WAYNE, NJ – The Business Administrator (BA) is the highest non-elected position one can hold in a municipal government. The role of Wayne’s BA is to make sure that the entire Township government is run efficiently, effectively, within budget and within the ever-changing landscape of new ordinances and new resolutions that must be adopted. The buck stops with the BA.
Last week, Wayne’s long-time BA, Neal Bellet, retired after 29 years in the position. Taking over is Talib Aquil who had his first day on Friday, July 24. Aquil is a confident, personable, intelligent, soft-spoken man who has worked in the Newark city government for the last seventeen years.
He started working in government as an aide to Newark city Councilwoman Mamie Bridgeforth in 2003, then took on the role of project coordinator in public buildings. From there he was promoted up the ladder to assistant manager of public buildings, assistant director of water and sewer, then temporary director of water and sewer and finally the Director of Public Works for the city of Newark. He stayed in this position for the last four years, but Aquil was looking to move up. In fact, he was always looking to move up.
“Since I got involved in this busines my goal has always been to be a Business Administrator,” he said. “I’ve tailored my education for this, and any trainings I’ve taken were to move me toward this position.”
Aquil was asked why, and his answer was simply ambition.
“I just never wanted to work somewhere where I couldn’t move up,” he said. “If I’m not growing, I feel like I’m dying. I knew that BA is the top position; you can’t go any higher in municipal government, so I always had my eye on that position.”
The new Wayne BA realized last year that his goal would not be achieved in Newark.
“It got to the point where I started feeling stuck,” he said. “I hit a ceiling. So, in order to attain my goals and be the man I wanted to be, I had to start thinking outside of Newark.”
He began applying for available BA positions that he found on the League of Municipalities website. Unfortunately, his job search had only just begun when the Coronavirus pandemic struck.
“Many of the interviews I had lined up canceled because of COVID,” he said. However, Wayne was one of the few that kept their interview with Aquil. It happened toward the end of March, and he admits it was a little awkward.
“I’ve never been in an interview and not shaken hands,” he said. “We were at opposite ends of the room. We never came within ten feet of each other.” Even with that awkwardness, the interview went well.
“We started this process over six months ago and received over 20 resumes for the position,” said Wayne Mayor Chris Vergano. “Mr. Bellet and I independently reviewed the resumes, and each chose eight to be interviewed. Coincidentally, we both choose the same eight candidates.”
After the first round of interviews, they narrowed the field down to four candidates and held a second interview with each.
“Talib was my first choice during both phases of the interview process,” said Vergano. “I believe that he possesses the necessary skills to run our township on a day-to-day basis. He is customer driven and a dedicated family man.”
Aquil was asked for his initial impression of Vergano and Bellet.
“They seemed like all-around good people,” the new BA said. “They knew exactly what they wanted. I didn’t get a feeling that there was any politics involved. They explained that they needed me to be the best that I could be, to execute and to keep the Mayor abreast of what’s going on.”
“I just got a great feeling from both of them, which is why I chose to come here and leave Newark,” he said, then admitted: “It seems like the best thing I could’ve done. It’s a great situation I’m walking into. Mr. Bellet has already set the table, and it’s just great.”
After his second interview, Aquil said he had a good feeling and felt that the job would be his.
“The morning after the second interview, Neal sends me an email with an attachment,” he said. “It was four pages of leadership tips that he has acquired over the last twenty-nine years. His note said: ‘I wish someone had given this to me when I started off twenty-nine years ago and I am looking forward to mentoring you, young man.’”
“I was blown away,” Aquil said with still some awe in his voice. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life: somebody wanting to share their knowledge and wisdom with me. I don’t come from an environment like that. In Newark, the mentality was all about themselves and their department, so there was a lot of hoarding of information. I can’t even tell you how many times I heard, early in my career, ‘learn it on your own, the hard way, like I did.’”
