SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – Township officials announced Monday that the scheduled Township Council meeting for Tuesday night is cancelled as the community prepares for funeral services for Mayor Frank Gambatese.
Gambatese, 81, passed away early Saturday at a hospital in New Brunswick following a brief illness.
He was in the middle of his fourth, four-year term leading the 42-square mile municipality of about 48,000 people. He also served as mayor of Woodland Park from 1988 to 1992.
Funeral arrangements are scheduled with a viewing from 3-8 p.m. Tuesday and a funeral mass at 10 a.m. Wednesday, all taking place at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church, located at 10 Kingston Lane in Monmouth Junction.
The council meeting was initially scheduled for 7 p.m. with a budget meeting preceding the regular meeting.
That meeting is now rescheduled to take place prior to the scheduled April 4 meeting, according to a notification email from the township.
As the community mourns the popular Democratic mayor, accolades for his service to the community continued to pour in.
“We are saddened by the loss of South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese,” Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce President Lina Llona said in a statement Monday. “Mayor Gambatese was a strong advocate for Middlesex County's business community and advanced economic development policies in his town. As mayor, he attracted hundreds of new businesses into the township including Target, Best Buy and Coca-Cola and also promoted open space preservation, leading the effort to preserve a 60-acre property that was once the historic Princeton Nursery. The site still features unique plants and historic buildings to this day.”
She said Gambatese embodied what it means to be a local mayor with a global approach, and understood that working with neighboring towns and addressing policies in a holistic way was necessary for a truly sustainable community.
“We were fortunate to have Mayor Gambatese join us for our ‘Meet the Mayors’ economic development series where he discussed his approach to governance,” she said. “His leadership style is unmatched and we will miss him as a valuable partner in Middlesex County. Our deepest condolences go out to his family, and we will celebrate his life in public service and commitment to his community by carrying forward his legacy.”
Township officials said that shuttle busses from the municipal building on Ridge Road would be provided to the services.
Officials are also considering what happens now.
It is believed that Deputy Mayor Chris Killmurray will become acting mayor, at least for the short term, but it is not yet clear what will happen with the vacant seat.
Normally, the Democrats would appoint someone to the seat and then a special election would take place in November for the unexpired one-year term of that seat.
The fact that it is the mayor’s seat, however, may complicate the issue.
Mayor Gambatese was only the second directly elected mayor in township history, as well as the longest serving, some 14 years.
When the township changed its form of government in 1997, 11 candidates ran for the four council seats and the mayor’s seat.
Since that time, local council elections are every-other year with three seats up in one election and the mayor and the remaining council seat coming up two years later.
Democrats Charles Carley, Joe Camarota and Jo Hochman just won re-election in November of 2016, making the next election for the mayor and Deputy Mayor Killmurray due in 2018 with no council race this year.
Petitions for local partisan elections have a deadline of early April, and anyone seeking those seats must have their petitions in by then to appear on the June primary ballot.
That deadline is just about a week away.
Township attorney Don Sears is looking at the options and is likely to issue an opinion in the coming days, according to officials.
(Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said that Mayor Gambatese died at St. Peter's University Hospital. While he was initially admitted there, he was moved at some point to Robert Wood Johnson. The family's obituary lists Robert Wood Johnson. It is not clear if he went back to St. Peter's before his death.)