Mayor and Council Clash Over Field Committee Reconstitution, Elevate New Acting Police Chief

In a contentious Hillsdale Borough Council meeting held on September 12, council members and Mayor John Ruocco engaged in a debate over the reorganization of the field committee, initially formed in January. The discord emerged from Mayor Ruocco’s proposal to revamp the committee to include himself, replacing Councilman John Escobar.

The major bone of contention centered around the proposed double committee structure. A series of intense exchanges featured council members citing personal grievances, including direct accusations and remarks on the mayor’s employment status. The mayor justified his stance, pointing to the increasing importance of the field committee in light of the Centennial Field Project. Per Mayor Ruocco, the project, battling financial and environmental hurdles, necessitated higher level oversight. Escobar, feeling sidelined, proposed a separate committee encompassing himself, Councilman Abby Lundy, and Council President Anthony DeRosa.

Mayor Ruocco issued an ultimatum, offering to disband his committee if the council formed their own, condemning the dual committee idea as “ridiculous” and “bureaucratic.”

Following a series of back-and-forth exchanges, the council proceeded to vote on the motion to create a council-appointed committee, which was passed, leading to the mayor announcing the disbandment of the mayor’s field committee.

However, the mayor expressed his intention to be present at the new committee meetings. This was met with legal objections emphasizing that the inclusion of more than three council members and the mayor in a single meeting without public notice could potentially violate the Open Public Meetings Act. The debate about who has the authority to ask someone to leave a meeting in case of a potential violation was also brought up, highlighting the blurred lines between the powers of the mayor and the council in such matters.

In the realm of law enforcement, the impending retirement of Police Chief Frank Vellian set the stage for promoting Captain Sean Smith to the chief role, a transition met with urgent calls to facilitate contract discussions in a special closed meeting scheduled for October 5. The decision delineates Smith assuming an “acting chief” role post Vellian’s retirement slated for October 24, positioning him as “officer in charge” from October 25 until his official tenure begins on January 1.

Substantial matters discussed in the meeting included a resolution regarding a corrective action plan formulated in response to audit findings from 2022, perceived to be spurred by a spate of turnovers in borough administrator positions and departmental deficiencies. The meeting also tackled preliminary plans for a drone study, fostering collaboration with Westwood and Washington Township, a promising initiative despite calls for more information before fully backing the study.

Community events, too, found a space in the discourse with the announcement of a November gala, an October car show, and a fall festival, events pitching in for student scholarships and celebrating the borough’s anniversary with a slice of birthday cake. The council endorsed administrative clearance for these events, appreciating sponsorships from individuals including retired Police Chief Mike McCloskey and Collier’s Engineering.

Shifting gears to borough improvements, discussions traversed various terrain from infrastructure developments—highlighting American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funds allocation—to website upgrades with a contract with Catalyst, an initiative garnering mixed reactions due to process concerns and ADA compliance necessities.

Among the other points discussed were the establishment of September as the Hunger Action Month, bringing attention to heightened food insecurity in Bergen County, and approving the minutes from the previous meeting held on August 8. The meeting delineated the Hillsdale council’s intent to steer towards harmonious function, despite the pronounced differences over committee jurisdictions, underscoring a community navigating through troubled waters with a resolve to emerge stronger.

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