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Standing for the vitality of Red Bank, its community, and the fun we have together.

ON GOLF, GOVERNANCE AND ‘MEATBALLS’

Now winding down a 16-year stint as Mayor of Red Bank, Edward J. McKenna is scheduled to be feted by borough employees at a party scheduled for 5p Monday, Dec. 18, at the Two River Theater.

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The event is open to the public. Tickets are $10 each. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Here’s something else to nosh on. redbankgreen sat down recently with McKenna in a conference room of his law firm, McKenna, DuPont, Higgins & Stone, for a look-back and look-forward interview. And he was as sentimental and pungent as ever.

I hear you’re a golfer.
Oh, yeah. Big. It’s my passion. I started when I was 36, I think. I actually belong to five golf clubs, three in Ireland. I go to Ireland three times a year to play golf.

Your ancestral home?
Well, yeah it is, but that’s not where I go. I go to County Clare for the most part. I fly right into Shannon. People don’t realize how close it is. It’s five and half hours. I usually take a red-eye on Wednesday night, get there, it’s Thursday morning. We play golf Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I fly back Monday morning and I’m back in my office Monday afternoon. So I miss two days of work. Art Murphy’s gone with me. Mike DuPont’s gone with me. In fact, Michael and I are members of the same club.

Is this a trend story we’ll be reading about soon in the New York Times, Americans with golf memberships in Ireland?
For me, it all goes back to 1990, the first time I went to Ireland. I played a club called Lahinch, and the person I played with was a priest. We got to about the twelfth hole and I said, ‘God, I just love everything about golf in Ireland, and is this my favorite course so far.’ I said, ‘Do you let any foreigners in?’ And he looked at me with this look of disdain. And he said, ‘Yeah, lad, we have Ken Venturi…’ and he named a couple of big shots, and I said, ‘Oh, sorry I asked!’

Afterward, we went in and had a couple of pints together. And he said, ‘Well, lad, I think it’s time I go home.’ So I said, ‘Father, let me drive you.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, it’s just down the road apiece.’ And I said, ‘No, Father, c’mon, I’ll drive you.’ And he says, ‘No, no,’ and I said, ‘Shut up Father. Get in the car.’ It was six miles away. He was going to walk six miles.

On the way, he said, ‘Who have you met here?’ I said, ‘Father, I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been here about a week and I have met the most delightful people. I said, ‘I met a guy named Ted Shields, who I understand is the largest Ford dealer in all of Ireland.’ He said, ‘You know Ted Shields?’ I said, ‘Well, I had lunch with him, actually.’ He said, ‘Who else have you met? I said, ‘Jeez, I met a guy who owns this great pub in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Brendan Arthur.’ He said, ‘You know Brendan?’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, I had drinks with him, played golf with him.’

I named about five people. He knew every one of them.

So when he got out of the car, he said, ‘In about a week, you’re going to be a very happy man.’

You thought, ‘divine intervention’?
Yeah—papal dispensation. So the next week in the mail I got a membership certificate to Lahinch. Unlimited golf for the rest of my life. No dues. No greens fees. Nothing. I’m a lifetime member. So that kind of triggered me into going back every year, because I have this membership, and quite frankly, I’ve met a lot of people I really like. Now, I go into the town of Lahinch, and I know everybody. ‘Ed’s back!’ So I go to the pubs with everybody. This is the first year in many years I wasn’t able to go at least three times, and I’ve been getting calls— ‘We miss you!’ So I’ve already got my three trips booked for next year.

It’s been a great experience for me and for my wife. She knows a ton of people over there, too. So it’s one trip with the wife every year and two with the guys. It’s a lot of fun.

Where are your people from?
Monaghan. My great-grandfather was from Ireland, and my grandfather and father were born in New York. I was born in Red Bank.

I wanted to ask you to reflect back on your boyhood. You come from a large family.
Eight kids. I’m number three, the first boy.

The Red Bank I was born and raised in was a great town. My father was a dentist on Reckless Place. We started out on William Street, where we lived, and my father’s first office was above Dorn’s photo shop. Then he bought a home on a double lot on Reckless Place, and built his office beside it.

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I grew up in a town that, frankly, today is pretty close to what I grew up in then, in some different ways. What we wanted to do was to bring back the attitude we had when I was a kid. That is, that everyone would be accepted regardless of what your faith was, regardless of what you color was, regardless of your economic circumstance. That’s the way I was brought up. And I believe that Red Bank today is very similar. That this is once again a town that, regardless of divisions, whether they be racial or geographic or anything else, that I feel I could walk into any place of worship, any place of business, and feel right at home. The schools, everything. And that’s one of the things I think we’ve restored – this great sense of place. That Red Bank is a great place to be. And that’s what it lost in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s.

