A new era has begun in Hamilton Township.

Democrat Jeff Martin took over the mayor’s office from Kelly Yaede Jan. 1, and the subsequent weeks have been a flurry of activity as Martin builds the framework of his administration.

Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin (second from left) takes the oath of office Jan. 1, 2020 during a ceremony at the Stone Terrace on Kuser Road. State Senator Troy Singleton (left) administered the oath, while Martin’s wife Scarlet Rajski and municipal clerk Eileen Core look on. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski.)

On his very first full day as mayor, Martin tapped familiar faces Kathy Fitzgerald and Fred Dumont to serve as director of health, recreation, senior and veteran services and the head planning, zoning and inspections department, respectively. Then, on Jan. 15, Martin announced that he had selected T. Missy Balmir as interim business administrator and Chris Markley as public works director.

The appointments continued through the rest of January, as Martin transitioned into the first Democratic administration in more than a decade. On the council side, the all-Democratic legislative body—including newcomers Pat Papero, Jr. and Nancy Phillips—got in on the act, appointing Charles “Chuddy” Whalen Jan. 21 to fill Martin’s former seat.

But filling positions will only be the beginning, as Martin has a whole host of issues waiting for him to solve—many of which took center stage during the 2019 campaign season.

Martin met with Community News managing editor Rob Anthes in his office at the municipal building on Greenwood Avenue Jan. 8 to talk about fire consolidation, the township animal shelter, Trenton Water Works and his hopes for his first year as mayor. An edited transcript follows:

Community News: It’s only been a week, but how’s the job going so far?

Jeff Martin: I love it. It’s been busy, and I’ve made it a point to go out to every office, every municipal division I can, just to get out to meet every municipal employee I can meet and show my gratitude and appreciation for the work their doing, let them know I’m excited to get to work with them for the benefit of Hamilton, and just to put a face to the name. Many of them might have read my name or seen a photo, but we’ve never had the opportunity to meet face to face. I spent a lot of time doing that in addition to the regular tasks you do as mayor. But I wanted to make sure I got out to see as many employees as I could in that first week or so.

CN: Have there been any surprises or things that are different than you were expecting?

JM : I think we’re learning what is quote-unquote expected, in terms of a routine, in terms of processes and procedures. I would say the number of calls and emails early on to have meetings is larger than I expected it to be. But that’s going to be the start of any new administration, whether here or in any other town across the state.

I wouldn’t say there is anything surprising yet, but we’re still trying to figure what a normal day is.

CN: How has the transition gone from the Yaede administration to yours?

JM: Dave Kenny especially, as the outgoing business administrator, has been very cooperative. He provided us with what we had asked for, as far as requests from my transition team, access to different employees to learn their functions to be able to see the big picture of how the organization that is Hamilton Township’s government works. He’s been very gracious, cooperative.

CN: Right off the bat, you named two new directors. Have any other decisions made about staffing?

JM: First, let me say that I’m thrilled to have Kathy Fitzgerald as the director of health, recreation, senior and veteran services. She held that title previously under Mayor Glen Gilmore. She went back to being the head of the senior center, and has agreed to come back and be the department director. I’m very happy about that. She’s got a great attention to detail that we’ll need as we work through some issues that were in some of the departments that fall underneath her.

Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (left) congratulates Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin during Martin’s inauguration Jan. 1, 2020 at the Stone Terrace on Kuser Road. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski.)

Also very excited to have Fred Dumont be the head of planning, zoning and inspections department. We’re also going to be moving economic development into his office, as well, and renaming it “Department of Community and Economic Development.” We’ll be hiring somebody to help him with the economic development piece.

Fred’s got years as a building trades member, sitting across from developers, knowing their language, knowing the language of how to put a building up. With that, I’m very excited he agreed to join the team.

On Monday the 13th, we will have Chris Markley as the head of public works. He is the No. 2 in Mercer County’s Department of Transportation [at the time this interview was conducted]. I’m very excited to have Chris. He’s somebody who worked his way up. He started as a laborer, took classes on a variety of subjects and improved himself. He will be an asset to his department, this administration and this town.

CN: What is the timeline for rounding out the staff in your administration?

JM: We’ll be announcing more in the coming days and weeks. We’re probably going to be doing an interim business administrator. Carrie Feuer, who is the head of our Department of Water Pollution Control, has agreed to stay on. We’re happy to have her continue in that role.

