Mount Arlington Mayor Arthur Ondish remembers working at Bertrand Island Amusement Park when he was a teenager.
"Bertrand Island was a key part of all of our lives. That was the place to be, make money and have fun. It was just great. It was really sad when that park closed. I feel sorry for the kids today who don’t have that luxury. I was just very fortunate growing up that I had that because that was just a great place to be," he said.
The park began as a picnic area during World War I, and during the 1920s, it was expanded by owner Lewis Kraus to include a wooden roller coaster, the "Wildcat," which opened in 1925, an aeroplane swing, dance hall, cafeteria, beach, diving tower and boat docks. It closed in 1983 because of competition from larger theme parks, and in 2001, the property was developed into townhouses.
Ondish, specifically, worked at the Candyland game booth, which he eventually bought, owned and operated for the last year of the park’s existence.
The mayor’s parents, George and Joyce Ondish, moved to Mount Arlington in 1958 or 1959, and his mother’s parents in the late-1920s or early 1930s. They built a summer home on Bertrand Island.
One of Ondish’s mother’s best girlfriends’ grandfather had a house two doors down from the house Ondish grew up in. She used to spend her summers there. Then, Ondish said, his grandparents eventually moved to Bertrand Island year-round and his mother went to Roxbury High School. "Then, my father’s father bought a house right next door to my grandparents’ house on Bertrand Island. As my dad always says, ‘love thy neighbor.’"
Next, according to Ondish, they got married, lived in Kenvil for awhile, but then they moved to Bertrand Island in 1958 or 1959. They purchased a small summer bungalow and converted it, making it year-round.
"It was the first year-round house on the south side of Bertrand Island," Ondish said, adding that his brother raised his family in the same house. Ondish lived downstairs until 1992, when he bought his home. He has two brothers, Bob and John.
"I moved across the street — I made the big move," he said.
Ondish’s mother was involved in town — she served on the Board of Adjustment and the Planning Board; she was the secretary for 20-plus years. His dad was a special police officer in Mount Arlington for about 24 years. Special police officers were allowed to carry a gun, and they would go out with the full-time officers as backup when they could fit it into their schedules. Ondish said his father used to patrol Bertrand Island.
"When we used to have the fireworks, he would always be at the gate, watching who was coming on the island and who wasn’t. Outsiders weren’t allowed on, unless they were going to the yacht club, or they lived up there," Ondish said. His father patrolled in the wintertime, too, making sure all the doors were locked. He also served on the Board of Health, and the Juvenile Conferencee Committee, which sometimes spared youths from having a permanent record. Both his mother and father also served on the Republican County Committee. His grandfather, Arthur Hirschfeld, was a councilman in the late-1960s and early 1970s, and his grandmother, Agnes, used to prepare packages and food for soldiers in war.
Ondish attended Mount Arlington schools.
"I was in the first eighth-grade graduating class after Decker School opened, and I graduated in the auditorium of the brand-new school. There were 79," he said.
He then attended County College of Morris for several years part-time. He worked for two banks, United Jersey Bank in Randolph, and First Fidelity in Morristown, as teller and head teller. Next, he worked as meter reader for Jersey Central Power & Light for about 10 years, and then he was promoted to supervisor of the meter-reading department in Morristown.
"I had the largest meter-reading office in the company actually at the time. I had the most meter reters and the biggest territory. And I had some of the best statistics. My people were really good. You know, you treat people well, they treat you good back well. That’s the kind of leadership style I believe in. Take care of them, and they’ll take care of you," he said.
Ondish served as supervisor for six years, until First Energy bought the company.
He then worked for CHA engineering, where he was assistant director of business development, charged with selling engineering services. He was laid off last July and hasn’t found a new full-time job yet.
Ondish said his inclination toward public service must come from his parents.
In 1997, he was appointed to the Borough Council after submitting his name to the County Committee for consideration after a councilman had a heart attack.
"I like being involved behind the scenes. That’s what I did for years. I was president of the Republican Club. I helped every councilperson get elected back then. So, I put my name in, and I was chosen. And that’s how it all began. That was in 1997. I was appointed for the remaining term, which was a year. I had to run again after that year for the two-year seat. From that point on, it was a three-year seat, and then I ran for mayor," he said, adding he never thought he’d run for his current post.
So, why did he decide to throw his hat in the ring?
"I looked at the council at the time, and I was about the most senior councilperson, plus I’m from town. I know the town like the back of my hand. I love people. I love helping people. I thought this would be a good way to really help more, and sure enough, I got elected, and then I got re-elected, and I just got re-elected again, so I must be doing something right," he said.
The race for re-election in 2010 was a close vote, topping Veronica Silkes, independent, by more-than 100 votes.
Ondish explained that he’s proud of many accomplishments in Mount Arlington. He noted infrastructure work, including reconstructed roads, sewer and water lines installed, the Streetscape project, remodeling buildings, playground improvements, shared services arrangements, and more.
"And I certainly didn’t do it alone — it is my team. I’m proud of the team because I certainly could never do it all alone. It’s all teamwork. I’m proud of the councils I’ve had the privilege of serving with. I’m proud of the staff I work with. I’m proud of the professionals that I chose. It’s a team effort," he said.
Ondish, who was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine to serve as Lake Hopatcong Commission chairman, a post he held for 5 1/2 years, said the lack of funding for the lake has to do with the way the state budget has been mis-managed for years.
"This isn’t something new. This has been going on forever. And it’s just horrible management off money, horrible management of how the money was spent, and there’s issues between elected officials, our legislative elected officials, that have left Lake Hopatcong being overlooked when it comes to funding. I think what’s needed is concensus-building between the Assembly members and Senate members in understanding the big picture of what a vital piece of beautiful, nature resource that Lake Hopatcong is. And funding needs to be put aside to maintain it. However, if the state is not willing to fund the maintenance of the lake, then the Legislature and the governor need to allow a user-fee system to be put in place, where the money stays here at the lake, that doesn’t go into the General Fund," he said.
Ondish explained that how a user-fee system would work is, people who use boats on the lake would pay a fee based on a tier system — day, week, year pass, etc.
"That money would be put directly into an account here at the lake, and that would be the commission’s funds for the operating budget. That way, if the state doesn’t want to maintain it, at least there would be a reliable, renewable source of income to keep the commission going in its mission. And the mission is to maintain the integrity, the beauty, the nature resource, the water clarity, all of the things that the Commission is chartered to do with Lake Hopatcong because, right now, with no money, they’re going to do squat," he said.
Ondish is also involved in many other activities and groups, including as first vice president of the State League of Municipalities.
"If everything goes well, I should be president next year," he said.
The league speaks for all the municipalities in the state when it comes to issues facing New Jersey. He said a priority now is to stop unfunded mandates. Ondish is also working to encourage the federal government to not cut community block grants, which allow local projects to take place without using taxpayer funding.
He’s also involved with Sustainable Jersey, a certification program for municipalities that want to go green, save money, and take steps to sustain their quality of life over the long term. In addition he served as president of the league’s education foundation, the nonprofit arm of the league. He has also been involved in the Mayors Book Club, in which mayors read to students at a local school and then issue a challenge to the students to read so many books in exchange for monies to purchase new books for the school. He visited Edith Decker School in April and read "Flat Stanley" to them. In the near future, he will be presenting a check to that school. Ondish also serves as president of the Morris County League of Municipalities.
When Ondish isn’t attending Borough Council meetings or traveling around the state, he enjoys boating on Lake Hopatcong, snowmobiling in winter and spending time with the family. He is married to wife, Yvonne.