It's been less than two years since Rolando Lavarro, the newly elected Council President, has taken office. But in that time -- twenty months -- he's seen how unsettled the political floor can be.
First elected in a special election in November 2011, Lavarro's successful bid for office was seen, in part, as a byproduct of bracketing with then-Ward F Councilwoman Viola Richardson, the highest vote-getter in the election. While he ran a competitive race in 2009 for the Ward A Council seat (losing to Mike Sottolano, now retired), Lavarro beat out not only the mayoral appointed incumbents (Ray Velasquez and Kalimah Ahmad) but also Sue Mack, a Board of Education member with strong ties to the political scene.
There were plenty of other factors as well, not the least of which include the changing demographics and political loyalties in the city. In becoming the first Asian-American councilman, Lavarro represents an underrepresented demographic: the 2010 Census shows that Asian-Americans comprise nearly a quarter of the city's population.
With the new Council sworn in on Monday, Lavarro is now joined by Ward D Councilman Michael Yun, a South Korean-American who unseated political insider Assemblyman Sean Connors, in representing the city's growing Asian-American community.
Another factor that many suspected at the time -- and that is clear in hindsight -- was dissatisfaction with the city's direction. Indeed, Lavarro's election can be now read as a warning to former Mayor Healy, whose Council appointments came in fourth and fifth place.
Taking up the mantel of change immediately, Lavarro, said at the time that "the people have spoken, and they want change." This refrain invigorated the newly elected Councilman when taking up politicized issues that sullied the image of the Healy Administration. When it wasn't Mayor Steve Fulop (then Ward E Councilman) finding weakness in policy and performance in City Hall, it was Lavarro.
But while Lavarro's link to Fulop remains strong, his original benefactor is now out of office. Former At-Large Councilwoman Viola Richardson, though briefly a Fulop ally, joined the Healy camp and was ousted along with the rest of his team. It was a surprising change of fortune: Richardson received far more votes than Lavarro in 2011, and there was talk that her success might lead to a mayoral run. (Fulop, at the time, described Richardson's turnout as "very impressive.")
Emboldened by the result of that 2011 election, Richardson, Fulop, Lavarro, and former Council members Nidia Lopez and David Donnelly put together an ordinance that would strip then Council President Peter Brennan of his title and permanently cut the Council President's term from four years to two years. Although that initial effort was vetoed by Healy, a later effort to cut the council presidency's term in half was successful.
Lavarro is now in the position of being the first Council President to only sit for two years. His position is up for a vote in 2015 instead of when the term is up in 2017.
"That's a good thing," maintains Lavarro, who says he should be held accountable.
Typically the At-Large candidate who receives the most votes is voted by the Council to become its president, while the second-place gets the Pro Tem position (a substitute for when the president can't attend a meeting). But on Monday Lavarro, who received the second most votes behind At-Large Councilwoman Joyce Watterman, took the head Council position both of his experience and closeness with Fulop. While Watterman was voted into the pro tem spot, that doesn't mean she can't try for the position in two years time, says Lavarro.
"If there is a backlog [of ordinances] on the agenda, I'd be the first to say maybe someone else should be in charge," he says, adding,"it's important to review how things are going."
And already Lavarro has set a course that he says will make the Council's actions "more transparent and more accessible."
"We need to bring the government to the people," he says, a suggestion meant in more than one way. The city could hold Council meetings in venues other than City Hall, he says, such as in community centers, a proposal he put forward at one of Fulop's public outreach meetings. By convening throughout he city, Lavarro is hopeful more residents would get involved. Privately, some government officials are less convinced the idea will work, however, noting the technical requirements to hold the meeting. Indeed, as one official put it, the city recently spent a significant amount of money on the Council chambers to address acoustic concerns, provide a video-feed for residents at home, and, of course, install air-conditioning.
Additional ideas put forward by Lavarro include getting the week's agenda out earlier. Typically agendas don't go up until the Thursday before a Monday caucus meeting, leaving just one business day for the Council to investigate an issue. That means there's less time for the public to learn about controversial proposals and prepare accordingly (by, for example, reading the budget).
Already Lavarro, as Fulop's choice for the Council Presidency, has the initial support of his colleagues. Despite having two independents on the council, Lavarro was approved unanimously. In fact, he received endorsements from the Jersey City Education Association during the runoff, despite the JCEA opposition of Fulop himself.
"It's my responsibility to build consensus," he says. "I need to get the right people together to form legislation."
Although he didn't find fault in most of the work done by Brennan as the Council head, Lavarro says he will "be more aggressive" when creating committees, which are formed so a few Council members can closely examine an issue and report back to the body as a whole.
"We'll see more reports," he adds, saying that the updates from the committees will available for the public. For example, he says, the public safety committee will have direct access to the police chief in order to assess progress.
Currently Lavarro sits on the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency as an appointed position, which he expects to continue. With more redevelopment areas in Jersey City than any other municipality in the state, the need to communicate with the Council about development plans will be pivotal to the long-term health of the city.
Already Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano has stood out as ready to challenge teh administration, arguing at Monday's meeting that Fulop's appointment for Corporation Counsel, Jeremy Farrell, needed to better demonstrate his preparedness for the position before he'd receive Boggiano's vote. It looks like consensus building for Lavarro is already under way.
But first things first: economic development, he says, is a top priority. As the Assistant Director for the Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs at New Jersey City University, a position he's held since 2006, Lavarro has a track record of bringing in big money grants. Considering Gov. Chris Christie's decision to cut some $70 million from the city, not to mention the grants that are responsible for the newly hired police officers, Lavarro's professional experience may be more important than his Council experience when it comes to public service.
Yet his two years of experience are significantly less than Brennan had before he took over. What's clear is that Brennan's relationship with Healy mirrors Lavarro's with Fulop: a shared vision and a direct line of communication. Perhaps more importantly, both were "outsiders" when they came into office and still managed to run the ship. Now's the time to see how well they co-lead the executive and legislative branches.
Photo: Mickey Mathis
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