I’m also proud to announce Missy Balmir. She’s going to be taking over as our business administrator on a temporary basis. She’ll be here full time. But she’s going to limit her service to about 30 to 45 days to allow us time to finish our search for a business administrator and see if we’re successful in attracting a top-tier candidate. And giving us time to figure out, if we’re not successful in attracting a top-tier candidate, what our other options are. So we’re happy that she’ll be joining us as of Jan. 13.

We’re also going to be announcing that we will be disbanding the Office of Economic Development and Information Technology and moving those pieces around. Economic development will fall under Fred Dumont as part of the Department of Community and Economic Development. And our information technology office will be falling under the business administrator.

The spot that was previously the director’s we’re going to use to now create essentially a deputy town manager, a deputy business administrator. I think the previous business administrator was done a disservice by having so much on his plate. It’s important for us to get another set of eyes and another set of ears being in that position to help our BA execute the jobs that need to be done.

Also, on Jan. 21, we’re going to be announcing Bianca Jerez. She currently works in the New Jersey General Assembly majority office as a policy analyst. She’s going to be joining us as my chief of staff. So she’ll be assigned to really be a liaison between us and a lot of other government entities both at the state level, the county level, our legislators, our neighboring municipalities. One of the big things that will be on her plate is Trenton Water Works and liaising with the city on that as well.

Again, she’ll be another set of eyes and ears for me. We’re moving the call center directly underneath her so that reports directly to the mayor’s office. Our call center does a phenomenal job in being that frontline communication to our residents. And I, as the mayor, want to know what people are calling about, what people are emailing about to look for any trends, patterns, issues. HamStat reporting directly to Bianca will be, I think, just a show of how important I think that office is and how much I hope our residents continue to use it as a way to get information about the town.

CN: Was that recommendation from your transition team to then add some of those positions and reorganize the departments and that way?

JM: Yeah, so that’s going to be one of the recommendations. Again, it’s not formalized in a report yet, but just talking to them based on their conversations with the previous administration, and just from my own viewpoints, sitting on the dais on council, I felt those were moves that could streamline our government.

We’re not adding employees by restructuring that way. We’re just changing who people are reporting to.

CN: Are you eliminating any positions then to hire people in these new positions?

JM: The structural changes that we’ve made, we’re not eliminating or adding any employees to the township. You know, we really started out from a top down approach to just make sure we’re comfortable with the organizational setup. And I’m really going to rely on the department directors, looking inside their organizations to recommend any changes. But that’s going to take some time for them to get in there and do all that as well.

CN: Outside of staffing, is there any one issue you’re looking most forward to addressing?

JM: There isn’t any one issue. There are a few I talked about at my inauguration that I’m eager to get started on.

First, fire consolidation. Council president Rick Tighe announced at the [Jan. 7] council meeting that they’re forming another subcommittee [on fire consolidation]. We have our first meeting [Jan. 14] to start that process again, and to really move forward in a collaborative way with council and a lot of the stakeholders, with the goal of getting this done this year. That’s one issue we’ll get started on within the first two weeks that I take over.

Another one—that Fred Dumont is working very closely on—is the abandoned and blighted properties in the township. First, we’re trying to establish as accurate a count that we can on how many there are actually, between residential, commercial, commercial standalone vacant lots in a larger complex. So, I know he and his team are getting started on that so we can understand the full grasp on what we’re facing.

I’ve already had my first budget meeting, so that will be a continual process throughout the first few months to see where the town is financially and put together a solid plan for this year’s budget.

One other issue is, we have ongoing litigation with Robbinsville [regarding its use of Hamilton’s sewer system]. We’ve already scheduled a meeting between Hamilton’s officials and Robbinsville’s officials, and (Robbinsville) Mayor Dave Fried has agreed to that and has been very cooperative in getting that meeting on the books early. We’re meeting in January to just sit at the same table, see what information people need and see if we’re able to come to a resolution sooner rather than later.

CN: Another topic you’ve mentioned frequently since being elected is Trenton Water Works. Many township residents receive their water from Trenton Water Works. Have you had any conversations with Trenton Water Works since taking office? What do you hope to accomplish with the City of Trenton and Trenton Water Works?

