Vassanella Named Deputy Mayor At Township Council Reorg; Vacated Seat Not Filled

With his family at his side, Deputy Mayor James Vassanella takes the Oath of Office at the Township Council reorganization meeting.

The Township Council picked a Deputy Mayor for 2019 at its Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, but did not choose to fill the seat vacated by the person who held the position last year.

The Council also filled a number of positions on the various township boards and commissions, named a municipal court judge, prosecutors and public defenders, and the other requisite positions needed to make the township run.

Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) was chosen to be the Deputy Mayor for 2019. In his remarks, Vassanella said 2019 “will be a very busy year for our township and our council.”

There was no municipal election last year, so no Council members were sworn in. But a vacancy caused by the successful Somerset County Freeholder campaign of former Councilwoman Shanel Robinson left the council with the unused opportunity to name a person to fill Robinson’s seat for the year.

The names of the three candidates that are expected to be submitted by the township Democratic Party – Board of Education member Ed Potasnak, Human Relations Commissioner Edna Arguello Hitchner and Crystal Pruitt, who is Chief of Staff for state Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) – was inadvertently included in the meeting’s agenda packet. Township Democratic chairman Ron Jordan said the committee has one more step to go before it’s ready to submit the names to the Council.

The Council has 30 days from Jan. 3 – the day Robinson resigned – to name her replacement.

Mayor Phil Kramer made the announcement that the unexpired term, which ends at the end of this year, would not be filled this night.

“We are still undergoing the Democratic vetting process for the position, and we will not be voting on it at this time,” Kramer said. “I’m the one who placed it on the agenda because I thought we might be appointing this person, but I’d much rather have it on the agenda and cancel it, than not have it on the agenda and do it.”

In his remarks, Vassanella outlined what he wished to accomplish during his year as Deputy Mayor, including a “very ambitious road improvement program,” water projects “and other endeavors.”

“We as a town have accomplished much in the last few years, however there is more work to be done, as there always is,” he said.

Vassanella said his “priority items” include dealing with the overpopulation of deer in the township and other road and safety concerns, ensuring that revitalization takes into account the quality of life for existing residents, constructing a “safe parking area” at the Franklin Township Little League complex, getting the youth center built and increasing elder care services for seniors.

“It’s a big town, there’s a lot going on, it’s been a rough year but I look forward to a very rewarding year,” he said.

As they have for the past several months, township residents advocating for the recall of Councilman Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large) showed up to the meeting.

Some in the group, such as Wilson Road resident Rob Peterson, criticized the Council for appointing Prasad to standing committees of which he was previously a member and where “the man has demonstrated an inability to follow the laws and follow the rules, and disclose his actions.”

At its last meeting of 2018, the Council censured Prasad for actions he took in furthering a proposed “Peace and Nonviolence” monument park on township open space, and for other actions he took “in his official capacity as an elected official that are improper for a person in his position” and which dishonored his position.

Prasad sat on the Council’s Administration and Land Use committees last year, and was re-appointed to them for 2019.

“I don’t know where you’re going to find some moral rectitude,” Peterson said. “Apparently not tonight, and apparently not any time soon.”

“Councilman Prasad, do you have any intentions of resigning?” Cornelius Way resident Sid Lentz asked. “Councilman Prasad, do you have any evidence that you can provide me that Republicans don’t want any statues of blacks in the town of Franklin?”

Lentz was referring to a letter Prasad wrote to an attorney representing the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which he said he was battling “Trump emboldened” Republicans who did not want “colored statues” in town.

Referencing an incident in which Prasad appeared to ask Township Manager Robert Vornlocker to “fix” parking tickets received by several parishioners at a township church, Lentz said, “Councilman Prasad, I have these tickets here, can I give them to you, maybe you can help me with them.”

Laird Terrace resident Skip Schaeffer told the council that even though a new year is starting, “the cancer is still sitting up on that dais. The disease to this council is still sitting up on that dais.”

“You have one person who is impugning the integrity of all who sit up there,” he said. “You have one person who has stained the integrity of his council.”

Saying that the censure “didn’t really accomplish anything,” Schaeffer added, “Whatever you people can do to start washing off the stain, I urge you to. Because we’re going to be addressing this for meeting after meeting after meeting, as long as the disease is still here, as long as the council is still present, as long as the cloud is still here.”

Prasad recited the same statement he made at the December meeting, “I’m grateful to the voters of Franklin who gave me the honor and privilege to serve them. I will continue to do so to the best of my abilities.”


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