In a world of rising real estate prices, Bergenfield Mayor Norman Schmelz has stayed grounded and close to home. He considers himself lucky to have been able to raise his three children in the town where he grew up, near his mother’s home. With a first job at 16 at Pathmark, he continued working there nights and weekends, long after he earned his electrical engineering technology degree at Fairleigh Dickinson, working days as a manager in industrial manufacturing, first in Bayonne and then more locally in Saddle Brook.
Schmelz announced in March his intention to run for Bergen County executive, and he checked in with The Jewish Link this month to speak about his current role as mayor of Bergenfield. He shared thoughts on his underlying motivations, how he was inspired to enter politics in the first place. Describing his first experience with borough politics, he said he realized that a storm sewer ran across his backyard, causing intense flooding, but found it frustrating that no one seemed inclined to do anything about it. “I called the mayor and the council and I asked everyone about it, but they never did anything… water still comes in every few years.”
Schmelz reminisced that a community center was initially set to be built at Memorial Park, and the town even took out a number of trees to make room for a prefabricated building that was purchased but never made it to the building stages. “But the trees coming out caused even more flooding,” Schmelz added. After getting involved with what became the ill-fated community center project, which he worked on for 10 years, Schmelz agreed to run for mayor the second time he was asked, shortly after the death of sitting Bergenfield Mayor Timothy Driscoll in 2013.
In the five years since his election, Schmelz expressed a sense of pride in having worked on 50 street repaving upgrades while saving funds for the town, keeping the budget flat and reducing expenses whenever possible, while also funding a renovation of the borough hall. He is proud to have brought two automated waste removal trucks to the Department of Public Works, noting the upgrade has allowed the borough to send DPW employees for re-training in related fields while reducing worker’s compensation insurance costs. He favors development as long as it makes sense for the town, and looks toward more development of the South Washington Avenue/main street-style road at the northern end of town. “I think we’ve done good things in Bergenfield, and I want to take it to the county level,” he said. “Bergenfield is in a very good financial situation,” he added.
Distinguishing himself in Bergen County by his willingness to work with individuals of any political party, Schmelz noted that he is the sole Republican voice in the borough while all the other elected officials are Democrats. He added that when James Tedesco was elected to the county executive post two years ago, he cleaned house according to party, and the county is now embroiled in eight lawsuits related to wrongful termination. “Our taxes should be going for services, for the fire departments and police, not legal fees,” Schmelz said.
Schmelz is known for his accessibility to the members of his community and is proud to go wherever he is invited to join in community activities, feeling that it gives him an edge to understand what is happening around him. “I enjoy the kids, visiting all the churches and synagogues. No one owns me and no one will ever own me,” he said.
With the spring comes Schmelz’s annual “Walk With the Mayor” community health initiative where he invites community members to join him at Cooper’s Pond in Bergenfield on Wednesday evenings, to walk around the pond and talk. Schmelz described the program as a win-win because he invites constituents to talk and be fit, while also being open to feedback. The Walk With the Mayor program is part of a Bergen County grant program called the “stigma-free initiative,” which seeks to destigmatize mental health issues and work to make sure people have the help and support they need and can get the treatment they require. “Basically, it’s about acting the way you should act,” Schmelz said.
Schmelz enters the Bergen County executive race in a contested primary; his election in June is on a column-one slate with John McCann, who is running in the Republican primary for Congress, along with two freeholder candidates, Hector Olmo and Eric Kulmala. Schmelz will face off against column-two candidate for executive Paul Duggan who is running alongside Steve Lonegan for Congress, and freeholder candidates Kevin M. Parany and Edward M. Mazlish. If he wins, he will face off with incumbent James Tedesco in November, who does not have a Democratic opponent.
By Elizabeth Kratz