After breezing to victory in 2013 and 2015, Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede has faced a slew of opposition and accusations in her third campaign for mayor.
This June, she faced the first primary challenge of her political career—a fierce campaign that ended with Yaede easily defeating David Henderson at the polls. The win only came after Yaede had been forsaken by the county Republican Party—which named Henderson its official candidate—forcing the incumbent mayor to run in the primary essentially as a challenger.
In May, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office charged two township employees with animal cruelty after an investigation into the township animal shelter. The township council launched its own investigation into the animal shelter, issuing a 43-page report that depicted a facility run without rules or oversight.
In early September, the MCPO revealed it had slapped Yaede with charges of her own, a disorderly person offense stemming from the release of Henderson’s expunged arrest record. Yaede fought the charges, and a municipal judge cleared Yaede Sept. 20.
Yaede now turns her attention to the general election Nov. 5, where she faces council president Jeff Martin, a Democrat, in the race for a four-year term as mayor of Hamilton.
She has served as mayor since November 2012, and has twice won re-election, defeating Barbara Plumeri in 2013 and Amy Inman in 2015. She is the first woman to be mayor in Hamilton history.
Yaede previously served on the Hamilton Township council (2006-2012) and the Hamilton Township Board of Education (1999-2001). She also has worked in both the executive and legislative branches of New Jersey state government.
A lifelong Hamilton resident, she is a graduate of Nottingham High School and Richard Stockton State College.
Yaede sat down with Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes Sept. 17 at her Route 33 campaign headquarters to talk about the issues facing her and Hamilton Township. An abridged transcript of their conversation follows. (For the Hamilton Post’s conversation with Democratic challenger Jeff Martin, click here.)
You have been critical of how fire consolidation has been handled, specifically a collective bargaining provision in the ordinance passed by council. You’ve called it a “poison pill.” If council did it the wrong way, what would you have done differently?
Kelly Yaede: Council ignored the recommendation by their own hired attorney, who they praised in this process. The attorney recommended in writing to not put this clause—they call it the poison pill—which means it will not be heard by the local finance board until that clause is removed.
As the mayor who received a state study free of charge, it would have cost over $250,000 to the residents of Hamilton Township. After that was provided, which had stipulated there will be no layoffs, I would not have impeded—as a sitting council member because mayors do not have the authority to consolidate. Reason being, currently, the budget that was passed by Mr. Martin has such inequities with the firefighters. Some of the firefighters are contributing more to their benefits than other firefighters.
And, if they come under the municipal department, my concern is the budget passed by Jeff Martin means police pay a percentage of Chapter 78 [the public employees’ health and pension benefits] but our firefighters won’t pay a percentage of Chapter 78. You have now pitted our firefighters against our police department. As a mayor, you cannot do that. Everyone should be treated fairly.
What that budget that he presented said is that the value of our police isn’t as much as our firefighters, and that is unfair. The poison pill should be removed before it stalls true negotiations until after the election. And that’s why he did it.
‘how do you look the firefighters in the eye and pick which one doesn’t have to pay as much for health benefits? That’s unfair.’
OK, but you’ve been a member of council, a council president. How would you have done the bargaining? You need the bargaining completed in order to consolidate.
KY: They had the fire subcommittee. They refused to allow additional members outside of union members. I would have had fire commissioners. I would have had members of the public. I would have had other representatives from EMS services. And I’d have a clear conversation on what the fire service provides. Are there duplication of services? How can we make it more efficient, cost effective? And negotiate a contract based on existing services—How are the other first responders being paid? What health benefits do they receive?—and make it equitable.
At the end of the day, the taxpayers are expecting significant savings from this fire consolidation. The budget that was passed only took into consideration that there will be no more collection of Social Security, as per the police. That’s the major savings. What they didn’t outline is that the inequity within the fire department will continue to exist when it comes to paying for benefits. Wanting to serve as mayor, how do you look the firefighters in the eye and pick which one doesn’t have to pay as much for health benefits? That’s unfair.
You’ve claimed the investigations into the shelter and the criminal animal cruelty charges stemming from the investigations are political. Regardless of your opinion, the animal shelter’s reputation has been tarnished. What changes would you make to restore it to good standing?
KY: Last year, we addressed the issues at the animal shelter, and received a full satisfactory report from the New Jersey Department of Health. However, due to political reasons, those on council who want the mayor’s seat do not want to acknowledge that, and wants to perpetuate the negativity about the animal shelter. What they don’t want to do is acknowledge the efforts that went into the animal shelter and move forward. It’s not the political narrative they have been providing. When the whole animal shelter issue came to light due to politics and Hamilton being treated unfairly by Gov. Murphy’s administration and Gov. Murphy’s candidate, they would not acknowledge that the animal shelter operates in a satisfactory condition.
