By Anya Bochman
Photos courtesy/Mayor’s office: Mayor Christopher Vergano attends various business events:
Christopher Vergano, incumbent Republican mayor of Wayne Township for 11 years in a row, has roots in the area that he now serves from Town Hall. Vergano grew up in Wayne, having attended Theunis Dey Elementary School, Schuyler Colfax Middle School and Wayne Hills High School. Deneen, his wife of 28 years, is also a long-time Wayne resident; Vergano jokes that he grew up on the “hills” side while Deneen is from the “valley” side of town. The Vergano’s have two adult children, one of whom still lives with them.
As mayor, Vergano currently serves on the township planning board, the library board, Chilton Memorial Hospital’s advisory board, and the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year Selection Committee. He has also served for many years on the Siena Village Board of Directors. Vergano is the recipient of the Niche of Usefulness Award from the Foundation of the Handicapped, and the Man and Youth Award from the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest New Jersey.
Since the job of the mayor of Wayne is a part-time position, Vergano also works as Vice President of Sales and Administration at Hishi Plastics USA, a career which requires much domestic and international travel. He has office hours every Tuesday night, a tradition that has been in place since the beginning of his tenure as mayor. Part of the mayoral duties also entail performing weddings; since 2008, Vergano has presided over more than 500 weddings – his record being six ceremonies in one night.
“I enjoy every moment of it,” Vergano said. “People still don’t understand that even a community the size of Wayne only has a part-time mayor, but I think it works for now.”
Vergano’s schedule includes town meetings on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, and planning board meetings on the second and fourth Mondays. He is usually at Town Hall on Saturday mornings, attending to paperwork that has accumulated since the beginning of the week. Vergano has a special township cellphone that allows him to access email sent to the mayor; his page on the Wayne township website encourages residents to contact him with concerns.
“I try to respond to emails as quickly as possible,” Vergano said. “Sometimes I think I startle people when I answer
them on a Sunday night at 10 o’clock.”
Part of this attention to citizen concerns stems from Vergano’s political philosophy, which is much the same as his approach to his career at Hishi Plastics. He sees the township government in terms of a business model, where the mayor is president or CEO – the individual to whom concerns are funneled from other channels.
“Starting from our Parks and Rec group and the police department to our health employees – it all flows up,” Vergano stated.
In this idea of town as business, the resident is customer, one that must be satisfied – hence the open hours on Tuesdays, and the mayor’s office attempting to attend to every complaint expediently.
“Basically, anyone who calls up and has a problem and wants to come up and see me, we book them on Tuesdays,” Vergano said, adding that he also uses this time slot to meet with potential developers. “It gives people the chance to ‘touch’ their government.”
As far as the developers go, the mayor tries to keep up what he terms an “open door policy.”
“We try to get them in as quickly as we can while they are still excited about coming to Wayne,” Vergano stated.
The mayor’s foray into politics stemmed perhaps from his entrenchment with town activities; Vergano coached Wayne PAL baseball for ten years and joined the Wayne First Aid Squad, starting on the Youth Squad and ultimately becoming a regular member for over 14 years. Shortly after the birth of his son, friends were discussing running for the Board of Education at a party in Packanack Lake; Vergano decided he’d try it. He subsequently served the BOE for nine years before securing a position as councilman at large, and finally becoming mayor in January 2008.
“I enjoy the municipal side of government more than the Board of Education,” Vergano said. “People addressing the BOE are more invested because their children are involved. The municipal side is not as emotionally fraught – people complain about recyclables, and we tell them we’ll pick them up.”
Explaining his political philosophy more in depth, Vergano reiterated that he treats government as “a big company”; in his time as mayor, he applied this work approach to eliminate 42 fulltime positions on the municipal payroll through attrition. As the mayor’s office controls 22 percent of taxes, with the rest going to the BOE and the county, a major responsibility is attempting to keep the tax base as stable as possible – hence the trimming of government employees and expenditures.