He was asked if he felt this was backwards thinking. “Absolutely it is,” he said. “You can’t expect to grow or for blessings to come your way if you’re not sharing the knowledge you’ve acquired with the next generation. It’s just a terrible way of thinking.”
Through Bellet and Vergano, Aquil began to realize that he would be coming into an ideal situation as a new BA.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said with true enthusiasm. “I come to work elated, almost skipping. I’m in a new situation, I’m meeting people; talking to people. Everyday I’m learning something new. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I mean that in a really good way. I’m just happy, I can’t remember the last time I was this happy at work.”
Aquil had reached his goal and is now the Wayne BA, but his achievement was much more difficult for him then one might guess.
TAPinto asked Aquil about his education and the new BA was forthcoming with the struggles he had in school and the learning disability he had to learn to not only live with, but to thrive in spite of.
“I was diagnosed as perceptually impaired,” he said. This is a form of dyslexia. “Basically, it means that anything I have to read, I have to read it three to five times for me to have an understanding of what I just read.”
“Thirty years ago, I graduated dead last in my eighth-grade class. But I’ve pretty much surpassed every one of my classmates since then,” he said with a smile in his voice.
He was asked if he struggled in elementary school. “That’s an understatement,” he said with a laugh. “I was about 11 years old before I really knew how to read. I didn’t really become a decent student until I got into college.”
Aquil went to three different high schools, taking five years to finish. “Which I needed because my GPA after four years was something like a 1.9,” said Aquil. “But I got it up in my last year to a somewhat respectable 2.5.”
At Florida A&M University, Aquil found a program for students with learning disabilities and learned to overcome his disability.
He described the program. “They teach you that you’re not dumb, you’re not stupid, you just learn differently; that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations to level the playing field so that you can have the opportunity to compete. They made it acceptable to have the disability and gave you all the accommodations and tools that you needed.”
The new Wayne BA came up with a work-around for his disability. What is his work-around? “It’s just a work ethic,” he replied. “I have to put in the work.”
“I’m pretty sure that every single one of the Directors that I’ve supervised can pick up concepts faster than I can, but none of them can outwork me,” he said. “I have to work twice as hard as the average person just to compete with them. You’re not going to match my effort. Because that’s all that separates us as human beings: the effort we give and how we execute.”
Every day Aquil comes to work around 6:30 a.m. and generally works till 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. “I work every Saturday, but I love what I do, so I am going to put in the hours to make sure I get the job done,” he said. “I am going to read, I am going to ask questions, I am going to listen. No one is going to out-work me.”
Basically, it’s his determination that overcomes his disability, and his determination has led him up the ladder of municipal government to his dream job.
He was asked if he had a vision for running the Township.
“At the top of my list to implement was to develop a spirit of collective cooperation and responsibility, but that is already here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s different than what I am used to. Everyone is already working together. It’s blown me away.”
“Neal has built a great team, and I’m just getting to know all the departments and doing my own needs assessment. Then we’ll all meet and devise a plan as a team as to how we are going to address those needs and take it to the next level. My job is only about doing what’s in the best interest of the people of Wayne. The Mayor has given me carte blanche to achieve this as long as I keep him abreast of every situation.”
Aquil believes he landed his ideal job and he sacrificed a lot to take it.
“I gave up my permanent title, my longevity,” he said. “I was invested in the pension, and eight years away from lifetime medical. It was a number of different things, but I don’t live my life to make a living. I live my life to make a difference. I want to be a difference maker and I can make a difference in someone’s life every day, because here we service the residents.”
Talib Aquil currently lives in Newark with his wife and their two daughters aged seven and fourteen. They bought a house recently, so there is no current plan to move to Wayne. But he gave the Mayor a commitment that he would stay a minimum of five years in his position and he plans to keep that commitment.
“I’m looking forward to doing great things here,” he said.
Vergano is confident that he made the right choice for Wayne. “Newark’s loss is our gain,” he said.