Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo grew up in Newark, but she spent her summers in Hopatcong.
"My father built our summer home here in 1953, and then in 1972 I was a full-time resident here. Then, when I was married in ’74, I had my husband build our home in Hopatcong," said Petillo.
She attended Newark schools and then received her bachelor’s degree in music education from William Paterson University, and her master’s in education from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa.
Petillo started out as a music teacher and then moved into the classroom as an elementary teacher. She taught in Newark, Garfield, Montclair and Andover.
Then, she got married, raised her two children and worked for her husband’s business — a site development company in Kenvil.
So, how did Petillo get involved in public service?
"I kind of got drawn into public service. We had a sex offender that was placed from the county in Lakeside Motel. Now, I live right behind Lakeside Motel, and one of my neighbors saw a reporter interview somebody from the county. She knew there was a sex offender that had been placed there. They didn’t notify anyone in Hopatcong. And we had a bus stop right at the corner where there were probably about 50 children. So, you had a sex offender 50 feet away. We had nobody standing there, and we had 50 children. So, that became the issue — it was the catalyst that started the process," she said.
Petillo started a group called TRACS, an acronym for To Raise a Child Safely. Then, she started the Hopatcong Helping Hands program, which allowed residents to register with police to identify homes as safe spots with a sticker.
She started that around the first time she ran for school board in 1995 — she served for nine years, holding the position of vice president for two years and president as four.
Next Petillo ran for mayor, but she lost the first time. She was elected to the Borough Council (one, three-year term), and then she ran for mayor again, and won. She is running for re-election again in 2012 and faces no opposition.
"I couldn’t have become mayor at a more difficult time. I became mayor when the whole economy fell," she said.
Accomplishments Petillo cited since becoming mayor include:
-making the size of borough government leaner.
-bringing new businesses into town.
-approval of a condominium development on Lake Hopatcong.
-more than $2 million in grants over the last three years.
-phase one of the Streetscaping process.
-receiving a $146,300 Small Cities grant to renovate the Senior Citizen Center.
-connecting with state government and county government.
Petillo explained that it’s important for the county and state governments to know about Hopatcong: "We make a lot of noise in Trenton. I go down a lot. People know Hopatcong now, where they didn’t before. And I make a lot of noise, and I’m not negative noise. But I make sure the name Hopatcong is around."
She said that Gov. Chris Christie decided to hold the March town hall-style meeting in Hopatcong on his own.
"We were happy to have the governor here. That was a great day for Hopatcong, that he came here. And whether you agree with his politics or not, you had the opportunity to meet him and ask questions and have a better understanding of why he’s doing what he’s doing. And I know people that came with a very negative view of the governor and left with a totally different view. Once he throws the numbers out and explains where you are and where you’re going, you want somebody to fix it. And what he’s saying is that he has the strength and the courage to do what the others haven’t. So, he tells you the negative, but then he tells you he wants to fix it in a positive way," she said.
The mayor is also involved in several local organizations: the Elks Club, Hopatcong Woman’s Club, Drug and Alcohol Alliance in Hopatcong and the county, and American Christian School.
Petillo, who used to write and record music, volunteered for the Interstate Association of Stolen Children in the 1980s.
She explained that a friend of hers got involved in a kidnapping in upstate New York and that they sent 40,000 fliers in New Jersey to help find the victim.
Petillo helped investigators with three or four kidnappings by writing songs that described what happened.
"I described all the issues associated with the kidnapping, and they would use the songs in their investigation. They would bring people in that they felt might have something to do with the investigation, and they would play the songs and watch them — they would watch their reactions. They also played them on radios to get attention to the kidnapping. And I did that for quite a few years, I worked with the investigators. That was really very interesting," she said.
Petillo’s interest in music began when she was a child — she took vocal and piano lessons. Eventually she went to New York because she wanted to be a jingle singer — that was her original career goal.
"And then I decided to get married instead," she chuckled.
In addition, during the Desert Storm War, Petillo wrote a Christian song — called "Where is that Love?" — for the families of the troops. She sent it to President Bush, Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzcoff because she wanted to send it to the families.
The general gave Petillo the name of a person in the Air Force who could help her with the contact information. It took six months to get the CD out to all of the families that lost a soldier and POWs.
Petillo explained that she now has a book of letters from families thanking her for the song.
"I have one from a POW — that is the most touching letter I have ever received. Twenty years later, I answered the phone in February, and it’s a women’s looking for the Sylvia Petillo that sent her mother a song when her sister was killed in Desert Storm. And I said, well, you’ve got her, this is me. She said, I’ve been looking for you forever. She said, I saw there was a Sylvia Petillo that was mayor, and I was just hoping it was you," she said.
The woman invited Petillo to the 20th anniversary of Desert Storm. Her unit was from Pennsylvania and had the most killed 13 (and 50 wounded) during the scub missile attack toward the end of the war.
"They had put up a $1 million memorial, and she wanted me to come up and sing the song. And I said I couldn’t sing the song because I didn’t have a rhythm track. I never made the song to be done live — it was just a gift. So, I said, what I can do is get a copy of the song, I can put it on CD for you, and I’ll send you the copy. So, she said, will you come up? And I said sure, I’ll come up. So, they allowed me to speak — I had the opportunity to speak at the dinner and to play the song and to meet people who I had sent that song to 20 years prior," she said. "It was a phenomenal experience."
Petillo, who is married to husband Ronald and has two children, Michael (a youth pastor in Colorado who is 30) and Joseph (a 28-year-old electrical engineer at Picatinny Arsenal), said the biggest challenge of being mayor is trying to deal with the economy.
"You know your residents are hurting, you know there’s a great deal of unemployment, and you’re constantly trying to reduce costs and become more efficient," she said.
Petillo, said in terms of funding for the upkeep of Lake Hopatcong, there needs to be boat fees.
"I’ve been in favor of boat fees since I realized that the state government had financial problems and wasn’t going to be able to fund the weed-harvesting program that we need at the lake. It’s the only way to get some form of funding every year. You can always build on that every year, but you need that initial funding source that’s sustainable, and we don’t have that now," she explained.
Petillo added that the lake hasn’t been properly weeded for three years and that one year Hopatcong brought the weed harvesters to the borough, and they fixed them with the help of some commission employees.
"You can complain and be upset that the state doesn’t have the money, but the point is — the state doesn’t have the money. We have to help ourselves," she said, adding that for user fees to be put into effect all four towns surrounding the lake would have to agree and a constitutional amendment would have to be passed in Trenton to allow the monies to stay local.
"It’s [Lake Hopatcong] a treasure — it’s not just a treasure of the state, it’s a treasure of our area. We are a resort community. It brings people into our community. They look around, they buy houses. It helps your businesses, and it’s great for activities for the community," Petillo said.
The mayor said the people of Hopatcong is what originally drew her to the borough.
"The community spirit and the people of Hopatcong are wonderful, and that’s the best thing about being mayor, is meeting more people and really trying to socialize and get to know them, and having the ability to help them. There’s just a sense of community that’s been here for years. Although we’re not a small town anymore, that small town community feeling is still here, and that’s what’s nice."
Petillo added that if re-elected she wants to start an Economic Development Committee, continue updating ordinances that are outdated, work on planning for the Highlands and COAH, eliminate red tape for residential development, and revitalize the River Styx area.
"We’ve been talking a long time about revitalizing the River Styx area, and that’s still something that I would like to see happen," she said.