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Profile: The Woman Who Wants to End NJ’s 'Multiple Municipal Madness'

Former tennis pro Gina Genovese was her town’s first Democratic mayor -- and NJ’s first openly gay mayor

Gina Genovese
Gina Genovese

Who she is: Gina Genovese

What she does: Executive Director, Courage to Connect NJ

Why you need to know about her: Genovese is the leading proponent of consolidating municipalities, school districts, and other local governments -- a topic that Gov. Chris Christie has been pushing for the past year, using his own hometown of Mendham Township and neighboring Mendham Borough as an example of municipalities that should merge.

Why her ideas matter: Genovese served as mayor of Long Hill Township in Morris County before founding Courage to Connect NJ as a nonprofit organization to educate the public about the impact of home rule and to serve as a resource for municipalities, school districts, and fire districts considering consolidation. The group’s fourth annual seminar, to be held in Holmdel Friday, focuses on the merger of the South Hunterdon Regional High School District and the Lambertville, West Amwell, and Stockton elementary school districts.

How she got involved in the consolidation issue: “I am a former mayor of Long Hill Township, and as an elected official, you get asked everyday what you’re going to do about taxes,” Genovese said. “After two years of looking into shared services and other ways to cut costs, I became convinced that our town of 8,700 people was really too small to pay for and provide efficient services. But I was also aware that few consolidation efforts had succeeded in the past.”

While the Local Options Citizens Consolidation Law gave citizens the same right to push consolidation initiatives as local government officials, Genovese said she realized that a major educational effort was necessary to make people aware of both the merits and the mechanics of consolidation. “Who was going to tell the public we have this power?” she asked. Jon Shure, then the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, encouraged Genovese to start Courage to Connect NJ as a nonprofit in 2010, and her first major initiative was to write the “Courage to Connect NJ Guidebook: The Tools for Municipal Consolidation in New Jersey.” Genovese argues that shared services are not enough to cut property taxes and make government more efficient. She notes that Long Hill was managing 15 shared services agreements with multiple towns when she was mayor.

“It just seemed like we were further fracturing an already fractured structure of 566 local governments,” she said. “We thought shared services would be a precursor to eventual consolidation. But every town was trying to get the best deal for itself in shared-services agreements, many shared-services agreements have fallen apart, and it actually created bad blood between some towns. Shared-services agreements are transient. Very few of the shared-services agreements we had in Long Hill in 2006 are still in place.”

What’s happening in New Jersey today: Princeton Township and Princeton Borough voted to merge in November 2012 after several previous failed initiatives, reducing the number of municipalities in the state from 566 to 565, and voters in Lambertville, West Amwell, and Stockton voted to merge their elementary school districts and the South Hunterdon High School district they shared into a single South Hunterdon district last November.

Two citizens groups are using the 2007 citizens-option law to push municipal consolidation in Scotch Plains and Fanwood in Union County, and Mount Arlington and Roxbury are ready to go before the state Local Government Finance Board for permission to launch a consolidation initiative in their Morris County communities. Voters in Christie’s hometown, Mendham Township, voted 88 percent in favor of a nonbinding referendum to explore a merger with Mendham Borough last November.

Quote on her website: “The lines on the geopolitical map of New Jersey were drawn by men with political and/or economic agendas . . . today the costs of maintaining New Jersey’s multiple and redundant jurisdictions mounts into the billions of dollars.” – Alan Karcher, former New Jersey Assembly Speaker, in his 1998 book, Multiple Municipal Madness.

How she got into politics: “In September 2003, I was asked to fill in for a Democratic candidate for Long Hill Township Committee who had to pull out and I decided to do it,” Genovese said. “I lost that race, but decided I wanted to run one more time and I started campaigning in January for a November election.

“I am the first Democratic mayor in the history of my town. That will be on my tombstone,” she said with a laugh. “I was also the first ‘out mayor’ in New Jersey.”

Genovese said her sexual orientation as an openly gay candidate was never an issue. “I was running against Maryann Nergaard, and there was a vote on the Township Committee on whether to extend medical benefits to domestic partners,” Genovese said. “She voted against it, there was a backlash, and then she changed her vote the summer before the election and voted for it. I think she knew if she tried to make an issue of me being gay, there would have been a backlash.”

Genovese defeated Nergaard, who later became a Superior Court judge, by just 10 votes in November 2004. “There was a huge learning curve, and I tried to learn all I could about local governance,” she said. “My first year, I served on the committee that cut the local school budget after it was defeated, and my second year, when I was serving as mayor, I served on the committee that cut the Watchung Hills Regional High School District budget after that was voted down.”

Genovese resigned to run as the Democratic candidate for the state Senate against Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union). After she lost, she poured herself into research on municipal consolidation -- a study that led her to found Courage to Connect NJ less than three years later.

Personal: Born in Union, she moved to Berkeley Heights with her family at the age of 12. After graduating from the Kent Place School in Summit, she played professional tennis for two years, playing on the Women’s Tennis Association Circuit and attaining a world ranking of 115th in 1980. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “You were part of small world of tennis players traveling around the world together from tournament to tournament.”

She came home to Berkeley Heights, where she founded and has owned Gina’s Tennis World in Berkeley Heights for 30 years. “I coached 25 nationally ranked players, but I stopped coaching about 10 years ago,” she said. “The best part of my game was my forehand.”

Genovese moved to Long Hill in 1994, and has been with her partner, Wendy McCahill, since 1997. “We were married October 23rd,” Genovese said. “We did the domestic partner arrangement, we did the civil union with a huge party. This time, when we got married, it was just with our moms.”

What you don’t know about her: Today is her 55th birthday.

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