As the mayor who’s held three fundraisers for the shelter and is 12-for-12 in adoptions of Dog of the Day, when the council subcommittee did not show for the Clear the Shelter event, where your volunteers, staff and the public where there to visit the shelter, it reinforced that this is a political issue that they have perpetuated for over a year. That’s not good government. When you don’t provide good government, that impacts the entire community, hence why the council meetings and the council chambers are an embarrassment to the entire township.
One of the issues raised by the council investigation was the need for leadership. Todd Bencivengo, who ran the shelter and is one of two township employees charged with animal cruelty, retired in March. Have you replaced him yet? Do you have someone running the shelter full-time?
KY: What Hamilton Township did, we secured an outstanding supervising veterinarian, who oversees the process for medication, intake, the welfare of the animals, the examination of the animals. If any animals are injured, we do bring them to Dr. Boden, and she has been a fantastic addition to the team. She directly oversees and is in the shelter numerous times throughout the week. We are in the process of securing a shelter manager, who will oversee the shelter on a day-to-day basis.
We do have an extra staffer in there, helping to work on the unfortunate amount of [public record] requests we have coming into the shelter. Most of those OPRA requests are duplicative from the same individual using an alias, requesting the same exact information. The council subcommittee has issued their report, and after the report, they realized all of the issues were addressed, but they can’t move on from it because of the political narrative, to continue that.
The shelter is a necessary facility in our community. Where would these animals be taken? We have animals in our shelter for years, receiving humane treatment. Hamilton Township will continue to provide that service. With Dr. Boden, her team, her association with Columbus Animal Hospital, those services will continue. That’s why we have a continuum of animals being adopted from our shelter, thousands from our shelters. Residents approach me and tell me they adopted this animal from the shelter, and they’re happy they had the opportunity to go to the shelter. We will make sure that continues.
‘We’re working with fewer employees. We’re working smarter. We’re striving to see how we can automate some functions, and allow us to move staff members into other roles. It can be done.’
One of the hallmarks of your administration is an emphasis on taxes, particularly claiming you’ve stabilized taxes. Is it realistic to expect flat taxes? How much longer can you keep it up?
KY: Absolutely. The cornerstone of our administration is a continued stable tax rate, strong economic development and controlled spending. We run this township government, when it comes to the financial aspect of it, how any Hamiltonian would run their household budget. Businesses want to come where the municipality keeps taxes stable, so there’s not significant spikes. We do that by always keeping an eye on our spending by balancing economic development and attracting clean ratables.
It can be done in the future, and it will continue to be done in the future for when we look long-term. That steadiness provides good ratings. Our spending is lower than inflation. And it keeps the tax rate stable, and we will continue to do that.
When you look around the state, most municipalities can’t keep their spending at 1.08%, and we have done that in the 9th largest municipality in New Jersey.
How is it possible you have controlled spending in Hamilton, then, if all these other municipalities can’t?
KY: We’re working with fewer employees. We’re working smarter. We’re striving to see how we can automate some functions, and allow us to move some staff members into other roles. Dual training. It can be done. It’s being creative, and realizing the bottom line when you run a government is how does anything we do impact the taxpayers? We’re always looking to sharpen our pencils to keep spending down. We’re always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder. We’re always looking for new opportunities, whether that’s grants or any type of shared services we can do that can help the municipality and take some burden off of the taxpayers.
There has been some development in the last four years along Route 33 and Route 130. But there are many areas in need of redevelopment. Kmart just announced it is closing, leaving a shopping center without an anchor. The Congoleum site is an important area. The strip mall next to Cost Cutters remains abandoned. What is your plan for reinvigorating these areas?
KY: I’m so glad you asked this question.
We have been probably the most aggressive with attracting new businesses and finding out ways to enhance those sites and overcome any hurdles.
For example, Congoleum. The biggest issue with Congoleum—how do workers and residents cross over Sloan Avenue to Congoleum? That is a major hurdle for any corporation interested in that site.
We realized we had to connect the New Jersey Transit property with Congoleum. We are in negotiations with a company to construct a pedestrian crosswalk over that area. That is a significant achievement as a municipality to work on that hurdle to make sure it continues to be a viable anchor if you would like to bring a corporate headquarters. Also, that site has a warehouse.