Your wife’s illness—that was a factor in your decision not to seek re-election?
Absolutely.

I take it there were other factors.
I pulled out a list of goals I’d written in 1990 when I ran for election. It had 25 items on it. I did 23 of them. I think there are times when change is good. I kind of feel like I set out on a mission, and I accomplished the mission. I’m 56, I couldn’t envision another four years on the municipal council level, and I have great faith in Pat Menna—I think he’ll be a great mayor. And I have a lot of faith in Art Murphy, and Sharon Lee and RJ Bifani and the whole crew. So I feel like Red Bank is in good hands.

Of course, you didn’t know whose hands it would be in when you decided not to run.
No, but I felt very strongly that Pat would win. And even though it was close, I think it’s a tribute to Pat.

You’ve spoken a lot lately about your pride in having spearheaded the creation of the Special Improvement District. Had that initiative begun under your predecessor as mayor, Michael Arnone, in any form?
No, the guy who actually started it in that exact format was a guy named Kerry Zukus. Kerry was the one who brought it to our attention in the late ‘80s. Actually, Kerry and I sat down, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got a vision. I think we can bring this town back, and make it one of the greatest towns in New Jersey. I know it’s going to take a lot of work.’ And we met with a lot of people who said, ‘You’ve got a very difficult task. Cities like yours are going downhill, and you’ve got a lot against you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. We can do it.’

The business community always seemed to be divided. There was something, I think it was called the Red Bank Retail Trade Board or something like that, and then there was the Chamber of Commerce—now called the Eastern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce. Because of the unwieldiness of their interests, it was very difficult to get the business community united. And the business community was fighting with the residents all the time. And I said to the people who were in office at the time, ‘You guys just don’t get it. The success of this town is very much contingent on the success of the business community. Because if the business community fails, you’re not going to be able to knock those buildings down and put up residences. And number two, if the business community is a success, then they’re going to be paying a much larger portion of the taxes.’

Which is what happened. It used to be that residents were paying 80 some odd percent of the taxes. Well, now they’re paying about 59 percent. So that’s how we were able to stabilize our taxes and the ratable base. While other towns saw their taxes going up by more significant percentages, I think our average increase, if you look at the municipal tax increases—and it’s tough because of the revals and stuff—works out to about 3 percent. And we went from being the second-highest-taxed town in Monmouth County to being the 26th. So we did something right, from a financial standpoint.

One thing I’ve tried to do very intentionally is to run this town like a business. Did we cut out a lot of red tape? Yeah. Have we consolidated departments and positions? Yeah, but smart, not stupid.

Back to your list of goals. Two remain unfinished. What are they?
Broad Street to the river, and a parking garage.

We should have done a parking garage. It was a great idea. It would have been a cash cow for the town, and it was a shame, because it was very bad misinformation that stalled it the first time and, I feel, the second time, too. When people are being told, ‘They’re going to take your tax dollars and you’re going to end up paying for it because the garage is never going to make it…’ I said, number one, Red Bank Catholic’s not going to go away, the Count Basie Theatre’s not going to go away. You could fill that garage every day all day—you could sell it out with permits, if you wanted to. That’s not what the purpose of the garage was going to be. We would’ve been making money if we went through with it.

The last time this came up, you tabled it. You said you’d had some interest from private developers.
It’s still there, too.

What can you tell us about that?
There are different plans, but very frankly, I think it’s the purview of the new council to deal with it.

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Have you heard from private developers?
I’m not talking to them. I told them, ‘Talk to Pat. Talk to Art, who’s the head of the parking committee.’ I think they’re waiting for the new administration to come in, and then the question is, ‘Is there a viable plan out there?’ But I think there certainly could be a viable plan.

How about Broad to the river?
That may happen very shortly. There are some older buildings at the end of Broad Street, and the idea is that maybe some of those buildings could be rearranged, so to speak, to give people a vista of the river. Now, understand, you’re not going to get a great view, because the elevation is so high. But it would still be nice to see that opened up.

Is something in the works?
I know that there are plans being looked at by private developers. So it wouldn’t require a municipal contribution. But I think if the town could participate, that could also be a good thing, because then we could control a public space there, which would be a perfect tie-in to Marine Park.

What’s the value of it?
In the old days, people thought that would be the trigger necessary for the revitalization of the downtown. I always said, ‘No it’s not necessary.’ Would it be desirable? Sure. And we were right, we came back without it.

So it’s just an aesthetic thing?
To the credit of the property owners on Front Street, they have made a very significant turnaround in the desirability of having a business in that area. So I think it’s less necessary than it’s ever been. Aesthetically I think it could be very nice, from a public space standpoint, I think it would be very nice to have another vista available, so shoppers wouldn’t have to walk all the way down into Marine Park. Perhaps there could be a public plaza above the park where people could sit and talk. And you wouldn’t need a big space to do it.

