Profile: Longtime Consultant Has Deep Roots in New Jersey’s Meadowlands

Lilo H. Stainton | October 14, 2015 | Profiles
With almost 30 years at the Meadowlands Commission, Robert Ceberio has helped nine governors understand both the ecosystem and its communities

Robert Ceberio
Who he is: Robert Ceberio is president of RCM Ceberio, LLC, a strategic consulting company he founded in 2011. Before that, Ceberio served nearly 30 years at the former New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, including almost a decade as executive director. He has taught public administration courses at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson and is a longtime member of the Wayne Board of Education.

Ceberio also worked with Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) on controversial legislation that transformed the former commission and merged it with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. (Full disclosure: the author worked with Ceberio as NJMC Communications Director 2008 through 2010.)

Old news, new again: Ceberio garnered attention when he published “The New Jersey Meadowlands, A History,” with Ron Kase, in June. The book recounts in detail the behind-the-scenes stories of the battles fought by developers, environmentalists, and government officials at all levels to control vast tracts of land in Bergen and Hudson counties. The authors are openly critical of recent changes at the agency, in particular the leadership of former state Senator Marcia Karrow, who replaced Ceberio as Executive Director in 2011.

“There are just so many stories, behind stories,” Ceberio recalled last week. “I wanted everyone to know what I knew about the Meadowlands and the history behind it.” He added, “History is always repeating itself in the Meadowlands and sometimes we don’t learn from that history.”

Looking back: Ironically, Ceberio actually started his career with the NJSEA, in 1976, where he supervised racetrack management. He started at the Meadowlands Commission in 1981 and worked in the solid-waste division, planning and operations before taking the helm in 2002. Originally funded through the state budget, the commission became self-sufficient under Ceberio’s leadership and accrued more than $100 million in savings — funds that were repurposed by Treasury officials under different administrations to cover unrelated state expenses. The commission also led efforts to redevelop several brownfield sites, invested heavily in flood protection, preserved thousands of acres of sensitive wetlands, and created environmental education programs that impacted tens of thousands of students and adults.

For Ceberio, the highlight of his time at the NJMC was the creation of the 2004 Master Plan, “no question about that.”

The forward-looking document was a turning point in the agency’s history, shifting its focus from promoting development to balancing economic growth and environmental conservation. Where the original master plan advocated for filling in some 2,000 acres of wetlands, for example, the 2004 revision preserved 8,400 critical acres and instead focused development on brownfield areas better connected to mass transit

The plan, which remains in effect today, states: “This Master Plan is an expression of the overall vision of a re-greened Meadowlands and a revitalized urban landscape …The Plan recognizes the Meadowlands as a large but fragile expanse of waterways, marshes, and meadows that are home to a wide variety of wildlife species, including several threatened or endangered species.”

Lessons learned: Ceberio said the hardest part of his work with the Meadowlands Commission involved ceding control to state leaders in Trenton who he said often didn’t understand the agency’s role and responsibilities, let alone the nature of the Meadowlands communities. This happened with every administration (Ceberio worked with at least nine different governors) and was driven by political needs, not practical considerations, he said.

“Take EnCap,” Ceberio said, laughing as he recalled the controversial plan to convert former landfills to luxury shopping, homes and golf courses – a plan that briefly involved Donald Trump before it unraveled financially. “That was endorsed by every governor,” for the jobs and growth it would bring, he added, “then they all ran for the hills when it died.”

These challenges had their advantages too. “The lessons learned are incredible,” Ceberio said, noting how the strategic-planning principles he gained have become critical tools in his new business. Ceberio described how, as a consultant, he will meet with local officials and community groups and get a true sense of their needs and goals, and can help a developer assess the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal.

“Before the client spends any money on engineers or planners, we make the determination that this municipality is actually looking for this type of development,” he said.

Private sector: After three decades plus in the public sector, Ceberio is enjoying his new work life. RCM Ceberio helps various clients — including developers, a security company and several municipalities — assess potential projects, advocate for their implementation, and navigate local, state, and federal regulations along the way. Carlstadt, North Arlington, and Secaucus pay him a monthly retainer for his guidance.

“It really runs parallel to the things I worked on at the commission,” Ceberio said. Much of his work is within the 30-square-mile Meadowlands District, but not all.

There are, however, some clear differences too. ““Command and control” is vastly different, Ceberio said, chuckling. While he doesn’t need to defer to Trenton leaders on daily decisions, the impact government regulation has on private business has been surprising. “That was an eye-opener for me,” he said.

Home life: Ceberio is married and lives in Wayne; he has four children and two grandchildren.