Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede speaks with township budget officer Roberta Magdziak in the Mayor’s Office at the township municipal building Dec. 3, 2012. (Photo Courtesy of Hamilton Township).

On the first day, Kelly Yaede removed a door.

In her first official action Dec. 3, the new mayor of Hamilton had the door separating the Office of the Mayor from the municipal building’s main hallway taken down. Yaede told me she took one look at the door, and immediately knew it had to go. She wanted to show the employees and residents of Hamilton Township that her door was open—or, more accurately, off its hinges.

The intent was nice, even if the action means nothing on its own. If Yaede wants to close the door to her actual office, she still can. Not to mention, this kind of policy isn’t new. (John Bencivengo told me a year ago that his door would always be open for the residents of the township.)

Still, I appreciated Yaede’s act because—let’s face it—we need a lot more openness when it comes to politics in this township. It was a peace offering.

Yaede has done nothing to warrant residents not giving her a chance. Her name hasn’t been mentioned in any of the corruption allegations that have swallowed so many other politicians and public employees in Hamilton. It seems like Yaede avoided the temptations that ensnared Bencivengo, former planning department head Rob Warney and former recreation department boss Cathy Tramontana, among others.

And, in one of the tapes federal prosecutors played during Bencivengo’s trial, Bencivengo and insurance broker Marliese Ljuba shuddered at the thought of Yaede as mayor.

Yaede comes out of the mess clean. Still, she will need to be active to gain the public’s trust.

Yaede said the door’s removal has set the tone for her tenure. But it’s no guarantee an administration will actually be transparent. Plenty of people will see the missing door and respond, “Show me more.”

It is vital she responds to this challenge.

* * *

I know. The Dec. 3 press release from Hamilton Township announcing the door’s removal sent me flashing back to 2006, to Syracuse University, to an admittedly smaller scandal that still has some implications here.

In Fall 2006, the editor-in-chief of the SU student newspaper resigned after the publication’s board of directors discovered the editor was—to put it briefly—behaving like a college student. One of the lesser-ranking editors at the paper started expressing her interest in the job soon after the scandal surfaced.

Shortly thereafter, the scandalized editor stepped down, and the board appointed this lesser-ranking editor as editor-in-chief. Its members said it was “her time,” that she was the best person for the job, especially in this difficult period. (Seem familiar yet?)

But the paper’s employees had been hit hard by the scandal. Someone they trusted and liked suddenly was deemed to have violated that trust. Friends were ratting out friends. Some thought the new editor angled for the head job too hard, too soon. A once friendly and well-operating newspaper risked being torn completely apart and thrown into disarray.

So, upon taking the role of editor-in-chief, the new leader decided there needed to be more transparency and communication between offices. She wanted to seem approachable, and didn’t want anyone in the office to feel closed off from the other employees. In one of her first official moves, she had the doors taken down from every office in the building.

Some employees appreciated this move, but others took a more skeptical angle. Some thought the new editor merely made moves for political gain. They grumbled that she should lose her job, too, since she also held a position of power during the scandal.

The new editor and her supporters were sensitive to the accusations, and reacted poorly. They attacked to trample the rumors down, instead of listening, understanding where the critics came from and using actions—not attacks—to prove them wrong.

Back in modern-day Hamilton, I saw similar defensive attitudes in action at the Nov. 30 township council meeting. I saw it in councilman Dave Kenny stepping off the council dais and going nose-to-nose with resident George Fisher during an argument, in a clear attempt by an elected official to intimidate a resident.

I saw it in several council members laughing off comments from the public, calling themselves “outstanding public servants” and absolutely refusing to understand why people may be suspicious of government representatives in the wake of corruption trial testimony that suggested at least 10 current and former government and school officials had benefited from the generosity of a shady insurance broker.

And I saw it, most egregiously, in councilman Dennis Pone saying that any resident claiming there was a cloud over the township was a political operative for the Democrats hellbent on getting him and his compatriots out of office.

When I suggested to Pone that maybe he was being a bit harsh on the “cloud” crowd, that maybe people are shaken and needed more compassion from government, that there was reason people wanted to talk about a process that allowed four council members to select the leader of a township of 90,000 people, he shut me down.

“This is the republic we live in,” Pone said. “They voted for us. If they don’t like our decision, they can vote us out. That’s what a republic is.”

Pone and the rest of the elected officials should remember that civics lesson because, in November, voters have a golden opportunity to accept Pone’s offer. The mayor and 80 percent of council—four of the five seats—will be up for election. Only Kevin Meara will be guaranteed to return in 2014.

* * *

In 2007, Election Day didn’t turn out so well for the door-removing student newspaper editor. When it came time to vote for the next semester’s editor-in-chief, the other editors chose to get rid of the incumbent.

The wounds were too deep, and the voters felt the editor couldn’t guide the paper through the post-scandal period since she served at the paper during the scandal. They opted for a complete newcomer, and years of work ended in a half-semester stint as the chief for that particular editor.

Hamilton Township politics work differently and are more complex than a college newspaper’s. But in the wake of a scandal, Yaede will have to work hard to prove the new day she has so frequently promised early in her administration.

These probably weren’t the conditions Yaede imagined when she started striving toward a mayoral term as an intern for Mayor Jack Rafferty 20 years ago. She has put in her time in the municipal building, on the Hamilton Township school board and during several terms on township council. Despite having this experience, Yaede still has a tough job ahead of her.

Yaede assured me she is more than ready for the task. After speaking with her Dec. 17, I’m sure that’s true.

But, after a turbulent month, the only thing that changed in Hamilton municipal government between Bencivengo’s resignation and now is the person in the mayor’s office.

It might be enough to make a difference, but I hope our new mayor remembers this: You can’t clear a stench just by opening a door. Sometimes, you may have to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

Rob Anthes is senior community editor of the Hamilton Post. Connect with him on Facebook at facebook.com/robanthes.

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Rob Anthes
Rob Anthes is managing editor at Community News Service, and also serves as the editor of the Hamilton Post. Rob's writing has been honored by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Free Community Papers, most recently in 2020. He was a 2019 fellow at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, based at the University of Rhode Island. A Hamilton native, Rob is a graduate of Steinert High School and Syracuse University.