If there is ever construction for a hotel there, we have met with Grounds For Sculpture, who would like to partner with the hotel to place some of their sculptures around the way and in the hotel. So, it connects the whole corridor significantly to have individuals stay at the hotel and go to Grounds For Sculpture. That’s the first property we looked at and asked, “What is the stumbling block for getting development there?”
Kmart. That will be an indoor entertainment center. We met with the potential buyers, Urban Air, to come in. The day that Kmart closes, they will begin construction.
The other property is the upper portion of Cost Cutters. We have received interest from a developer who would like to work with Project Freedom to build housing there.
There’s three significant sites that have remained vacant and abandoned that we’ve worked day and night to see if we could fill those properties. Everyone knows the Cost Cutters site was the bane of my existence. Snapbox will be at the bottom portion. And now with the upper portion, to see those two pieces of properties and what it means for that corridor. That bank that just closed across the way, there was interest in that bank, but they were waiting to see what would be on that site. It will be domino effect in that corridor of building.
You’re hoping once the walkway is constructed that there will be greater interest in Congoleum?
KY: Absolutely. I believe that with the amount of traffic Sloan Avenue receives. You have a train station; it is, outside of Penn Station, the No. 1 used train station on the East Coast. [Editor’s note: Hamilton was the 6th busiest station on the Northeast Corridor line that runs from Trenton to New York in 2018, according to New Jersey Transit. Newark Penn Station was No. 2 behind New York Penn Station. Overall, Grand Central Station in New York ranks as the second busiest train station in the eastern U.S., behind New York Penn.]
Visitors, workers want to come and visit; stay at the hotel, take a train. Let’s say a corporate headquarters wants to set up in that location, but they have individuals that live in Hoboken and New York City. Worker safety is paramount. Visitor safety, for entertainment purposes, that was a key concern.
You have two township employees who have been charged with animal cruelty. The state has investigated the health officer and is attempting to strip him of his license. The township CFO is suspended. The county prosecutor charged you and your campaign manager with a disorderly persons offense. On Sept. 11, the county prosecutor’s office sent officers to remove several computers from town hall.
With all that has taken place and with the election just a few weeks away, all this will surely be on people’s minds when they vote. Why should voters choose you despite all this?
KY: Hamilton has realized the most despicable and divisive politics it has ever realized in its history, and residents across the township are outraged at this level of politics where you weaponize the Attorney General’s office. To come into Hamilton Township, not any other municipalities, not the city, not any other county with the same practices as our animal shelter, the residents of Hamilton Township have realized this is outside Washington and state gutter politics impacting Hamilton Township. Hamiltonians with skin in the game have been impacted in ways no other town has been impacted.
Since the onset of these issues, I have asked, “Why Hamilton?” Why not Burlington, who doesn’t keep animals for seven days? Why not the City of Trenton? Why not Gloucester? Charges against eight individuals, never prosecuted. Why Hamilton Township? Because Gov. Murphy wants this town.
My opponent, all of his money has come from outside, statewide donors. Mine comes from Hamiltonians. This is what Hamiltonians have realized.
Why our town? Because Gov. Murphy. His handpicked candidate, Jeff Martin, has relied on disgraceful politics in our town. Hence why residents—and I have received multiple letters—do not want to go to council chambers. They’ve let a group of outsiders and troubled individuals disrupt the council chambers. When I was on council, I referred to that chamber as the People’s Chambers. Now council requires three anti-crime, uniformed police officers to attend each council meeting. That’s not fair to the taxpayers. It’s all because Jeff Martin can’t run a council chambers, and he can’t run a town. Gov. Murphy will be running Hamilton Township.
As a lifelong resident of Hamilton, I can tell you residents have approached me, and said, “Mayor, we have never seen politics as it is in Hamilton.” And they’ve asked, “Why not other municipalities?” And I say, “It’s because you have a mayor’s race here.”
And that is the bottom line with all of this. If there wasn’t a mayor’s election, half of this wouldn’t even be happening.
Why would the governor be interested in having control of Hamilton?
KY: It’s the ninth largest municipality—Republican controlled—in the state of New Jersey. They take over Hamilton, they take over this entire county. Gov. Murphy, who’s contributed and those close to him have held fundraisers for Jeff Martin. It is the last bastion of political stronghold in Mercer County.
You said Jeff Martin’s money is coming from outside of Hamilton Township, but yours comes from Hamiltonians. You haven’t accepted donations from outside of Hamilton?
KY: Most of my contributions come locally. Most of my opponent’s contributions come from statewide. There’s a significant difference.
