Update: West Windsor council chose Jyotika Bahree to fill the seat vacated by Mendonez during its meeting on June 26.
West Windsor Council President Peter Mendonez blindsided residents, colleagues and town employees on June 12, resigning less than 10 minutes before the start of that night’s council meeting.
Mendondez announced his resignation in an email sent to township clerk Sharon Young, deputy clerk Gay Huber and then-council vice president Alison Miller, who has now taken over as president. The email was sent at 6:51 p.m., and the council meeting started at 7 p.m.
“It is with a heavy heart that I relinquish my position as council president and as a member of council,” Mendonez said in the email. “I will work with the clerk department and Ms. Miller to ensure an effective transition within the next few days.”
But Mendonez never followed through with his stated intentions, Miller said.
“I haven’t heard from him and neither has the clerk,” Miller said. “[The resignation] came as a complete surprise to everybody I’ve spoken to and a complete surprise to me,” Miller said.
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh and members of council told the News that they were unaware Mendonez intended to resign, and they have been unable to contact him despite repeated attempts.
In fact, councilwoman Linda Geevers said that if Huber hadn’t checked her email shortly before the meeting started, the other four council members would have sat there waiting for Mendonez to arrive.
Mendonez also agreed to answer a number of questions posed by The News regarding his resignation, but failed to answer before The News’ deadline.
The erstwhile council president’s resignation came only a few months after he changed the political power structure on council by switching sides during the township’s annual reorganization meeting in January.
Mendonez broke with former council allies Geevers and Hemant Marathe to join with Miller and Ayesha Hamilton in exchange for getting the council presidency.
During his first three years in office, Mendonez had frequently sided with Geevers and Marathe, often in opposition to initiatives supported by Hsueh. Mendonez’s defection created a three-member voting bloc supporting the mayor.
Council was expected to vote on a replacement for the seat at its meeting on June 26. The meeting took place after the News’ deadline.
Six candidates submitted their names for consideration for the seat by the filing deadline on June 22. They were Jyotika Bahree, Anthony DeCarlo, Marshall Lerner, Patricia Ward Prutzman, Susan Roy and Corinna Smithson Bisgaier.
Bahree is a member of the township’s zoning board of adjustment and has been involved with the Maurice Hawk PTA.
DeCarlo is a resident of the township for more than 20 years. Now retired, he worked as a supply chain manager for FMC. He has also been active in the Princeton Junction Volunteer Fire Company.
Lerner is a long-time township resident and a frequent attendee and speaker at township council meetings.
Roy is an attorney in solo practice who specializes in cases involving immigration and naturalization. She worked for several years as a reporter for The News.
Smithson Bisgaier is also a long-time resident and currently works as the director of education at the West Windsor Arts Council.
Ward Prutzman served for many years as the township’s director of community development. She retired from the position at the end of last year.
Miller said she expected that the six candidates would be given a maximum of five minutes to make a presentation about themselves at the June 26 meeting. She anticipated that a vote to fill the vacancy would happen that night.
There is a chance that council will be left with four members. Council has 30 days to fill the vacancy, and if it can’t agree on a replacement, the seat would remain open through the end of the year. The seat will be up in this year’s November general election.
Considering that the body is now split 2-2 down political lines, there’s a possibility that a four-member council could deadlock on issues where the two sides differ.
Important issues the council will likely be considering in the next six months include the affordable housing case in state superior court and the Howard Hughes site, where almost 2,000 units of housing are proposed to be constructed.
A candidate must receive at least three votes to be selected to fill the seat. In the case of a 2-2 tie, Hsueh would cast a tie-breaking vote.
There is at least one situation, though, where Hsueh would not be given an opportunity to break the tie—an abstention by two council members.
It’s happened before in West Windsor. In 1997, Carole Carson was elected mayor and her council seat was left vacant. Two candidates—Thomas Crane and Gary Carnevale—were nominated. Council voted 2-2 to appoint Crane, and Carson broke the tie with a vote against him.
Carnevale, who was Carson’s choice to fill the seat, received two votes in favor. But instead of casting two “no” votes to create a tie, the council members who opposed Carnevale’s appointment abstained.
The township attorney at the time, Louis Rago, rendered an opinion that the abstentions could not be considered as negative votes. Therefore, there was no tie for Carson to vote on. The seat remained vacant until the following election.
Miller said that she is the only member of the council who has sat on a four-member council in the past.
“Although it is possible for there to be a 4-0 council, it is less than desirable,” she said. “I hope we can come to a decision to choose someone to fill the vacancy.
She said that she would rather be in the minority on decisions with a five-member council than to have a four-member body that splits 2-2.
“Of course I’d rather be in the majority,” she said, adding that in the case of a four-member council, there is still work that would get done. “There are some issues that council is in total agreement on. We don’t disagree on everything.”
Hamilton said she hoped the vacancy would be filled “so that we can be at full strength as we deal with the issues before us on council… I do believe that our ability to fill this seat will be a good indicator of our leadership skills.”