By Justin Feil
City of Bordentown Mayor Joseph R. Malone III’s love of his town drew him into public service.
The lifelong resident won’t seek reelection for mayor this month after 44 years in state and local government, but that doesn’t mean his love for Bordentown has diminished at all.
“I can’t tell you how much I feel about this time,” Malone said. “It’s part of my life. It’s something that will always be a part of my life. I’m very possessive about what happens to the town. If somebody tries to hurt the town, comes in and tries to hurt it, I’ll fight like a bearcat.”
Malone has been fighting for the town through five decades. A fourth-generation resident of Bordentown, Malone’s first tenure as mayor lasted from 1973-1993 before he served 18 years in the General Assembly. He returned for a second stint as mayor in 2013.
“It’s just time for me to move on,” Malone said. “I’ve had a wonderful 44 years of serving this community. I’ve had things that have happened to me and things that we have been able to accomplish in town. I give a lot of credit to the people in the community who has been great people to work for. Between city government and having an office downtown and coming back for four years, it’s been an honor and a privilege.”
His wife, Valerie, was surprised when he ran again for another four-year term as mayor in 2013, but understood why.
“He’s really driven,” she said. “His heart’s in this town. He will not leave the town. He feels if there’s an emergency, he has to be here.”
She is hoping that retirement really does mean a step toward slowing down a dizzying schedule he has sustained all his life.
“I spent half my life waiting for Joe Malone to come home for dinner,” she joked.
When they do return from a night out, Malone still winds his car through the streets of Bordentown to ensure that all is well before he drives to their house. Valerie loves the way the community cares for each other, a direct reflection of her husband’s attention and love.
The couple has two sons in their 30s and two grandchildren. Malone has spent a lifetime checking up on the town and its people, and as much as he can he is going to step back to let others worry more about the tight knit town.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some sleepless nights,” he said. “You take the lives and concerns of 4,000 people and it wears on you sometimes.”
Malone has balanced his service with a long career in education. He began as a machine shop teacher in New Brunswick for eight years, then created auto licensing exams and real estate licensing exams for eight years with Educational Testing Services. He was a director of Somerset County Technical Institute for 21 years until he retired in 2006.
Different jobs come with different ways of leading, he said.
“As a teacher, you do what you do as a teacher and try to make it the best situation for your kids,” Malone said. “At ETS, I had to make sure that I made clients happy. In city government, you had both the legislative and the executive power to make things happen, which is different than any other forms of government. Other forms of government have layers of bureaucracy between the governing body and actual day-to-day operations. The city commissioners basically are the directors of their own department.”
Malone doesn’t know how he managed to balance his jobs with his public service commitments, but he’s proud that he never missed a commissioner’s meeting.
Malone’s roots anchored him deeply to Bordentown City. His great-great grandparents Patrick and Bridget Malone came to Bordentown in the 1840s. Malone spent his early years in a house on Farnsworth Avenue that was built by his great grandfather before moving house on Bank Street, and his grandfather opened the door to public service as city clerk for 35 years beginning in the early 1900s.
Malone’s father retired as head of the town’s volunteer fire department, and Malone had an early interest in community service. He was president of the Key Club in high school and recalls opening a coffee house on the second floor of the old city hall where people could play music and enjoy drinks.
After graduating from The College of New Jersey, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial education in 1971 and a master’s degree in 1973, he was elected the youngest mayor in Bordentown City history in 1973 at the age of 23.
“Growing up in and around it, it had an impression on me to serve,” Malone said.
He felt under fire to help the town as mayor. The water and sewer plants needed to be overhauled and the streets needed repaving in the first three years.
“If he wasn’t here, I don’t know where this town would have gone,” said public works superintendent Bob Erickson. “Like a lot of river towns, it was in hard times when he started. The buildings were getting old. There were a lot of older people here with lower income. He set the pace and the tone and a lot of young people came and bought the buildings and fixed them up.”
Erickson has known Malone his entire life. They went to high school together, and have worked together in public service for 40 years.
“He sucked a lot of us in,” Erickson said. “I had no intention of working for government when I started. I have the highest respect for him as a community leader. I don’t think you could find a community leader that is more honest and more wanting to do the right thing than Joe Malone. He may not always do the right thing, but he certainly tries.”
Malone served Bordentown as mayor until 1993. In that time, he brought Bordentown to national attention on 60 Minutes for pulling the city out of the state’s welfare system with his Workfare Program. He also garnered a strong reaction for his teenage curfew.
“My first few years were a little exciting, to say the least,” Malone said. “I felt very strongly that the people were behind me. There were a lot of lonely nights, but there were a lot of good people. When you have good people, it’s easy to lead.”
Malone represented the 30th legislative district when he joined the Assembly in 1993 and was reelected eight times. He sponsored the graduated driver licensing law for new drivers, and the $8-billion bill for school construction.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact that I sponsored or co-sponsored a couple hundred million dollars of open space legislation,” he said. “In my tenure in the legislature, we got well over 100 bills signed into law.”
He never lost sight of Bordentown during that time, though, and he kept his office in his hometown.
“You always came home,” he said. “You always came back to Bordentown. Your concerns are here. Your concerns are where you live.”
The mayor spent his first four years in the Assembly doubling as Bordentown City deputy mayor and an assemblyman. He knew when his time was up in the Assembly in 2011.
“The legislature is different,” Malone said. “I enjoyed dealing with people in the office. Going up into the state house and being overcome by that gray haze that makes everybody stupid wasn’t a very pleasant thing. It got so bad. It was reasonable when I first got in office, but the last two or three years it was downright stupid. No one was caring for people. They were looking out for themselves. It made me get very frustrated.”
Malone returned to Bordentown not intending to serve again, and he was snatched up by Burlington County College as chair of the board of trustees. After a year and a half, he again ran for mayor and won in 2013.
“He had been up in the legislature so long,” said Grace Archer, who became city clerk at the same time after more than 20 years as an assistant in the city office. “I think he really needed to make sure the town was in A-1 shape and everything was going in the right direction and then set the gavel aside.”
Malone feels good about where Bordentown City is. The city is financially sound after beginning the year with a $2.1 million surplus, a well-respected downtown restaurant scene, support for a diverse population and plans in place to continue to restore and preserve the historic importance of the town’s buildings. He has worked in concert with Deputy Mayor James E. Lynch Jr. and Commissioner Zigmont Targonski.
“You have to take the wishes, the desires and the concerns of every person, whether you agree or disagree with them, and blend them into one thought process that moves the city forward and tries to do good things for people’s lives,” Malone said. “I think we’ve done that.”
Malone has also worked as director of revenue and finance in his latest term as mayor, but for most of his career he was in public works. He still operates a snow plow, something that he calls one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.
“I’ve done it 30-plus years. It’s probably about the most peaceful thing you can ever do—in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snowstorm, plowing the streets,” Malone said. “You can honestly see you’ve accomplished something while you’re plowing.”
And Malone has accomplished plenty in 40-plus years of service.
He is stepping down as mayor, but won’t be but a phone call away. The new board of commissioners is expected to be sworn in May 15, and Malone will go back to being a passionate resident.
“It’ll take me a little time to uncouple from it,” he said. “I’ll stay involved a little bit and help where I can and try not to be too much of a nuisance. One door closes, another one opens.”