In Rocky Hill, a new team tackles some old tensions

2006 edition of Borough Council seeks to focus on the issues

By: Jake Uitti
   ROCKY HILL — To quote a great American song writer, "… the times they are a-changin’."
   How Rocky Hill will handle the new year will be determined in large part by its new-look Borough Council. The council will begin to address the challenges of 2006 at its upcoming meeting Tuesday.
   With the ushering in of the new year, the council has three new members — Republicans Eileen Uhrik and Brian Griner, and independent Brad Merritt.
   Independent Jared Witt is beginning his second year; Mr. Merritt, who previously served as a Republican, is back on the council after a three-year hiatus. And Republican George Morren, the former council president, has just begun his first year as mayor.
   The other two members of the council are Republicans Ed Zimmerman, who is beginning his third year, and Richard Batchelder, who is in his 13th year and is beginning his first year as the council president — a position to which he was elected by a 4-1 vote, with Mr. Zimmerman the lone dissenter and Mr. Witt not present.
   Mayor Morren served on the council for 11 years, and said he is thinking hard about what lies ahead.
   Most of the tension on the council in the past, he said, came from "personalities, rather than issues. The political part of the community got really agitated about three years ago when an attempt was made to deny (former) Mayor (Brian) Nolan the Republican nomination.
   "A series of political blunders in the past have detracted from the work of the council," he said. "When those things happen, people choose sides — which ends up having little to do with the governing body, whose job it is to work with the community.
   "I would remind the council to keep their eyes on the prize," the mayor continued. "Don’t let personality get involved, don’t escalate. There’s been too much of that."
   With change comes a new set of possibilities and, in the case of the borough, new opportunities for communication, council members said.
   "Mayor Morren has already done a good job setting up the standing committees for 2006," Mr. Batchelder said. "Where possible, he has joined inexperienced members with the experienced members."
   As for Mr. Merritt — the councilman with perhaps the most experience in public life, having previously served on the Board of Education for five years and the Borough Council for 12 — he said, "Because the council has changed so much, people should look at starting fresh. We need to relieve the tension in town. We need to be more focused. We should have more respect in the room.
   "Negative attitudes and personal attacks only work to divide the Borough Council," Mr. Merritt said.
   Mr. Griner agreed. "Communication is critical to establishing good working relationships," he said. "I understand that there have been personal issues in the past that have negatively impacted the council. My policy is to forgive and forget."
   But becoming a solidified unit may be difficult at times, said Rocky Hill Democratic Municipal Chairman Bill O’Brien, given the mayoral election looming in November, as well as two council seats to be contested at that same time — those of Ms. Uhrik, who was appointed this year to fill a one-year term, and Mr. Zimmerman, who has often been at odds with some of his fellow Republicans.
   "There is still a need for fundamental changes," said Mr. O’Brien, who indicated he will be running for mayor this year. "In 2005, there was a general arrogance by certain groups. Certain people were unwilling to listen to others."
   Mr. O’Brien also made assertions of "back-door deals" and "secret agreements" to which only certain people were privy in the borough, signifying a suspicion by some in town.
   And in just the past few months, issues involving public comment, the process regarding the appointment of Eileen Uhrik to council, Mr. Batchelder’s appointment to Borough Council president and the sudden resignation of former Mayor Nolan have caused a great deal of talk among residents at council meetings.
   The small size of the borough, Ms. Uhrik said, does allow for rapid word-of- mouth reporting of the news.
   Despite past problems, however, Mr. Batchelder said, civility and communication are greatly on his mind. "My hope is for the council to return to the considered, civil and respectful process that, up until a couple of years ago, characterized the manner in which the council conducted its business," he said.
   Mr. Zimmerman, one of the more outspoken of the council members, agreed. "Communications, personal dignity and trust are most important," he said. "If we always agreed, we wouldn’t need a six-member council. At the same time," he added, "sharing information and experience is key."
   Issues that the new council must focus its attention on in 2006 are the budget and borough finances, open communication with residents, the Wawa proposal in Montgomery, the Schafer tract housing application, the Van Horne Park opening, renewal of the South Bound Brook police agreement and traffic alleviation, according to council members.
   The council will begin to tackle these challenges at its scheduled meeting Tuesday, when members will be giving the first of their committee assignment reports.
   "We need to concentrate on what’s important for the borough," Mr. Witt concluded.