As chief of staff for the county executive and soon-to-be mayor of Fair Lawn, Jeanne Baratta is no stranger to the spotlight.
Even Democratic councilman-elect Kurt Peluso joined the fray recently, calling on Baratta to resign her council seat because of what he perceived to be a "conflict of interest."
Baratta said she's stung by the comments, which she admits to reading, and has many times responded to.
"I am very offended when people call me a double dipper..or that I’m padding my pension," she said. "Because it’s the farthest thing from the truth."
Baratta said when she was first elected to council in 2005 she had no idea that council members even received a salary -- $2,500 per year -- a pension and health benefits.
“I don’t want that. I thought it was volunteer," Baratta said she responded when approached with direct deposit paperwork shortly after joining council. "I don’t need it.”
Baratta said she declined the salary, pension and health benefits -- which her husband's job provides for their family -- even though it ended up costing her family financially.
"I’ve never taken a dime from the borough of Fair Lawn, so it bothers me when they say that," Baratta said. "It’s just not true."
While she's now considered by her critics to be an inveterate political insider, Baratta would never have been mistaken as the sort back in 2001.
Not only didn't she run in political circles then, she'd never even attended a Fair Lawn borough council meeting.
She was actually on the other side of the debate entirely, as a blogger and moderator for the now-defunct local internet message board, Fair Lawn Speaks.
Baratta said she began penning snarky family-type articles and recipes for the website in 2001, to gain writing experience. Before long, she earned a promotion.
"They felt that I was a 'voice of reason,'" Baratta said, a tinge of sarcasm in her voice, "so they asked me to become a moderator of their message board. And from being a moderator of the message board, I started learning about things that were happening in town."
Baratta said she wasn't pleased with everything she heard.
"People get involved [in local government] when something affects them, when something affects what’s going on around them," she said. "That’s when they sort of wake up and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And I think that’s what happened to me."
One of the things that drew Baratta's ire was the demolition of the historic Lamring Dairy on River Road.
"It was a beautiful old site, with outbuildings and barns...and it was for sale," said Baratta, who along with her husband, decided they'd like to purchase the property and turn it into a quaint shopping area, while maintaining the site's historic structures.
But their plan to save and restore the historic property hit a fatal snag.
"We got the run around," she said. "It was for sale, then it wasn’t for sale. We got thrown from one party to another."
In the end, the buildings were all destroyed and replaced by mixed housing, with retail on the bottom and apartments on top.
"I just felt that it was a shame that such a nice piece of Fair Lawn’s history was gone," said Baratta, who started attending council meetings during the process. "That was one of the tipping points for me."
After Baratta's first, albeit unsuccessful, foray into the Fair Lawn political arena, she was hooked.
"I started going to all the council meetings. I went to work sessions, I went to planning board meetings, zoning board meetings, for about four years," she said. "I didn’t ask any questions, I didn’t stir the pot or anything. I was just learning. I found it very interesting so I used to sit in the back and take notes."
By 2005, Baratta said she felt comfortable enough with the process to accept an invitation to run for council on the Republican ticket.
"We were the underdogs," Baratta said of her first campaign with running mate Ed Trawinski. "We were running against David Ganz, who was the sitting mayor and a freeholder at the time, and Allan Caan. Nobody thought we were going to win. So really, we had nothing to lose."
In her first political stint, Baratta said she was lucky to receive the support of respected Fair Lawn Democrats Peter Seiden and Marvin Levitt, who ran a "Democrats for Baratta," campaign.
"[Levitt] walked me all over Fair Lawn, introducing me to mostly Democrats around Fair Lawn, to sort of say to them...'don’t just blindly vote party lines when it comes to local government," she said. "That was the message we were trying to give the people and it helped."
After both her and Trawinski won seats, they got to work quickly.
"We had a lot of things that we wanted to do," Baratta said. "Even though we were in the minority, I think we accomplished a lot of things in those six years."
Baratta said a few of the accomplishments she's most proud of since joining council are the reform of the borough's pay-to-play ordinance, the enactment of an underage drinking ordinance with real teeth and getting clearance to put a Menorah up on borough property during the holiday season.
Now that Baratta and the Republicans are in the majority, she said there's still a long list of things they'd like to accomplish, including creating a better working environment for borough employees, bringing in more "attractive" business development and maintaining the quality of borough services like Memorial Pool and the library.
While she never aspired to be mayor, Baratta said she's extremely grateful for the opportunity.
"I'm so honored because it’s my town," said Baratta, a lifelong Fair Lawn resident. "I've grown up here, I know so many people here...It’s just such a great honor to be the mayor of the town I grew up in. It’s wonderful."
Get to Know Fair Lawn's Mayor -- Fast Facts
Family: Husband, Richard; Three children -- Amanda, 25; Ricky, 21; Maria, 16.
Job: Chief of Staff for Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan.
Baratta, who has a background in IT and actually beta-tested the first laptop in the 1980s, did social media management -- running Facebook and Twitter feeds -- for the Donovan campaign in 2010. She was later asked to deal with the press and serve as Donovan's spokesperson before becoming the full-fledged chief of staff.
Education: Fair Lawn High School (Class of '82)
Ties to Fair Lawn: Has lived in Fair Lawn all of her life; her parents moved to the area from East Harlem, N.Y.
Favorite TV Show: Seinfeld
Favorite Movie: Gone With the Wind
Favorite Book: "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White
Favorite Destination: Italy
Favorite Fair Lawn Restaurant: Picnic
Favorite Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Favorite Museum: Museum of Modern Art in New York City
Activities & Organizations (past and present): Fair Lawn Girl Scouts and Fair Lawn Boy Scouts (service unit member, troop leader, head of Girl Scout cookie sale); art teacher at St. Anne School
Hobbies: Art -- crafting and painting; gardening; reading; museums
Most Surprised to Know: She owns more than 100 pairs of shoes.