It took three decades of prodding from both parties but John Cosgrove finally agreed to run for Fair Lawn borough council in 2011.
“I decided to do it this time because I feel that the next four years are going to be some of the most important in Fair Lawn’s history,” Cosgrove said back in October. “There’s going to be some very difficult decisions that have to be made.”
A lifelong resident whose family has lived in town for more than 100 years, Cosgrove’s devotion to Fair Lawn is legendary.
“A lot of my friends always kid me that Fair Lawn is the center of my universe.” Cosgrove quips.
From a quick scan of his resume, it’s immediately clear why he’s affectionately called “Mr. Fair Lawn.”
Not only has Cosgrove worked in some capacity with every borough department over his 30 years of community service, he’s held a position of leadership wherever he’s gone.
Founder, chairman, chief, president, person of the year, and on and on. When asked before the election to recite his various positions and accomplishments, Cosgrove had to consult his campaign literature to remember all of them.
Last Tuesday, the volunteer extraordinaire added another title to that long list.
“I’m sure when my grandparents traveled across the Passaic River and arrived here over 100 years ago, they never dreamt that their grandson would have the honor of serving as the Deputy Mayor of Fair Lawn,” Cosgrove said from the dais after being sworn in to council by Gov. Chris Christie.
Cosgrove’s election to borough council created a Republican majority for the first time in over a decade, but he said he’s not interested in playing party politics.
“People who know me know that I try to build consensus and try to bring people together as opposed to bringing them apart,” he said. “I really believe that’s what Fair Lawn needs more of than anything right now, is to bring people together and get everyone to realize that in these difficult times, the only way we’re going to move forward is to be united.”
In recent years, Cosgrove said he’s seen government squabbles get in the way of what he believes is best for Fair Lawn and its residents. The failure of the previous council to listen to residents and borough employees, he said, has alienated the governing body from the governed.
For Cosgrove, that disconnect came to a head at the 2008 council meeting where manager Tom Metzler was let go.
“There were hundreds of people in the room. I think it was everyone except for one or two people who spoke on behalf of the manager -- including the Democratic State Senator Bob Gordon -- and said you’re doing the wrong thing,” Cosgrove said. “They did it anyway. It’s that type of attitude on a lot of different issues that has alienated a lot of residents and employees.”
At a Republican fundraiser in early 2011, Cosgrove called what transpired that night the “defining moment” that inspired his candidacy.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, what have they done to this town I love so well?’”
For Cosgrove, righting the ship means limiting the tax burden on residents, resisting overdevelopment and creating a positive work environment for borough employees, among other things.
He believes through his own business experience -- as the president of material handling system designer and supplier, Atlantic Handling Systems -- that he's learned valuable lessons that can be implemented in the borough.
“My business has faced many of these challenges that government is now facing,” Cosgrove said, explaining how the economic downturn forced him to re-assess his company from top to bottom. “What it really comes down to is that the only way we could stay in business was to become more productive, more efficient. So we looked at all our policies and procedures and did that. That’s what we have to do with government.”
A large part of keeping business running smoothly, Cosgrove said, is giving employees a sense of ownership in the process and valuing their input -- something he said has been lacking in Fair Lawn in recent years.
“We must give employees the tools and empower them,” Cosgrove said during the council candidate forum in October. “You can't do that with the low level of morale of the employees here in Fair Lawn. We need to…make people feel good about what they're doing here in their jobs.”
Another concern for Cosgrove is overdevelopment, which he credits for increasing traffic, decreasing safety and exacerbating flooding.
He holds the former planning and zoning boards responsible for approving variances on some recent construction developments that he termed, “monstrosities.”
“One project in particular is the building on River Road that’s next to the Chase Bank,” he said. “It has 17 apartments on top of it, a retail store on the bottom, built in front of a residential street. It has no loading dock and the boards granted them variances to build that.
“I’m all for the business community,” he continued, “but as far as I’m concerned we have to respect the rights of our neighborhood and keep the integrity of our neighborhood. By continuing to do this we’re overburdening all our systems…and in my mind it’s beginning to ruin the integrity of the town.”
With the Republican council’s re-appointment of Metzler as borough manager and the infusion of their own hand-picked members to the planning and zoning boards, it appears they've laid the groundwork to address Cosgrove's major concerns.
But has it been at the expense of creating the sort of partisan divide that Cosgrove himself campaigned to end? He doesn't think so.
"[The Democrats] are not used to the Republicans being in the majority," he said, following the Jan. 3 re-organization meeting where Democrats opposed many of the Republican appointments. "I’m sure we’ll all get acclimated and get to work for the people of Fair Lawn."