You get stuck in traffic like everybody else. It’s got to be worse than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
Yeah, we had no traffic.

It doesn’t concern me at all. Any thriving community should anticipate it’s going to have traffic. Is it unbearable? No. Is it inconvenient? Sure it is. But what would you rather have, a community with no traffic issues, and a total lack of success, or the inconvenience of sitting through some traffic?

Forget downtown Red Bank. Go down Newman Springs Road heading west at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. There’s traffic all over Monmouth County. You think we have it bad? Go on Route 9. Go on Route 1. Our traffic problem in Red Bank is a lot less significant in than it is in this county, let alone this state. And I think it’s evidence of a successful and thriving community.

You know, people talk about gentrification, and the rents are too high. Well, we had a choice. Retail in America has changed so drastically that the Prowns’ and the Woolworths’— they don’t exist anywhere. It’s not just Red Bank. You go to Westfield, you go to Princeton. I used to go to Princeton football games with my dad, and every store was an independent store. You go there now, and a lot of stores are national chain stores. I mean, we have a lot more independents than Princeton has.

Why is that?
We made a very conscious decision at the beginning of our administration to push very hard for independents and to keep Red Bank from becoming just another series of chain stores. Walgreen’s, McDonalds, they all wanted to come in, and we told them ‘no.’ I can’t tell you how many chains came to us and said, ‘We’ll open a store in Red Bank,’ and we said, ‘no.’ I mean, politely. But we would rather have an independent.

The only one we let in was Rite Aid. I don’t know if you know the history, but that block was blighted. There was a plumbing store on the corner, a diner and some other retail, but the whole block was blighted. There were 17 oil tanks that were leaking. I mean, it was an environmental mess. Everybody who came into town on Route 35 heading south, they would look at that and think they were in a hell hole. And John Bowers, to his credit, took the risk. He acquired the property, and we worked with him. And though it may not have been what we envisioned for our perfect development, we did get that site cleaned up, which was a huge thing.

But after we allowed that to go forward, we had 20 other developers who wanted to do them, at the Schwartz site and the triangle property, and we said, ‘You know what? Those sites don’t have those problems. There was a specific reason we let that shopping center be built.’

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You’re obviously riding on a wave of good feeling as you depart. But what have been the most difficult aspects of your time in public service?
I don’t know that I’ve had really difficult times. The only frustration I have felt is over the intentional dissemination of misinformation to the public. I think people do a terrible disservice to the public when they tell lies or spread rumors that just aren’t true. And I didn’t really see it until ’99, 2000, and I think it really came about because of frustration on the part of the opposition, so to speak, because we won so many elections.

If you think about it, from 1988 through 1999, we won every single municipal seat, and this was historically a very Republican town. The Republicans were so used to having control. We won both seats in ’86, we lost both seats in ’87, and then in ’88, Pat Menna and I won by the largest margin of any council race in the town’s history—I won by like 900 votes, which was really huge, and I beat an incumbent councilman, who was a very good guy, someone I liked very much, John Madden, someone who’s the treasurer for the Republicans now. A complete gentleman. And this was what I was trying to stress. When Tom Hintelman and I were the only Democrats on the council, as much as I disagreed with the philosophies of the then-mayor and council, I always respected them and we could always engage in a dialogue. There were no personal attacks or anything like that, because I thought their positions commanded respect. And I think that’s something that’s been lost.

The parking garage issue in ’99 or 2000 was the first time that the well was poisoned. People would say stuff that was just blatantly false to the public. What they didn’t understand is that the public would call me and tell me what they were being told. They would skew figures.

Then, I really knew we were going to have a problem with [Councilman John] Curley when he did what he did to his running mate, Alan Soden, in the ’02 election, telling people to bullet-vote for himself in the last week of the campaign. That was so wrong. He stabbed Alan in the back, and Curley ends up winning by 14 votes. I can’t respect somebody who does that. Nobody we ever had run with us ever did that. Ever.

Are you going to remain in government?
Oh, yeah. I’ve spoken to the governor’s office and I’ve been asked to serve on several commissions. I’m on the State Planning Commission now, and I’ve just completed the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Wind Energy. I’m also a participant in the task force on building 100,000 affordable housing units. So yeah.

Will you try to win the chairmanship of the Monmouth County Democrats?
(Long pause) I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet. There’s no secret that six years ago I tried to become the county chair. I have great respect for [party chairman] Vic Scudiery. I like him very much as a person. I just felt that the county organization was weak, and that we could do a better job. He won, and that was fine.

