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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: My Hometown

By Kevin O'Toole, July 02 2021 10:11 am

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man

I’d sit on his lap in that old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around this is your hometown
          — “My Hometown” – Bruce Springsteen

I had the privilege last night of swearing in two upandcoming local Cedar Grove officials, Mayor Peter Tanella and Councilman Joe Zichelli, and with that privilege came unanticipated reflection.

Twenty-five years ago—to the day—I retired from local office, having served seven years, including three stints as Mayor. As I listened to the speeches of the newly elected officials, I was transported back, remembering my first oath of office and how pure of spirit and naive I really was.

When you run for local office, you are full of bright ideas and boundless energy. During my first run, I was twenty-four years old and finishing my last year of law school. Perhaps I didn’t think that my looming date, in sixty days, with the bar exam was enough of a challenge. I ran for office, won, and took off like a jet after being sworn in.

The purity of purpose when you first run is an exhilarating state of mind. You have a head full of ideas, with promises made to each of many different constituencies—the youth, the taxpayers, the seniors, the environmentalists, the police and fire and rescue, and others met along the way. In short order, you find out that reality and budgets cause you to reassess priorities and promises.

But serving at the local level, where the rubber meets the road, you truly serve the needs of your fellow citizen.

Whether it is balancing a budget, preserving open space, helping the disadvantaged or elderly, supporting emergency services, or taking other meaningful action, you come face to face with individuals in need, and you see with your own eyes the difference an engaged local official makes. There is no bigger political high than assisting people in need from the community where you grew up.

Stepping back, running for office in the town where you were born and raised, delivered newspapers to many, cut grass for dozens of others, pumped gas at the local Gulf station, worked during the summers at the municipal pool, played for and later coached Little League Baseball, chaired the annual Church carnival, and so on, gives you clarity and perspective.  Those experiences mold your vision and shape that ideologue inside.

I saw that same innocence last night as I heard from all of the Council Members—Deputy Mayor Joe Maceri, former Mayor and newly elected Councilwoman Kerry Peterson, and newly elected Councilwoman Melissa Skabich. I commend the Cedar Grove Mayor and Council as they set out to navigate a true path for our township. I’m certain that our hometown is in great hands and that the future is bright.

To those seeking a start in public service: try your hand at the local level, your hometown.

It provides an experience that you can’t find at any other level of government.

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