Lawrence Township Council elects first Latina mayor

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The Lawrence Township Council made history in electing its first Latina mayor at its annual reorganization meeting on New Year’s Day.

Patricia Hendricks Farmer, who will serve in the ceremonial post of mayor for 2024 and 2025, also was sworn into office alongside of Olympia I’Liou Perry and John T. Ryan. All three will serve four-year terms.

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Farmer and Perry are newcomers to the Township Council. Ryan, who was mayor in 2022 and 2023, was sworn into office for his second term. They are Democrats, as are incumbent Township Councilmen Christopher Bobbitt and James Kownacki.

While there was overall good will, the meeting was punctuated by disagreements among the five Township Council members on the move to replace the municipal attorney, who advises the council.

State Sen. Shirley K. Turner administered the oath of office to Farmer, and Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson swore in Perry. Ryan was sworn into office by Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli.

Once the new Township Council members took their seats on the dais, flanked by Township Councilmen Christopher Bobbitt and James Kownacki, nominations were taken for mayor.

Bobbitt was nominated for mayor, but lost in a split vote. Bobbitt and Kownacki voted “yes” and Farmer, Perry and Ryan voted “no.”

Farmer was nominated for mayor and won in a 3-2 split vote. Farmer, Perry and Ryan voted “yes.” Bobbitt and Kownacki voted “no.”

An elated Farmer smiled, waved and offered a fist pump to the cheers and handclaps from the attendees. She thanked her family, friends and supporters.

“I stand here today as mayor of this great town full of residents that care about democracy and who share more in common, with strength in our voices and experiences,” Farmer said.

“We have been elected by the people to govern and represent their voices. We are one Lawrence, united by 22 (square) miles that smile,” she said.

Farmer said her vision for Lawrence Township is to continue to create opportunities for businesses to grow and thrive, through attractive incentives.

The new mayor said she also wants to focus on arts and culture as a means to unite the township. The arts are key to emotional and social wellness in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Farmer said one of her favorite artists is a Puerto Rican artist from Philadelphia, whose current exhibit is “Put Yourself in the Picture.”

“(Putting myself in the picture) is what I have done today. Representing my community, ready to work to use my voice for the betterment of my community,” she said.

In his remarks, Bobbitt took some swipes at the newly-seated Council members. He claimed they left him and Kownacki out of several key decisions even before they were sworn into office.

One of those decisions was to replace the municipal attorney without consulting him or Kownacki, Bobbitt said. “It was a complete shock and a distressing sign of the hardnosed politics of reaching a decision without consulting the full Township Council,” he said.

“I’m guessing there will be more to follow as temporary contracts expire and appointed positions are up for renewal.”

Bobbitt also pointed to a special Council meeting set for Jan. 5 to discuss personnel issues in closed session. A decision may be made and formal action may be taken.

When he asked Farmer if she could share what it was about, Bobbitt said he was told that she would tell the Council “at some point” what it was about.

“I hope so, as it’s going to be a challenging two years if the Council is not provided with background information in a timely manner to make informed decisions for our community,” he said.

Bobbitt said he did not realize it at the time, but the Farmer-Perry-Ryan ticket’s campaign motto was “One Team. One Dream” – but that “team” does not include himself and Kownacki.

Bobbitt said the three new Township Council members’ core belief is that they are “a new Council” that is going to clean up Town Hall, and either he and Kownacki “buy into” what the new Township Council is doing or they will be on the losing end of votes, as they were at the meeting.

Bobbitt pledged to fill out the remaining two years of his term rather than resign, even though he will be on the losing end of votes. He said he has a duty to serve Lawrence Township residents.

Perry said she was honored to be sworn into office with Farmer, who is of Latino and Black heritage. She herself is of Haitian heritage, and pointed out that Jan. 1 is also Haitian Independence Day.

Haiti’s freedom did not come easily or without cost and challenges, Perry said.

“Local government is the same. We are ‘one team, one dream,’ but Mr. Bobbitt left out the most important thing for Lawrence. We are on the (dais) to support and represent our community,” she said.

Nevertheless, Perry thanked Bobbitt and Kownacki for their support while she, Farmer and Ryan were campaigning for election.

“The five Township Council members represent Lawrence Township, and they must work together,” she said.

Perry said she is committed to making Lawrence Township “a thriving, growing and transparent place to live. The best thing about Lawrence is that it is different. It is not a cookie-cutter town,” she said.

“The other thing that makes us strong? We don’t all have to agree (on Township Council). How much fun would that be? That’s what we embrace. Challenge us, talk to us,” Perry said.

Ryan said the reorganization meeting is a joyous occasion and a time to celebrate Farmer and Perry, whom he described as colleagues and friends. “The town is in secure hands with them,” he said.

Ryan also praised former Township Councilwoman Catie MacDuff, whose term on the Council expired Dec. 31. She has “a bright future ahead of her in public service,” he said.

“As I look back on my term as mayor, I can tell you, it was quite a term. Every issue, big or small, comes to your doorstep and it’s your obligation to figure it out,” Ryan said, adding he is ready to pass on the baton.

Ryan thanked the residents who reached out to him as mayor. The public is always welcome at the Lawrence Township municipal building, because “we are all one family,” he said.

In a conciliator manner, Kownacki welcomed Farmer, Perry and Ryan.

Kownacki said Jan. 1 marked the 15th anniversary of his service on Township Council, but on a “sad note,” it is the first time that the dais did not have a 5-0 vote.

Even when there was a Republican or two sitting on Township Council, “we always had a 5-0 vote,” Kownacki said – including the first time that he was elected to be mayor.

Kownacki said that for the 14 years he has served on Township Council, he was concerned about what was happening in the town. “Lawrence Township has moved forward, but it still has some growing to do,” he said.

Kownacki said he was looking forward to working with Farmer, Perry and Ryan and where they want to take the township, as a team. He emphasized that “we are a team.”

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