John Kelley Vying for Seat on Caldwell Council
Democratic candidate seeks to bring 'checks and balances' to all-Republican governing body.
When John Kelley told Frank Rodgers he would support him if he were to run for council, he didn’t expect to wind up as his running mate.
Kelley and Rodgers were destined to join forces, however, and are vying for the two open positions on the Caldwell Council in November’s municipal election. The Democrats are challenging the incumbent Republican candidates, Joseph Norton and Douglas Piazza.
Kelley said he decided to run after learning the incumbents were unchallenged and started talking to Rodgers, who ran a close election against Piazza last November.
“We are trying to do some things that are going to provide some checks and balances which we don’t think exist right now," said Kelley. “Our town is not being represented fairly.”
The Hillside Avenue resident came before the borough’s governing body in February to voice his opposition to a four-way stop sign at the intersection of Hatfield and Arlington avenues. He said the push for the stop was seen as a conflict of interest by some residents, because current council members live at the intersection.
Kelly and neighbor Gary Flynn gathered 180 signatures against the stop sign, which the majority of the council voted to install after the public hearing.
“I can’t believe that they didn’t even consider it,” Kelley said. “That was kind of offensive to me.”
Kelley said it wasn’t until a couple of months after that decision that he decided to run for office, although he seemed to earn his first follower that night. He said as he left the council chambers a man said to him, “You did a great job at the presentation, you ought to think about running for town council.”
The candidate was previously undeclared, but has registered as a Democrat in order to challenge the Republican incumbents.
Kelley, 54, is a 12-year resident of Caldwell. He attended college at Duquesne University, graduating with an accounting degree, and has been a CPA for 25 years with licenses in both Texas and New Jersey. He is a controller for a telecommunications company headquartered in Illinois with regional offices in New York, New Jersey and Georgia.
The candidate told Patch last week that he has never before sought public office. Until now, he said, he has devoted his time and energy to his career, his wife and two children. Kelley has a daughter at Mount Saint Dominic Academy and a son studying at George Washington University. He is a member of the choir at St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Caldwell, where he is a parishioner.
If elected, Kelley said he would work to strengthen relationships with what he sees as three key partners: the township of West Caldwell, Caldwell College and the business community.
He said the borough could have healthier partnerships in order to get things accomplished and agreements inked.
“We have so much to gain by having a healthy relationship with West Caldwell instead of an adversarial relationship,” he said. “We have so much to lose if we don’t bridge gaps that we have today.”
As an example, Kelley said West Caldwell might not be talking about building its own community center if the township had a stronger relationship with Caldwell, where a community center has been in existence for more than a decade.
“Why have we not been able to make that a successful relationship with West Caldwell where they wouldn’t even think of considering [their own center],” he said. “That’s the adversarial and antagonistic relationship that I would love to break and improve upon.”
Kelley said more has to be done in regards to shared services. He said one of the things that struck him about New Jersey when he moved here from Texas in 1999 was “all of these small towns so close together” with their independent governments.
He said the subject of shared services, particularly when it comes to police, is a sensitive issue. (Voters have been discussing a merger of Caldwell and West Caldwell police in light of the recent announcement that Caldwell’s Police Chief will retire by the end of the year.)
“It’s a reality where we have to move in that direction,” Kelley said, regarding a shared police force. He said he favors a plan that creates a combined force through attrition.
Kelley called the municipal budget recently passed by the current government body “political.” He said the borough reached a budget with a zero percent tax increase to the municipal levy in part by utilizing the surplus, a move he said he considered "risky."
Kelley said he also feels the business community is being underserved, and that more needs to be done to mentor and counsel new and existing businesses. He pointed to the recent closing of Ace Hardware and other businesses as damaging to the “face of our town.”
While Kelley said he thinks the idea of political parties doesn’t carry much weight in small towns like Caldwell, he thought having different voices representing residents was important.
Of the current council, he said, “They are making incredible sacrifices of their time—they really do want what’s best for the town. But sometimes I think their priorities are skewed and it leads to some perception of self-serving interests.”
Kelley said in the process of campaigning he has grown to admire his running mate.
“I am so proud to be running with Frank Rodgers, I have learned so much about him. I think the world of him and I have found so many people in this town who think the world of him,” he said.
Gary Flynn, who lives across the street from Kelley on Hillside Avenue, said he is supporting his neighbor in his run for council.
“The thing I really like about John Kelley is that he is one of those rare people who honestly wants to know what you think and feel,” Flynn said. “He really, sincerely is concerned about what you have to say and what you are thinking.”
Flynn, a lifelong resident of the Caldwells, said he has known Kelley since he moved into Caldwell and has “tremendous respect for him.”
“John is not motivated for his own gain. He’s not a politician,” Flynn said. “He’s doing this because a lot of us in town see that this just isn’t working.”
The municipal election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.
Correction: The Caldwell Council did not vote unanimously to approve the stop sign at Hatfield and Arlington. The stop sign was approved by a vote of 4-2.