Ben Lucarelli at the dedication of Williams, Albert and Robards Park in 2019. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
But a recording of Monday night’s council session captures him frustrated over a loss of “decorum” at public meetings and taking flak for his own conduct.
Time-stamped as received at 10:30 a.m., the resignation came less than 14 hours after Lucarelli loudly banged his gavel during discussion about a land use advisory committee.
The single, explosive bang occurred amid a back-and-forth between Lucarelli and Councilwoman Meg Chrisner-Keefe, who had been pressing him for a committee mission statement.
“Oh my god,” someone can be heard gasping in reaction on the official recording. “This is not OK,” says another unidentified speaker.
“What’s rude is interrupting somebody stating a fact for the third time,” Lucarelli said, referring to Chrisner-Keefe.
Later in the meeting, Chrisner-Keefe, a lawyer, said she wanted the record to reflect that “the mayor’s conduct and behavior directed at me tonight and slamming of the gavel on the table was very unbecoming of a public official.”
Much of Lucarelli’s response is garbled on the recording, which contains gaps in the audio. But he can be heard to tell Chrisner-Keefe that when he interrupted her, “you called me on it and I stopped… I understand you’re a litigator…”
Chrisner-Keefe replied that the matter had nothing to do with her profession. “You can easily interrupt without slamming the gavel,” she said.
“I did lose my temper,” he said.
“I do think there’s a certain protocol we should adhere to,” said Councilwoman Suzanne McCabe.
“The chair runs the meeting. That’s one thing I have as mayor,” Lucarelli said, adding that when he first joined the council a dozen years ago, everyone got their say, but only after asking to be recognized by the mayor or person chairing meeting.
“But as of late, I would say over the last [inaudible] or so months, things have been deteriorating tremendously, to the point where people in the audience are shouting out anytime they please,” he continued.
Council members, too, have been speaking over one another “without being recognized by the chair,” he said.
“So I apologize,” he said. “I apologize for letting things get out of hand. I apologize for not keeping the rules, respect and decorum of this chamber a little bit tighter.”
He said that “did result in me losing my temper.”
During the public comment period that followed, Tracey Cole, who is running for council as a Republican with incumbent Betsy Koch, told Lucarelli that she and others in the public have also “been subjected to microaggressions, whether it’s the gavel or choice of language, or the way you correct people or speak to them.”
She called on the council members “to be strong, even if you’re corrected, even if you’re chastised.”
Lucarelli did not respond to redbankgreen requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday. Chrisner-Keefe declined comment Tuesday, and did not respond Wednesday.
Council President Chris Rodriguez, who will lead meetings until a new mayor is appointed, called the news of Lucarelli’s resignation “jarring.”
Lucarelli, 60, became mayor in February, 2012, following the resignation of Mike Halfacre to take a job in the administration of then-Governor Chris Christie. At the time, Lucarelli was a councilman, having been appointed by the Republican-controlled governing body to fill a mid-term vacancy in 2009.
Lucarelli was last re-elected in 2018, when he ran unopposed.
On Wednesday, Halfacre said he had no insights into Lucarelli’s decision. But he said his successor may have held the post longer than anyone else in the borough’s history, and did it at a time of increasing enmity.
In the past decade, Halfacre said, perhaps half the homes in town have changed hands, creating a “new demographic.” That, he said, coincided with the rise of social media, which has fostered “dead-horse beating” and a decline in discourse.
“I’m sorry to see Ben go,” Halfacre said. “But the amount of vitriol in the public discourse since I left office has increased so much that I certainly understand his decision.”
Lucarelli’s tenure as mayor included an extended and sharply divisive debate over whether to allow a Dunkin’ doughnut shop to open in the River Road shopping center anchored by an Acme supermarket. Comments about the topic were banned from a community Facebook page after personal insults started flying.
While the Dunkin’ decision was one for the planning board, the council faced demands that it amend zoning laws to bar fast-food chains.
Attempting to quell concerns about “children being run over by cars” if the shop was permitted to operate, Lucarelli told angry residents in late 2019 that “everything’s going to be fine. Six months from now, we’ll have a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Acme and the sun’s still going to shine.”
The business opened last December.
Lucarelli has also championed three successive, and ambitious, plans for new borough facilities. The first two failed – the first when the site targeted as the possible home of a new, combined borough hall and police station went to another buyer, and the second when it met strong public resistance.
But a third plan, focused on simultaneously rebuilding the police station and public works yard on their respective home sites, has generated more consensus, advancing to the construction-planning stage. It does not call for changes to the existing borough hall, on River Road.
More recently, Lucarelli has stood fire over a plan to lay sidewalks on Hance Road and Cooney Terrace. Last week, a special council meeting on the issue ran for more than four hours, more than twice as long as Rodriguez, who chaired the session in Lucarelli’s absence, had expected. The topic also occupied almost an hour of Monday’s meeting.
Lucarelli’s departure creates an unusual situation, in which the council, controlled by Democrats for the first time in modern history, will choose his successor from three candidates proposed by the local Republican organization. The new mayor’s term would end December 31, 2022.
In the November 2 election, four candidates are vying for two council seats: Cole, Koch, and Democrats Robert Gasperini and Sonja Trombino.
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