PROSPECT PARK, NJ - A visit from the governor, political party kingpins, a marching color guard, elected officials, impassioned poets, charismatic clergy, foreign officials, cheering crowds, and a crush of media are not what many would ever expect from a town that ranks as the 548th smallest of 566 municipalities in the state, and has a population of not quite 6,000. Nevertheless, Prospect Park on Saturday had all of these and more. Despite driving rain, approximately 250 supporters of Prospect Park Mayor Khairullah came out in force, filling the gymnasium of Prospect Park School #1.
How is it that Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, now beginning his fourth term as mayor of the tiny borough, drew such a crowd? In part, the mayor has expended significant time and effort beyond governing Prospect Park in building up personal and professional relations with neighboring communities, the county of Passaic, the state of New Jersey, and the Middle East and southern Asia. Khairullah, in short, has worked hard to solidify a base of support that continues to carry him to re-election as well as building a brand in the area and abroad.
The program for the municipal reorganization meeting was extensive, beginning with a welcome from the Board of Education Commissioner-Elect, Ashley Alba, followed by a marching Color Guard from the Passaic County Technical Institute NJ ROTC. With the Colors posted, Police Chief Charlie Atie led the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a resounding rendition of the national anthem from PCTI's Tracy Bautista. It is traditional that a municipal meeting begin with a religious invocation, and Prospect Park, with its mixed population of Christians and Muslims, had these communities represented during prayers throughout the course of the ceremony. Clerics included Pastor A.J. Santino of the Unity Christian Reformed Church of Prospect Park, Dr. Mohammad Qatanani of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, Dr. Lilisa Mimms of the New Beginnings Outreach Ministries and Councilwoman-at-Large for Paterson, Sheikh Abdul Alkhaliq of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, and Pastor Juan Sarmiento of Prospect Park's Iglesia Pentecostal La Senda Antigua.
As Satino began the invocation, he said that "History is being made. We trust in God who loves Prospect Park more than we can ever know. History is about to be made."
Syrian-American poet and spoken-word activist Amal Kassir was invited to speak. She discussed the character of the mayor from her conversations with Bautista and the mayor's mother. Kassir also addressed the on-going civil war in Syria, in which she lost cousins and family in an attack. "The background, to have Syria in your life, is to re-evaluate humanity every day." She said that Khairullah was "honest and just" and that "Prospect Park is lucky to have you." The civil war is believed to have taken the lives of approximately half a million and displaced around twelve million Syrians internally and abroad, according to the UN and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Prior to Khairullah being sworn in, Governor Phil Murphy delivered his remarks on the mayor and officials gathered. He touched on the ethnic and religious diversity of the state. "No community embodies that diversity like Prospect Park." The governor remarked on the assembly of VIPs. "You are extraordinary public servants." Again, the shadow of the Syrian civil war resurfaced as the governor concluded his address. "To all those in war, please let us not relent. Continue to speak truth to power." He offered his prayers for peace. "Mayor, I wish you an extraordinary term."
During his prayers, Dr. Qatanani said, "We are honored to have you as mayor of Prospect Park," blessed the mayor's mother, and described Khairullah as "a great gift to America." He thanked God for the freedom enjoyed by Americans and "to bless our leaders, prescribed to be lawful and good."
State Senator Nellie Pou was fighting off a cold and kept her remarks brief as she swore in Councilwoman Esther Perez. Calling it "a special occasion" Pou said, "I have no doubt you will serve Prospect Park with vigor."
Dr. Lilisa Mimms delivered another prayer, charismatic and bold, calling on the audience to point to Perez as she invoked Proverbs 31:10, the poem of the "Wife of Noble Character." "Prospect Park is made the better because another woman has graced a seat at the table."
Councilman Ala Matari, with his police background, was sworn in by Sheriff Richard Berdnik. Berdnik also remarked at the large showing for the ceremony, saying it was a sign of respect and esteem for the mayor and elected officials. He offered his salutations to Chief Atie and related a recent story of a hawk being struck by a vehicle and police seeing it was taken for veterinary care, saying it was a testament to the great work done by the force.
Sheikh Alkhaliq's prayers following Matari's swearing-in asked all the councilmen to do the best of their abilities. "Authority is a responsibility," he said. "We are one because we are one family."
Councilman Anand Shah was selected to be the Council President and was sworn in as such by Khairullah. Khairullah then began his general remarks, describing Governor Murphy as "the champion of the people" and that being sworn in by him was "something I will never forget." He expressed his gratitude to the Turkish government, represented by Consul-General Alper Aktaş, for their "generosity to the people of Syria." He thanked Chairman Currie and welcomed everyone to the meeting, thanking the people of the borough for believing in him and returning him to office. Khairullah said, "What matters now is not what we did in the past but what matters now is what we will do in the future." He addressed work on 8th Street and Hofstra Park, speaking of delivering a progressive agenda for the borough.
As Khairullah spoke, he was moved to tears when he thanked his family for their sacrifices in the course of his political career, their understanding for his time spent away, and thanked his wife for "putting up with everything." He said, "With you by my side it will be easier."
Each of the elected councilmen delivered their own address in turn, offering their thanks to the voters and sharing personal anecdotes as well as their aspirations for the borough.
Democratic Party Chairman John Currie said, "I am so touched. I've had one of the most remarkable times of my life." During the course of his remarks, he took a shot at President Donald Trump, saying, "Donald Trump needs to look out and see what is truly America." He called for the visiting mayors of other towns to stand, followed by all other elected officials. "Let folks see what America is about," Currie said. "This is about 'We the People'."
County officials spoke next, with Hawthorne-resident and first-term Passaic County Clerk Danielle Ireland-Imhof addressing those gathered. Passaic County Surrogate and former Prospect Park resident Bernice Toledo spoke next, followed by Passaic County Freeholder Director Sandi Lazzara.
The historic moment of swearing in the youngest Borough Administrator in the state followed. Instashan Chowdhury, 22 year-old graduate student, had been a student of Khairullah in high school and began his political career working closely with the mayor as his assistant. With his family surrounding him, Chowdhury was sworn in by his long-time mentor and assumed his seat next to Council President Shah.
In the interests of time, the body of municipal employees were sworn in en masse by the mayor with the reorganization consent agenda. Closing prayers were delivered by Pastor Sarmiento and the audience, which had remained remarkably strong in number throughout the lengthy ceremony, was invited for refreshments afterward.
Thomas E. Franklin contributed to this report.
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