First Lady of Holmdel, Mayor Serena DiMaso
Serena DiMaso has a passion for Holmdel that’s palpable. This lawyer and mother of four also happens to be the mayor of this town of 16,000 people, and during her tenure she has decided that one of her priorities must be to maintain the pleasant quality of life enjoyed by the residents. While the town has grown, it has managed to retain a vast amount of open space. She prides herself on being an accessible politician, someone you could chat with while waiting in line at Target. This is her way of keeping her hand on the pulse of the town. When she took the oath as mayor last year she promised to be the “voice of the voiceless”.
Mayor DiMaso is extremely proud of her administrative team, but quickly credits her family as the real reason for her success. “It is because of the tremendous support from my family and friends that enables me to do good things for others.” Serena learned early in life (from her mother) that giving of yourself can help make the world a better place. Before entering the political arena, she taught fourth grade C.C.D. (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) at St. Catherine’s Church; she went on to become a 2004 graduate of the Christine Todd Whitman Excellence in Public Service Series. Interestingly, if you ask her childhood friends from Staten island (who now also live in Holmdel), they saw Serena’s future years ago. They often referred to her as “the mayor” because she would always brag about their home town.
Although, it’s been said that no none person can be everything to everybody, after spending the day with mayor DiMaso you get the impression that she is certainly trying to do just that! LIH had the opportunity to chat with the mayor to find out a little about this woman and how her passion for Holmdel has led her to town hall.
LIH: Please tell us a little about your background.
SD: I grew up in Staten Island and am the oldest of three daughters. We are all very close in age and attended high school at the same time. I went to St. John’s University and then went on to law school at the same campus. I married my husband just three months after graduation and we started our family immediately.
LIH: It seems like you were on the accelerated program!
SD: It’s true, we didn’t waste any time. Our first son was born right around the time we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Starting our family early has benefited me greatly because I still have a great deal of energy. I would not have done it any other way. I grew up watching my own mother be quite active and busy in the community, so it’s all that I know.
LIH: Would you mind telling us a little about your family?
SD: My husband Gerald also grew up and attended school in Staten Island. He is a physician specializing in geriatric care. He is actually one of those doctors who still believes in making house calls. My oldest son, Jerry, is 18 and attends Stevens Institute of Technology. Next is Matthew who is 16, Alana is 14, and Nicholas is 11. They attend school locally in Holmdel and are all pretty active and athletic kids.
LIH: Why and when did you decide to move to Holmdel?
SD: We moved here in 1993. At the time we were looking to find a bigger house because our family was growing. We started out looking in Staten Island but then a very dear friend of mine convinced me to take a look at Holmdel. She had moved here and thought I would love it too. She was right; as soon as we came down we fell in love with the town. I thought it would be a great place to raise our kids…
LIH: What made you decide to enter politics?
SD: I was always involved with the PTA and eventually became president at the Village School. I was in that position for 3 years and then for another 3 years at the middle school. It was… around 2002 that I was asked to be a candidate for Township Committee. I was then selected this year to be the mayor.
LIH: When you say you were “selected,” what does that mean exactly?
SD: The (mayoral) term lasts one year. After my term ends it is up to the Committee to decide what happens next. Our Deputy Mayor has already said he would not move up because he does not have time for the job. There are five people on the committee and we use a nomination process for selection. Currently, there are four Republicans and one Democrat.
LIH: Do you find it much of a challenge juggling your mayoral duties with your home life?
SD: When I first became a member of the Township Committee my husband changed his evening hours so he could be home when I had to attend evening meetings. He really is an incredible help to me and I would not have been able to do any of this without him. We are definitely a dual-parent household. Now that the kids are a little older it’s much easier. My job as mayor is technically considered part-time because we have a town administrator who runs the day-to-day operations. There are definitely days when time is a challenge. I try to set up my schedule in a weekly block so I can plan things in advance. Whenever possible I try and attend the kids’ athletic games.
LIH: What are the differences between your job and the town administrator’s?
SD: My job is basically a function of running the governing body and passing legislation and policy. The town administrator handles the day-to-day operations and ensures our policies get carried out. He also had the authority to make purchases up to $3,500; anything over and above that would need the approval or the governing body.
LIH: Describe one of your typical days for our readers.
SD: Most of my days are split between mayoral responsibilities and being there for my kids and their activities. Yesterday is a good example of a typical day. After I got everyone up and out for school, I had a joint meeting with some contractors and the Board of Education to discuss the delays in putting in the new football field at the High School. Then it was on to the Recreation Department to discuss the September 11th tribute… I then went home and did some household chores and ran some errands. Next on the agenda was a meeting with the town’s JCP&L representative to determine why we had so many power outages over the Labor Day Weekend. Finally, I met with the township administrator… I went back home for dinner, then came back to town hall for an evening meeting.
LIH: What do you feel makes Holmdel such an ideal place to live?
SD: I love the community feeling and, of course, we are very lucky to have so much open space… I think we have five times the amount of open space per capita than what is recommended. We are also centrally located, which makes getting into Manhattan or driving down to the shore so easy.
LIH: If you could change just one thing about the town, what would that be?
SD: I think the town is great the way it is except for the overdevelopment on the northern side of town. Otherwise, I think Holmdel is growing beautifully; I would not change a thing.
LIH: Have you ever formally practiced law?
SD: I remember when I was doing my clerkship for a judge years ago and one of the attorneys told me that no matter what, I should take the New Jersey Bar exam. At that time I never thought I would be living here. I now regret not taking it. Although I passed the New York Bar, New Jersey does not have reciprocity. I have learned an awful lot from my hears on the committee and we have an excellent municipal attorney who shares a great deal of his knowledge with me. After graduation from law school I got married and had children right away. However, I found clerking to be a highly educational experience. We were able to write the judge’s opinions and sit in on a variety of cases. It was an excellent way to learn the law without having a client to worry about.
