WEST ORANGE, NJ - In Tuesday’s special West Orange Town Council meeting, Board of Education member Michelle Casalino was appointed to fill the position left behind by resigned Councilwoman Patty Spango. 

The six candidates that remained after the council members reviewed their credentials were interviewed publicly. These candidates included Akil Khalfani – a seventeen-year resident of West Orange and sociologist that sought to change operations downtown and throughout the city; Micaela Bennett – an attorney and social worker that sought to serve the community; Jerome Eben – a forty-year resident and architect; Adam Goldman – a businessman and owner of two local Dunkin Donuts; Bert Peronilla – a forty-two year resident who is a seasoned, multi-degree specialist in computers; and winner Michelle Casalino.

Each interview session was fifteen minutes long; two minutes were allotted to each candidate introducing themselves and their goals, and during the next thirteen minutes, each candidate was asked one question at a time by each council member.

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Casalino, whose list of credentials include serving as a Board of Education member for nearly a decade, where she also served as Board President; various stints as a PTA member for different West Orange schools; and as a board member of the Rotary Club—was the third to be interviewed via a random selection process.

When asked by Council President Jerry Guarino about her biggest accomplishment in her time of serving the community, Casalino cited her time as a BOE member, sharing “it was all about re-registration,” which tackled removing students from the township that didn’t live in West Orange, when she first joined the ranks. Under Casalino’s terms served, she said this problem was greatly reduced with many out-of-town students being removed. She also pointed out it was her time with her fellow board members, who were in attendance to support her candidacy, that makes her confident she can “shift gears” and “work with other township officials.”

“I created policies working with colleagues that saved hundreds of thousands in the community,” she said, which allowed the board to “ensure an education for all students in the community.”

Councilman Joe Krakoviak showed concern about her applying for the council position after having applied for reelection for the Board of Ed.

“If you are appointed to council, then the two candidates would run unopposed,” he said, wondering how she would go about reconciling that issue. 

Casalino explained the emotional process behind her decision to put her hat in the race on the eve of what would’ve been her fourth election for school board.

“Labor Day weekend, my husband and I were enjoying a quiet afternoon on the beach when my colleague, Mrs. [Laura] Lab texted me about Councilwoman Spango, and my initial thoughts were ‘good for Patty. She deserved it,’” she said.

When speaking on her decision to run, she said, “The phone kept ringing. I kept thinking about it.”

She said she took her paperwork in the Wednesday of because “it was very hard to leave a job she really loved,” but she felt her leadership qualities would adjust well with the Township Council.

Councilman Victor Cirilo, who recalled Casalino being opposed to the redevelopment of downtown West Orange, asked if her position had changed.

“Fourteen years ago, there was a different plan that was on the table,” she said, adding that her primary concerns then were with the plan potentially leading to the overcrowding of schools.

“I’ve expressed my concerns in the past few years to a few of you, and my opinion hasn’t changed,” she said before adding, “I’m supportive of downtown redevelopment. I’m not up to speed with the plan you have in place now, so I would need to be up to speed and would have to do my due diligence.”

Guarino then asked what experience Casalino would bring to the council from her time with the BOE.

“I’m a team player,” she said. “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

Casalino said that she would not have been able to accomplish plans with re-registration and saving tax money alone without her BOE peers.

“I’m a very good communicator. I brought transparency to the school board,” she said, using her advocacy to allow BOE meetings to be taped as credence to her claim. “I want to take the time and sit with my colleagues and sit with residents, and listen to what’s going on. I’m a problem solver. I’m a team builder.”

With her final question, Councilwoman Susan McCartney asked how Casalino gets people to follow her.

“It’s communication,” she replied. “It’s just taking the time out and listening, and working with my colleagues.”

After thanking all the applicants, the council members each announced their pick for the seat.

McCartney, who chose Casalino, said, “I feel our job is to fill the seat with the most qualified person. I have worked with Michelle in the past.”

McCartney highlighted Casalino’s tendency to “attack issues” and “address concerns” as two of the primary reasons for her decision.

Guarino also went with Casalino, citing “her dedication, her heart, and her community involvement,” adding that he feels “she has the ability and talent to do the job.”

Councilman Krakoviak chose to abstain due to concerns with the BOE election.

“We just went through the process of when Spango resigned,” he said. “She resigned a couple days after the deadline, which would allow voters to choose.”

While Krakoviak said that he feels Casalino is a fine candidate and contributor to the township, he was concerned about the voter’s feeling of “disenfranchisement,” for not being able to vote. 

Cirilo said he was most moved by Casalino’s history.

“Not to take anything away from the other candidates; you all have different areas that the council can benefit from. Michelle has a track record I can stand by.”

Casalino was greeted and applauded by residents for her election as Councilwoman. She will be officially sworn in at next Tuesday’s Town Council meeting on Sept. 29, at 6:30 p.m.