But I think the record speaks for itself. This year, we finally got a Freeholder elected. And other than that, we haven’t had a county official elected since 1986 or ‘87. Twenty years without getting anyone elected? That’s tough. And we’ve had some very strong candidates who I think could have and should have won. We’ll see.

How about running for office?
I don’t see that happening. Would I preclude it forever? No, but I just don’t see it. I’ve had a great run, I’ve enjoyed my time very much and I feel that Red Bank has undergone a complete metamorphosis, so to speak. I’ve received tremendous support from the public, an I’ve been very fortunate.

Anywhere I travel, people know Red Bank. You’d be amazed. I’ll be in Rome, walking down the street. ‘Hey, aren’t you Ed McKenna?’ This kind of stuff.

Rome?
Happens all the time. All the time. In Harrod’s in London. I was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in West Palm Beach once and some guy swam over to me and said, ‘Aren’t you the mayor of Red Bank?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ He said, ‘I live in Palm Beach, but I have family in Red Bank and I see your picture all the time. I just want to tell you what a great job you did.’

You told me once that there’s a minimum of 25 percent of the people who will say ‘no’ to anything you suggest.
Not anything I suggest, anything anybody suggests. Dan O’Hern was the one who told me that, from when he was mayor. He said, ‘We did so many positive things, but you have to assume that a minimum of 25 percent of the public are going to disagree with your position, and call you a jerk and all the rest of that.’ He said, ‘I hope you’re intelligent enough just to do what you think is right. And if they vote you out of office, who cares?’

You know, I’m a strong personality. A lot of people like me, a lot of people don’t like me, and I don’t I don’t care about the people who don’t like me, and I mean that sincerely. I mean, I was elected four times, by huge margins after the first time, twice unopposed. And I think it’s because I’m a straight shooter. You either like me or you don’t like me. You want me to make a decision, I’ll make a decision.

Is it your perception that, when it comes to the vocal opposition, that it’s always the same people?
It’s not only predominantly the same people, but it’s also people who have never done a damn thing for the town, and that’s what’s even more frustrating. How many hours of their lives have they sacrificed for the town? Nine times out of ten, zero. What have they ever done to make the town better? Zero.

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I don’t want to tell you how many nights public service has meant out of my life. You give up a lot. And then you get meatballs at a council meeting who show up and try to berate you. That’s why I’ll often look at them and say, ‘Tell me, how many nights of your life have you taken out. How many hours of your time have you sacrificed to make this town better? Not that they don’t have the right to voice an opinion. But before you criticize others, take the time to inform yourself.

So what do you do, tune them out?
I’ve never tuned anybody out. I get letters all the time, probably 10 a week, and frankly, 90 percent of them are positive, but I read them all, if they sign their names. If it’s an anonymous letter, it goes right in the garbage. Gone. But, even if I disagree with someone doesn’t mean I won’t listen to and oftentimes respect their opinion, if it’s based on fact and logic.

Do you feel sometimes you’ve sometimes been a little too hotheaded, or short with the public? Frankly, I’ve been to council meetings where I’ve wondered if you don’t feel you’ve been doing this too long.
No, that’s not the reason. I’ve been involved, as you know, with the council for 20 years. I could sit for another 20 years and listen to logical, reasonable honest people. That I don’t have a problem with. It’s when people spread misinformation or use personal attacks, which we never did. I never went after Mayor Arnone, I never went after Councilman Madden. That’s wrong. It’s an element that’s very common to municipal politics, but was never common to us. I always felt there was a level of civility that should be observed, and when that is ignored, that’s the frustration.

Many people have said to me, ‘Just let it go.’ But I can’t. I’d say, ‘You don’t understand. It’s the chip-away theory. Tell ‘em one lie here, tell ‘em another one there, tell ‘em a third lie there.’ The more they get away with it, the more they’re going to do it.

Do you ever feel regret after a council meeting, and go home and say to your family, ‘I kind of lost it today, this guy really ticked me off?’
No. I really don’t. I really don’t. Because I think people know who I am and what I’m about. I’ll hold my record up against anybody’s. I’m not just blowing smoke at myself, but I know what I’ve accomplished in my professional career, what I’ve done as far as my family is concerned and my finances. I’ve run my business, for 27 years, I have 20-some employees. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, and I’m very comfortable with where I am. So if I get aggravated sometimes, I think, quite frankly, that I have a right to get aggravated.

But I don’t mean to dwell on that, because that’s been such an infinitesimal part of my public life, just the past year or two. I love the people of Red Bank. I have great respect for them. It’s been an honor and privilege for me to serve them and I feel very privileged to have had such a great time in office. I mean that sincerely.

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