LIH: What are the most interesting and surprising parts of your job?
SD: I have the authority to marry people; performing wedding ceremonies is definitely an interesting part of my job and we don’t accept remuneration for it. We generally ask the couple to make a donation to an organization of the mayor’s choice. In my case, I have chosen the first-aid and fire squads to be the recipients. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that many folks think we have something to do with the Board of Education. We do not. The BOE is its own governing body and autonomous from the governing body of Holmdel.
LIH: How would you describe your ability to stay involved with your constituents?
SD: When we had that big storm over the summer, many residents called to report power outages and it was good for me to be informed. I was able to contact our area manager from JCP&L and we got the crews out. Also, I remember being in the supermarket and I overheard a woman talking about her power outage. She was unaware that she could actually contact anyone at Town Hall. I try and return phone calls whenever possible, and although my number is unlisted… it is available to all the residents of Holmdel. I really appreciate when residents call because it helps me to do my job better. It gives me a true pulse on what is happening.
LIH: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as mayor?
SD: I think keeping taxes at a manageable rate is one of the biggest challenges I face. I know there are many residents who want to stay in town but the taxes have become a burden for them. We have to try and continue to offer the services we do while holding the line on taxes. One way to achieve this is by coupling up with the Board of Education in an effort to share more services. It is much more efficient to put our moneys together. Our property taxes are actually not as high as other neighboring towns because of the presence of Lucent and Vonage. They continue to be a critical part of our tax base.
LIH: Before your term is up what would you like to accomplish?
SD: One initiative I would like to see established is a Health Awareness program. The first-aid squad has already held a meeting for stroke and cancer awareness and it was very informative. I am interested in seeing those kinds of events continue, especially for women’s health. I tend to think women, more than men, ignore their health because they are so busy taking care of everyone else. Recently I have asked the governing body to declare February as “Wear Red for Women Month.” This serves as a reminder that heart disease is a killer among women. Another goal would be to see some solid plans in place for Lucent property. I think that is the number one issue facing Holmdel Township going forward. Lastly, I would like to see the PNC Bank Arts Center litigations settled. Recently, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate division upheld the state Tax Court’s ruling awarding back taxes and the payment of future taxes by the PNC Bank Arts Center to Holmdel. This has been in litigation for over a decade and I would like to see our residents get monies back they are owed.
LIH: Speaking of Lucent, what is the current status? Please share a little bit about the rich history of this property.
SD: For many years Lucent helped stabilize the tax base. They held 14% of the tax base. It is my understanding that they did that willingly…I can only remember the data as far back as 1992; then they were assessed at $240 million and today their assessment is $90 million. Lucent has been here for 10 years and before that it was AT&T and Bell Labs. The 472-acre lot was built in 1959 and really is a beautiful piece of property. It was recently purchased by a company called Preferred Real Estate, developers of office real estate properties. At one time it housed up to 6,000 employees and now there are about 1,000 remaining… the closing of the building is slated for August 2007. I think that the biggest concern is that the property will be overdeveloped…however, I have made a promise to not let that happen- people would like for it to stay the way it is. It’s also important for folks to know that the property is only zoned for office and laboratory space. In addition, Preferred Real Estate has announced that it would try to preserve the scale and layout of the property. If they want to move beyond those guidelines or if they want to knock down any of the buildings, they would need to come to the governing body for permits, so we absolutely have a say in what happens. In fact, all five governing body members have gone on record saying they would not allow residential building there.
LIH: Let’s go back to your personal life for a moment. Who do you feel has been the biggest influence in your life?
SD: I would have to say my mom. She’s just the type of person one would want to emulate. She had this incredible way of making us all feel we were loved equally- there were never any favorites. She is also very active and to this day is very involved in the community. Of course, she makes a great role model for my daughter, too. Ronald Reagan is also a role model for me because I think was a great communicator.
LIH: Did your mom also influence your decision to go into politics?
SD: I think indirectly… because she always encouraged me to be active in my community- to be part of making where you live better.
LIH: Do you have any future political aspirations?
SD: I have been asked to go further but I don’t think my job is finished here in Holmdel. I am not ready to leave my town just yet. I have been part of the Monmouth County Republican party and was a member of the convention for Freeholder. It’s hard to say what I will be doing 5 years from now. If you asked me 5 years ago if I thought I would be mayor, I would have said no.
LIH: Is anyone else in your family interested in politics?
SD: My oldest son shows a strong interest in politics and he is actually more conservative than I am. My husband also does quite a bit of work in the community and follows politics to some extent.
LIH: When you have the time, how do you like to relax?
SD: My husband and I like to spend quiet time together. We enjoy shopping and going to the movies. Once a year our entire family goes on a big trip to Aruba, which is always a lot of fun. Over the summer we took the kids to Italy for 18 days. It turned out to be an incredible family vacation. I feel very blessed to have such a wonderful husband and kids.
LIH: How would you like the residents of Holmdel to describe you as their mayor?
SD: I would hope they would say I am fair-minded and that I listen to both sides of the story before I make a decision.
LIH: Finally, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
SD: Holmdel has been very successful in keeping our focus on recreation and retaining open space. We have renovated a lot of fields and even put in walking trails and a concession stand at Cross Farms Park. It’s a great area with a walking trail which connects through Thompson Park. I am also extremely proud of the September 11th Memorial we built. We got hit real hard by that tragedy and lost many dads that day. We were able to raise a lot of funds and we built a special memorial in the center of town hall. But in all honesty, my proudest accomplishment is my family. I have a great marriage and, of course, four wonderful children.