“We may have been bloated at one point, but we’re very lean and mean right now,” Vergano commented. “I have to give credit to our employees here; there are fewer of them doing more than ever, and they’re doing a fantastic job.”
Reporting that Wayne’s ratables are up, Vergano credited the township council with helping stabilize the tax base. Describing the council as the municipal government’s checks and balances, Vergano cited its cooperation with his office as crucial in reaching the tax goals.
Another area of concern for the mayor is the Wayne police department, which currently has 116 members. The mayor’s office provides the department with necessary technology; at the moment, a ten million dollar construction project is underway to refurbish the police offices and install an addition in the back.
“I like to tell people that in second grade I came on a field trip to visit the Wayne police department – and it has not changed since then,” Vergano quipped, explaining the need for the upgrades.
The expenditures will go towards building a training center, upgrading the facilities to be safer for both the community and police officers, and bringing cells up to code. There are currently six women police officers in the department, a number greater than ever before for the township; part of the construction updates will involve the women’s locker room. Additionally, the department will see an upgrade to its computers, as well as cameras installed in its cars by next year.
Much of current municipal efforts are focused on redevelopment in the township. Willowbrook Mall, which Vergano
says is Wayne’s largest tax payer, is partially under construction to accommodate Buffalo Wild Wings and PF Chang’s restaurants, as well as a brand new Cinemark cinema. Two childcare centers – one on Riverview Drive and one on Hamburg Turnpike – as well as two assisted living facilities are being repurposed from existing structures.
Wayne Hills Mall, which has stood nearly vacant for years, is scheduled to be knocked down to make way for a new shopping center within the next 18 months.
“It shows that the business community wants to invest in Wayne,” Vergano said of the current redevelopments. “People are looking to repurpose current facilities as there’s very little original land that’s never been built on; what’s left is wetlands or steep slopes.”
An example of such repurposing is the 120-bed assisted living center that will take the place of the now-shuttered Cost Cutters on Hamburg Turnpike. Likewise, a warehouse on Totowa Road will see a “major tenant” move in in 2019. All ideas for redevelopment go before the planning board and the board of adjustment for approval.
The mayor’s office also sponsors the First Aid and fire departments, which are both volunteer-based.
“We provide them with the necessary equipment, like fire trucks, ambulances and tools they need, so they don’t have to worry about raising money – we take care of that,” Vergano said.
Other organizations supported by the municipal government include the Wayne PAL, Little League, Boys and Girls Club and the Wayne Soccer Club. The township has recently completed building turf playing fields for children on Hamburg Turnpike through the Open Space Fund.
“We try to run as many programs for young people as possible – not only are they the future, but we have to give them something to do to make sure they stay on the right path,” the mayor commented.
Talking about programs for children and teenagers inevitably brought the mayor to another major concern of his – drug use within the community. While Vergano asserts that narcotics use is not necessarily on the rise – merely more out in the open than ever before – he acknowledges the dire effects of the opioid crisis on New Jersey. Citing the numerous Narcan saves performed recently to resuscitate fentanyl and heroin overdose victims, Vergano explained the municipal investment in two-man police crews that patrol “areas of concern,” such as various hotels on Route 46.
The mayor will also be participating in Wayne’s next Community Drug Forum in April; now in its eighth year, the program seeks to educate parents and the community at large about the dangers of substance abuse. It is run in conjunction with the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse, which works closely with and is funded by the mayor’s office.
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of the situation – [drug abuse prevention] has to be a joint effort of many different people,” Vergano stated. “When we see our young people dying from overdoses, we need to wake up and do something. That’s how I got together with the Superintendent of Schools to do the drug forums.”
Another demographic that the mayor’s office supports is senior citizens; facilitating with the Wayne Golden Agers and a Senior Advisor Committee that meets four times a year, the office discusses senior events and activities, as well as health department concerns. An “aggressive” flu clinic is one of the accomplishments of this collaboration.
“Our whole goal is to make the town a better place and keep residents and businesses happy,” Vergano said. “The voters seem to like what we’re doing. That’s how I survived this long.”