JM: We sit here on Jan. 9. This evening, we have an open forum that Trenton Water Works is hosting with the idea of keeping the public informed on what their plan is and what’s going on, the challenges and opportunities they see on the horizon. That’s a big portion of this: having the public see their attention to this.

In my first few days, I had a meeting with the mayors of Ewing, Lawrence, myself and Steve Picco from Trenton Water Works, where he laid out the next few months’ plan for Trenton Water Works, the lead service line replacement program, their capital plan, their staffing plan, and giving us an opportunity to ask questions. We all agreed that’s going to become a quarterly meeting moving forward, where we can all get in the room together to make sure we’re all fully informed and can inform our residents of what’s going on.

CN: The dynamic with Trenton Water Works has changed. It no longer seems like the main tension is between the utility and its suburban service area. The utility appears to be much more in sync with the mayors of the suburban towns than it was a year ago. A lot of the friction now is between Trenton council and everyone else—the utility, the Trenton administration and all of TWW’s suburban ratepayers. Editor’s note: Over the last two months, Trenton council voted to not renew Steve Picco’s contract as interim director of TWW. It also decided to not approve millions of dollars worth of funding that TWW officials said is needed to keep the system running adequately.]

Has there been any discussion with the mayors of the other suburban towns on how to manage that? Because the reality is, we’re stuck with TWW regardless of what the utility or Trenton council decides. Service area towns like Hamilton have no recourse.

JM: Sure. That’s one of the things we talked about: what communication has been made between Mayor [Reed] Gusciora’s administration and the city council to improve things there and to ensure they stay at a high level once they reach that level. We’re putting our trust in Mayor Gusciora that the more council is educated and kept apprised of what the plan is, we’re hopeful they’ll act accordingly.

There’s no doubt everybody wants clean, safe drinking water for their residents, whether you’re from Ewing, Lawrence, Hopewell, Trenton or Hamilton. There may be differences in opinions on how to get there, on the most cost efficient way to get there. But I don’t doubt anybody’s desire to have a high-functioning Trenton Water Works.

I’ve known Reed for over 15 years. I trust in his ability to continue to move Trenton Water Works forward. It has made improvements in the last 18 months, under his administration. I’m hopeful he continues to build on the positive momentum he’s already set in place.

CN: You mentioned fire consolidation. What are your hopes for that process? What are you hoping takes place over the next year?

JM: We got two new council members who are sitting as part of that committee, Councilmen Papero and [Anthony] Carabelli. So they already know the outline of what we did two years ago on council in terms of putting forward a budget and organizational chart and plan for fire service here in Hamilton. Obviously, they’ll review it and maybe make some of their own changes as well as a different perspective. And we’ll work with them in doing that.

From a budgetary standpoint, the numbers we put forward two years ago are now two years old, so they have to be updated. But what I think right away is going to be different is, while the subcommittee is still doing their work, simultaneous to that we can begin negotiations with the unions. Now, you can’t decide everything all at once because you’re going to need kind of a budgetary structure from where to fit for salaries and wages and all of the like. Some of the more basic parts of a contract—uniform allowance, work comp protections and things like that—we can start building momentum on some of those easy items that we all agree should be in place in our standard and collective bargaining agreements.

And so, that working simultaneously on two different parts of the puzzle I think will go a long way to help making this move faster this year.

‘The previous business administrator was done a disservice by having so much on his plate.’

CN: For perspective for residents who may have been following this, previously, the part of fire consolidation that was a stumbling block were these negotiations, the collective bargaining? Is that correct?

JM: Correct. On council two years ago, we had put in a provision in the ordinance that said, “The switch is not flipped until there’s an agreement between the unions and the township.” That’s so that on Day One, people know what they’re being paid. People know what their benefits are. A town knows what its workers compensation protections are, and the like.

[The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs], they didn’t like that provision in there. So we essentially said, “All right, well, we’re not going to submit this to you, DCA, until we know what those provisions are and have essentially what’s called a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the unions and the township that could then be incorporated into the plan that we send to DCA.

That’s why I think to a certain extent, working both on the budget, an organizational chart from the council subcommittee perspective and on the MOU from the administration perspective simultaneously is a way to move this faster.

