There’s a new majority in West Windsor.
Council member Peter Mendonez switched sides during the township’s annual reorganization meeting on Jan. 3, breaking with former political allies Linda Geevers and Hemant Marathe on council to join with Alison Miller and Ayesha Hamilton.
As its first act, the new Hamilton-Mendonez-Miller majority voted 3-2 to elect Mendonez as council president over Marathe, who only received votes from Geevers and himself. Miller was unanimously elected to be the council vice president.
According to sources, both Geevers and Marathe were in the dark about Mendonez’s change of allegiance until shortly before the council meeting.
Before the voting, Marathe argued that he would be the better presiding officer.
“I am fully aware that political accommodations have already been made by three council members ahead of time,” he said. “Given my 20 years of community service in West Windsor and dedicated service on the school board, there’s no doubt in my mind that I am the better candidate.”
He added that he hoped “all residents of West Windsor pay attention to how their interests are being represented here.”
During his first three years in office, Republican Mendonez frequently sided with Geevers and Marathe (also Republicans) often in opposition to initiatives supported by Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, who is a Democrat.
Although West Windsor has a nonpartisan form of government with no party affiliations listed during the municipal elections, the Republicans on council have been at odds with Hsueh and the Democratic members of council for many years. Mendonez’s alliance with Hsueh, Hamilton and Miller ends that, and the new voting bloc is likely to result in a council that is friendlier to the mayor and his administration.
After the meeting, Mendonez, who ran for Assembly in 2015, said he still identifies as a “moderate Republican.” However, his goal is to make West Windsor less partisan.
“The goal here of essentially aligning with Alison and Ayesha is to show consensus, that we are nonpartisan,” Mendonez said. “The goal is to take the partisan aspect out of the government and to get things done. I have the same priorities as in the past.”
He said an immediate initiative for the town is to release a list of Mayor-Council objectives and priorities for 2017.
“The top priority on the list is the budget,” Mendonez said. “For me, another objective is to break ground on the Cranbury Road sidewalk project. I ran on that. It is also important to revisit the sign ordinance as it relates to political signs. I want to make sure that it is taken care of prior to the municipal election. Another big item for me is open space acquisitions, which preserve our town and limit unneeded development.”
In an interview after the meeting, Hsueh said that he is optimistic that with Mendonez as council president, communications between administration and council will improve.
“Peter is willing to meet with me and our administrators on a regular basis, at least before council meetings before the agenda is set,” Hsueh said. “In the past three years, that has not happened.”
Hsueh said it’s difficult to get things done without good communication between the mayor and council. “We all have to work for the greater good of West Windsor, and it shouldn’t be partisan,” he said.
Whether members of council can get along remains to be seen. The reorganization meeting alone took some 90 minutes to complete, and in addition to the fight over the council presidency, there was also debate over council liaisons on the various volunteer boards and committees.
‘The goal is to take the partisan aspect out of the government and to get things done.’
– Council President Peter Mendonez
Both Hamilton and Marathe were nominated to serve as council representative on the Planning Board and also on the Emergency Management Council. In both cases, Hamilton prevailed by 3-2 votes, with Hamilton voting for herself along with Mendonez and Miller.
Marathe declined an appointment as liaison to the environmental commission after being nominated by Hamilton. “I was never asked. I was told,” he said. “I will do what interests me, where I can contribute. There’s no reason I should go where I can’t contribute. I just got an email at 4:30 p.m. today telling me I’m supposed to do this, and not this. That’s not how government is supposed to work.”
Mendonez pointed out that members of council rotate liaison positions between the different board and committees and encouraged Marathe to accept the environmental commission liaison job.
“I am not interested in serving for the environmental commission,” Marathe said.
“You’re not interested in serving the community, is that what you said?” Mendonez asked.
Marathe shot back, “I am very much interested in serving the community in the capacity that I can serve and where my talents are best suited. I don’t want to serve on something simply because you tell me to serve on something. You don’t have that authority.”
Mendonez eventually agreed to accept the position and was approved by a 5-0 vote. Marathe accepted positions as liaison to the West Windsor Parking Authority and as a member of the zoning board and was approved 5-0 for both.
Other unanimous liaison appointments included Geevers and Hamilton to the cable TV advisory board, Miller to the affordable housing committee and Geevers to the WW-P school board and board of recreation.
“We want to serve the community, and the community is best served if we all work together,” said Miller during comments at the end of reorganization.
“I know these people well enough that despite the fact we don’t always vote the same way, we want to work together with each other, with the mayor, with administration, with other levels of government for the best results in West Windsor,” Miller said.
Hamilton said that she learned a lot during her first year on council in 2016 and looks forward to 2017 being an “incredible” year. “There’s a lot that lies ahead of us. It’s an exciting time. I have high hopes and I think that Peter will do a great job. There’s potential for change and potential for growth, and we have an incredible team up here that can achieve that for this town,” she said.
Geevers said that despite the 3-2 votes during reorganization, the council needs to move on, and that she’s looking forward to “a good year of discussion.”
“I think we’re going to have a lot of spirited discussions,” Geevers said. “That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to agree, but we will still walk out of here talking to each other afterwards.”
During his comments, Marathe said he wanted to clarify his position on the solar microgrid project proposed by administration to be constructed near the municipal complex. “I am not for or against it,” Marathe said, adding that he has a number of questions he wants administration to answer. “My sincere hope is that we will get answers to these questions before calling it a done deal.”
–Bill Sanservino contributed to the reporting for this article.