With news that election results for the May 12 Town Council elections have been certified, it appears Belleville’s four wards voted to return all incumbents to their seats.
To call the election unorthodox and unprecedented seems an understatement. Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, Governor Phil Murphy ordered the May election to be done entirely by mail-in ballot. There was no shortage of controversy about this approach, and it proved to be fraught with problems, the most prominent example having been allegations of mail-in ballots not being delivered to some Belleville voters, which prompted Governor Murphy to instruct the state Postmaster General to investigate.
The most watched election was undoubtedly in the First Ward, where incumbent Marie Strumolo-Burke faced challenger Carmine Mattia. Burke squeaked out a victory, with a lead of only 135 votes.
Mattia had the backing of Mayor Michael Melham and his Better Belleville organization. It should surprise nobody that Melham supported Burke’s challenger, especially since Burke began going against parts of Melham’s agenda as early as 2019, and had a late-in-the-game epiphany that the high-density residential, mixed use development being constructed on historically contaminated property on Belmont Avenue that Melham embraced from the get-go may not be a great thing for her ward.
Melham went so far as to manage Mattia’s campaign, as noted on campaign disclosure forms. Mattia told Belleville Watch in a phone conversation that it was he who asked Melham for help. This explanation, however, fails to put a benevolent face on Melham’s apparent desire to become a political kingmaker or boss. After all, for more than a decade many Belleville politicians, at one time or another, asked political boss (and Melham’s onetime — or some might say current — political mentor) Richard Yanuzzi for his support.
Both campaigns used social media to emphasize their opponent’s less-than-flattering moments, resurrecting the 2014 scandal of Burke allegedly saying the “N-word” on a voicemail and Mattia captured on video of a Town Council meeting calling Silver Lake a “s*ithole” Councilwoman Burke made a public apology for the remark and Mattia, in a phone conversation with Belleville Watch, stated his comments were made in the context that no development had occurred in Silver Lake for years.
Mattia has yet to concede, and from posts on the Facebook page for his campaign, he has an investigator checking out votes and where they came from.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking that Mayor Melham will adopt a measure of humility, knowing that maybe Belleville isn’t buying everything he’s selling, as evidenced by his failure to elect his candidate in the First Ward.
In the Second Ward, 18-year old Frank Velez took a stab at unseating longtime incumbent Steve Rovell. (Editor’s Note: After an accusation was made that Velez was supported by BetterBelleville, Velez confirmed to us that he is indeed a member of the BetterBelleville Civic Association, but stated he ran his own campaign.)
Velez’s passion for the campaign and courage in running against a seasoned incumbent is undeniable, but in the end Rovell, whose voting record has rarely deviated from the council majority, healthily won re-election (we would like to know, however, the thinking behind the arrogant campaign signs seen around the Second Ward reading, “This is Rovell Country” — seriously?) (Editor’s Note 5/26/2020: Councilman Rovell told us that the signs originated in 2004 from his supporters and after high demand this year were printed and are dedicated to the memory of his late friend and unofficial chief of staff Joan Gabriele.)
Third Ward Councilman and deputy mayor Vincent Cozzarelli ran unopposed. Again, like Rovell, Cozzarelli often votes along with the majority. Since Melham became mayor, Cozzarelli has shown great enthusiasm for the Team Melham agenda. Maybe in 2024 he will face a challenger.
In the Fourth Ward, John Notari — well known for either being absent of late from Town Council meetings and missing votes on key issues, or when in attendance, scooting out the back door right when the meeting ends — won an outsized victory against challenger Miosotty Martinez.
Mayor Melham has been strangely silent in the days leading up to the election results coming in, and after. His “political posts” — full of haughty attitude and cocksureness about knowing what Belleville wants — have stopped on his Facebook page. He’s even passed on broadcasting his “Fireside Chats” the past two Sundays.
Perhaps Melham has realized that just because he and his running mates won election in 2018 against an incumbent administration with a lackluster record of success, it doesn’t mean Belleville voters have signed on to every part of his agenda.
Just as we were finishing this piece, we found out that the Town Council is apparently going to vote to introduce at tonight’s Town Council meeting (not vote to pass, which occurs at the second reading — usually the next scheduled meeting after the introduction and first reading) two ordinances: one which would apparently repeal an ordinance that barred elected officials sworn in after June 30, 2010 from enrolling in Township health plans, and another which seems to seek the abolition of the town’s planning and zoning boards.
It will be interesting, indeed, to see how the returned incumbents vote on these ordinances. It will be a true test of their leadership. Belleville residents, please take note.