who is intelligent, who is competent and who is not a politician. And that was a good thing.”
Running together, Lagay and he “overcame the odds,” he said, because they were “running against the preferred candidates from our own party.”
Lagay’s efforts helped “usher in a new atmosphere in this county,” Lanza said, helping to foster “A new attitude that is oriented towards getting to ‘yes,’ ” rather than being an obstacle to progress.
Lanza, who won re-election this year, said being sworn to the office again next month will be “the strangest thing without her being here.”
He observed – as did others – that Lagay was not a politician.
“In politics, you don’t always have friends,” Lanza said, but, “Suzanne proved she is no politician. I can tell from personal experience, when things got hard for me personally, and it would have been easy for a politician to walk away, Suzanne Lagay was a friend. And she still is.
“She’s a leader,” Lanza said of his former running mate, “and we’re better for it.”
Melfi recalled meeting Lagay when Melfi – who is now County Clerk – was serving on Flemington Borough Council and Lagay was still President of the Chamber of Commerce. Lagay encouraged her to run as County Clerk. Years later when Melfi was having issues with the then Freeholder Board, Melfi then returned the favor by encouraging Lagay to seek to run for Freeholder.
“Mary, I don’t know anything about politics,” Melfi recalled Lagay telling her. “We got you a real good running mate,” answered Melfi, referring to Lanza. “He doesn’t know anything about politics either.”
Former Rep. Leonard Lance Leonard quipped that the conversation had jumped, “From Julius Caesar to the Dating Game. I have to come to more of your Freeholder meetings.”
He credited Lagay with revitalizing the Chamber and said that of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties, Hunterdon is “one of the best run anywhere across America,” a credit to Lagay. “Just look at the levels of debt in other counties, for example.”
Lagay observed that she had an advantage as a Freeholder, because she didn’t have a day job. That allowed her time to work alongside the staff nearly day-by-day, and she saw “their dedication and commitment.”
The county’s clean budget audits, improvements in economic development, an “incredible turnaround” in fostering greater cooperation among the county’s municipalities are all accomplishments of county staff, not just Freeholders, Lagay said. She credited the staff’s growth - in quality, training and education - as instrumental in those accomplishments.
“Government that’s lean and focused, and working like business, and with a team committed to doing that, can make it happen,” Lagay said, adding, “It’s been a priority of mine” and others on the Freeholder board.
The Freeholder board has been able to “align on goals,” Lagay said, “which doesn’t mean they always agree.” But by agreeing on important objectives, progress follows.
“There’s no value in having a good idea unless you’re going to you use it,” she said. “And how you use it … is what really makes a difference.
“Work fills most of the days of our lives, and we might as well enjoy it. I have,” she said. “I’ve acted in what I believe in, what I thought was best for the good of all. I’ve been a bit of a political heretic.
“I would always prefer to take one step in love than 10 steps in power, and I think that comes from the clergy in me,” she said, a reference to her faith in Eckankar.
“Government is meant to serve. Period,” Lagay said. “Leaders are meant to serve. Period.”
But Lagay said that “the last responsibility of aa leader is to say, ‘Thank you.’ And so, I do.”