By Mariam Khan
On a cloudy winter afternoon in downtown Somerville, Commissioner Melonie Marano sits at a desk in her municipal office, preparing for a commissioner meeting later that day. It’s the fourth Tuesday of the month: one of the two monthly meetings where the five county commissioners convene to discuss health & human services, public works, finances, and public safety for Somerset County.
To my surprise, the Commissioner specifies that this large job description only constitutes a part-time job. “This isn't my full-time job, as much as I would love it to be,” she says. Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, she maintains her regular job as a sales rep for a family business. Needless to say, she deals with a large amount of work and community-building off the clock.
Exhausting as this sounds, she’s grateful for the relative tranquility of the post-election season: “last year felt like a juggle between three jobs, with the addition of canvassing and campaigning.” However, if asked in the early 2000s, Mrs. Marano explains that she would never expect to see herself where she is now. “I never thought about government or politics. I got married, I had children, I had a career, and I was just focused on those things,” she says.
This changed on one decisive day in early 2003, when the Commissioner decided to attend a local meeting regarding zoning ordinances. She returned home feeling underrepresented and slightly dissatisfied with the local government, but she didn’t automatically volunteer to run for Township Committee. Rather, unbeknownst to her, her husband wrote her in as a candidate, informing her that she had already scored her first vote. “That really got my wheels turning. I realized you know what, I am going to run for Township Committee. And I got on the phone and called the Democratic chair in Greenbrook,” she narrates. There was one important factor that she didn’t quite consider: Greenbrook Township didn’t have a Democratic Party. There was a 3:1 Republican-to-Democrat ratio, and no Democrat had been elected since the 80s.
Despite all the odds, the now Commissioner won by a whopping one vote. After the recount, she won by two. After a few years of acclimating to the political sphere, she was appointed mayor in 2009 and finally elected to the County Commissioner role twice in the last two elections.
Throughout her time serving in various county roles, Somerville—the central town home to Somerset County’s courts and municipal buildings—has undergone its fair share of transformations. Just last year, Tropical Storm Ida ravaged the town’s buildings and public areas with floods drenching parks and offices alike. To counteract this damage, Marano was involved with a town hall meeting that debated the best use of 228 million dollars in federal disaster relief funding. Ridge High School students were curious as to how this money ended up being spent. She prefaces her explanation by affirming that she, as well as her colleagues, have full faith in climate change’s realness. In 2021, her team passed a resolution stating five pillars that will be used to address the issue for the county. Aside from the pledge to move net carbon emissions down to zero, one of the other core pillars includes mitigating the impacts of floods and other extreme weather.
The Commissioner arises from her chair, crossing over to the wall displaying a map of the county’s waterways. She explains the severity of the water management problem, claiming that “New Jersey is one of the oldest states in the nation, and people have been building for over 400 years. We didn’t put stormwater regulations into effect until the late 90s, which makes 400 years worth of irresponsible building that we've got to catch up; this is a huge task.” Aside from her team developing strict new standards for building development and spearheading roundtables on stormwater facilities, she offers one especially hopeful piece of information. A federal project addressing flooding of the Green Brook, basin which is located in the eastern portion of Somerset County, has finally received close to half a billion dollars, which will allow for the completion of the project started back in the 1970s.
Aside from Marano’s specialization in public water works and storm management, she is also heavily involved with the county’s LGBTQ+ advisory board, serving as one of its founding members. “While I was campaigning, I spoke with people from this community, and they said that they felt that their voices were not being heard, that they needed representation at a county level. So I promised them that if I'm elected, I will do something about that,” she explains. Despite the pandemic, establishment of the virtual advisory board was swift; three webinars were held in 2021, and two were held in 2022 with more expected this year. Topics included pertinent issues such as name changes, adoption, and specific health issues relating to the queer community.
“LGBTQ+ youth have a 20% higher incidence of suicide, and drug addiction. So, we want them to know they are part of us, and we want to know how to make life better for them. This includes having counselors and staff on-hand at VOTECH and RVCC for youth specifically,” she says.
On the topic of mental health, several students wondered about Somerset County’s initiatives regarding depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Fortunately, Marano explains that Somerset is the only county to boast a county-sponsored mental health facility for people of all ages. One crucial aspect of this facility is its newly developed partnership with the county’s schools to better the condition of youth patients.
Though the county is doing much to support its youth, Marano would like her younger audience to know that they, too, can get involved. She and her colleagues are in the process of creating new, specialized internship opportunities for high school students where they can become involved with areas that interest them within county operations. She hopes that this program can be launched in 2023 to enable young people to help out the public while also gaining experience in a given field.
She wants her youth audience to hear a few nuggets of advice from her last 20 years in politics. When asked about advice specifically for women, as the recipient of the County’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award, she stresses the need for political representation. “We need representation. We need it on the state level, the county level, and the federal level. Our voices need to be heard. We need to just step forward without waiting for somebody to tell us that we're okay to do it.” She explains that the person responsible for instilling this message in her was Linda Stender, who encouraged, guided, and supported her as she waded into politics in the early 2000s. Over the last two decades, it’s safe to say that Marano has learned quite a lot from diverse experiences. She wants readers to abide by her life motto: “Don’t be asked. Just do it.”