You accused your opponent of using disgraceful politics, but as far as the campaigns go, I haven’t seen much from him. You, on the other hand, have been campaigning since before the primary. Many of your campaign materials use a stronger form of political rhetoric than what we’re used to in Hamilton. There have been advertisements in the Hamilton Post about the sewer system and fire consolidation that make accusations and have a negative slant to them.
KY: Well, I think it’s because the bottom line is, from our perspective, my opponent has said Hamilton Township is for sale. We will not allow this in this township. In this election, when someone who runs for mayor makes a statement that he has to protect Robbinsville Township residents, that needs to be said. When you want to give away millions of dollars to stall a fire consolidation because you are endorsed by the fire union, you’ve given Hamilton Township taxpayers away again. And when you cannot manage the council chambers where women are ridiculed because of their hair, their shape, their weight, you’ve given away the dignity of our council chambers.
So, when someone who’s running for mayor wants to give away our township, we will call them out on it. The residents of Hamilton Township know.
In the last school board race, I was the only elected official that came out against a racist school board slate. It would harm our children to let these individuals have a say in their education. In the primary, the same organization, the same individuals involved with that racist school board slate primaried me. We defended ourselves. We defended our town against racism, misogyny and anti-Muslim sentiments.
There’s a choice in this election. The individual who stands up for Hamilton Township, who’s bold enough to stand up against racism, misogyny, anti-Muslim statements. Or an individual who hasn’t been here three years who sells out Hamilton Township to outside influences. Period.
‘one thing I know as a lifelong resident and mayor for seven years, residents are tired of it. They don’t like the image of this great town tarnished by politics.’
Jeff Martin has lived here five years. But why is the length of time someone has lived in a town a qualification to be mayor?
KY: You don’t know the town. You don’t know the culture. You don’t know the way this town lives and breathes, and the importance of community involvement, and the history of Hamilton Township. How are you going to avoid repeating the past? Look at what happened when Glen Gilmore came in. He practically bankrupted the town. Our police officers had to take furlough days. We can’t repeat that. We cut taxes this year, lowered the crime rate, kept spending under control, received great bond ratings.
If you don’t know Hamilton, how can you lead it? This is a stepping stone for him. This isn’t skin in the game, getting out on a field on a Saturday afternoon. This isn’t watching our community go through events, whether its Enterovirus, weather events, helping out our neighbors. The residents of Hamilton Township do not appreciate someone coming in and using our town for his political agenda.
You’ve told me that your family has been harassed during this election, and that you feel strongly family should be off limits. But I have seen your campaign criticizing Jeff Martin’s wife, trying to use her employment as a Murphy political appointee to draw suspicion on Martin. How is that different?
KY: He tried to say that Gov. Murphy didn’t know who he was. Gov. Murphy wants this town. His wife sat in Gov. Murphy’s appointments office when a rapist was appointed and then moved out of the governor’s appointments office. After you make a statement that Gov. Murphy doesn’t know you when his wife is in Gov. Murphy’s appointments office? I’ll stop at calling anyone a liar, but it’s disingenuous at the least. Can’t hide the fact that Gov. Murphy has a direct reach to this candidate.
Is there anything you believe is important for voters to know?
KY: Yes. Having an outsider who doesn’t know Hamilton, who doesn’t know the ebb and flow of our town, what makes it tick, who just picked Hamilton based on political aspirations, not for the love of it, should not be running this town. The fear of outside influences from the governor’s office all the way down taking over our town, all any residents has to do is look at the political climate the last year and a half, that’s the result of outside influences. They don’t care that the level of politics they have play has embarrassed this great town. They don’t live here. They don’t realize the ramifications.
The one thing I know as a lifelong resident and mayor for seven years, the residents are tired of it. They don’t like the image of this great town tarnished by the level of politics, and they want to see Hamilton Township and the political environment restored to what it once was.
It is my hope that this great community can move forward after this election for it is the greatest town in the best country in the world.
Do you have any concern that voters blame you for the political climate and, therefore, won’t vote for you?
KY: Not at all. I believe the residents of Hamilton know I called out a racist school board slate because I cared about the children. I stood with the superintendent to get a referendum passed with necessary safety measures included. They know I took the fight against a racist, misogynist bully. Our residents, particularly the female residents, those little girls could see not to be afraid. Speak up and confront what is wrong. I believe the residents know that about me.
I believe they are more concerned with what would happen if you let someone you don’t know and hasn’t stood shoulder to shoulder with the residents year after year, the impact that would have for Hamilton in the long run.