CN: You’ve already talked about Kathy Fitzgerald. Her new department is one of the main departments to be under scrutiny over the last year. What changes are you hoping happen within the health department to ensure that it gets back on track?

JM: One of the biggest is figuring out what we do now with the health officer role. Council approved this week an emergency shared service agreement between us and Mercer County which allows us to use Mercer County’s health officer. I was previously told by the state was the township can’t go a day without a health officer position, filled either directly or through a shared service agreement. It would have prevented us from being able to issue marriage certificates, death certificates, restaurant inspections, licenses, all that kind of stuff. So we’ve got that in place now moving forward for a period of, I think, three months. That gives us some time to figure out how we replace and find a new health officer, somebody who can come in right away and is qualified to do the job and holds the proper licenses.

Also, we can take a step back and gauge whether continuing on where we’re in shared services agreements were where the giving party is still in the best interest of Hamilton. We’ve had those agreements in the past. We had obviously notified East Windsor and Upper Freehold this year that we can no longer provide that service to them because now we’re a receiving entity of a shared service agreement.

So, that three-month period will allow us will allow Kathy the opportunity to find a qualified person and to take a step back and see exactly how much should we put on that person’s plate as well.

CN: Have you had a chance to kind of analyze the health department? Are things as dire as they were being made out to be?

JM: No, we have some great employees over there. I got the opportunity to go there the other day. Just this week there was an issue involving one of our elementary schools and a water quality issue. And we had to send one of inspectors underneath the health officer. That person did a phenomenal job of going to the elementary school, liaising with Trenton Water Works, communicating what their findings were between the school, Trenton Water Works and the township to make sure all the kids are safe and there was nothing wrong. So, we’ve got some great employees over there.

We also have still a transition committee, made up of experts kind of helping us with that overview, and we’ve asked them for recommendations on what to do. We’re not going to make any drastic changes until we get the report from the transition committee, which should be sometime in February, and then to understand what we’re going to do with the health officer position and give Kathy to some time to fully understand the makeup and the structure over there. And what, if any, changes might be needed.

But it’s definitely not as dire as some people might want to say it is.

“I think it’s important for the residents of Hamilton to know that I’m going to be somebody who shows up here every day ready to work”

CN: One of the responsibilities for the health department is the animal shelter, which became a major issue in township politics last year. Have you had a chance to visit there? How are things with animal shelter?

JM: I was there during the holidays, when they were doing pictures with Santa. I was actually there today, as well, just to show the employees that we’re here to be helpful, that we appreciate all they do. It’s a very tough job. You’ve got a lot of animals there that are in tough situations, and it’s a difficult place to work at. And so I wanted to be able to show my appreciation for what they do.

We’ve got an animal welfare committee as part of the transition. We’ll await their report. I know Kathy will be awaiting their report as well, but has already been in conversations with some of them. And we’ll do the same thing she’ll be doing with our health department, which is kind of reviewing to see what policies and procedures they have in place. What other successful shelters, such as Camden County shelter, are doing that maybe we can emulate? And once we figure out the direction in terms of any changes that we want to make, then executing that moving forward.

It’s still being run. It’s had improvements, many improvements over the last 18 months as well. So, we just want to see what things we can do to make it even better at this point.

CN: Mayor Yaede, as public safety director, received a township vehicle. She also had a township police officer provide a security detail. Are you planning on using either of those?

JM: I do have the vehicle, and I think that’s an important piece for the mayor to have as the public safety director. Especially when there’s snow emergencies and the like, you need a four wheel drive vehicle to get around and make sure roads are taken care of. So, I do have that vehicle.

In terms of any type of bodyguard or executive protection, I don’t have any. My hope is I can go my entire time as mayor without needing anything like that, where I never get any threats to me or my family, anything like that. I told the police very early on that I didn’t see the need for it. And so I currently don’t have it and don’t see myself needing it in the future either.

CN: Is there anything else?

JM: I think it’s important for the residents of Hamilton to know that I’m going to be somebody who shows up here every day ready to work, but shows up out in town, too. And that’s part of my job, seeing what’s going on in town. Listening to the issues, both of the residents and the business community here in town and making sure that they have a voice.

They had their first council meeting just the other night, and I got a list of items that were brought to their attention by the public, so we want to make sure that those items are addressed. And that great communication between the two branches of government, I think, will go a long way to improving the town in our customer service.