Says Goodbye After 23 Years on Council
By Jay Cook |
RUMSON – Some might say John Ekdahl was the steady presence in the room, a familiar guide for Rumson over the past two decades. Others might know him as the careful career financial advisor who approached every challenge holistically.
As the page turned on his final chapter of public service, Ekdahl maintained that stoic character Tuesday evening when he stepped down from the Borough Council after a political career spanning 23 years. It was the first time since Dec. 7, 1995 that he sat in front of the council members rather than beside them on the dais.
“Honestly it felt a bit awkward, I have to say,” Ekdahl said with a chuckle. “Certainly a different view.”
Ekdahl officially informed his colleagues of his departure in a May 18 letter. In a 2015 interview with The Two River Times, Ekdahl said this term would be his final in Rumson. Ekdahl, 72, joined Rumson’s governing body in 1995 after he was appointed to the Borough Council. He spent nine years at that post before being appointed in 2004 to succeed former mayor Charles Callman.
The Rumson resident of 61 years has volunteered and governed for over four decades. He’s also seen the small, affluent community of 6,800 residents change over that time span, but recently he believes those transformations have been for the best.
“Way back when, I don’t think there was the same enthusiasm for the town,” said Ekdahl, a first vice president and senior financial advisor at Merrill Lynch in Red Bank. “I think people always appreciated living here, but now there’s more of an open enthusiasm about the town, about the school systems and the athletic programs that we’re producing.”
Ekdahl has been a board member for the Community YMCA and the newly-renamed Count Basie Center for the Arts. He was one of 12 members on the Two River Council of Mayors, a congregation of local elected officials around the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers who meet regularly. Ekdahl also held a seat on the Sandy Hook Reuse Committee, helping reinvigorate pieces of the former military instillation there.
But he also had to make some tough decisions and weather one of the nastiest storms in recent memory. Ekdahl was a driving force in the construction of a new $9 million borough hall in 2010, which brought police, borough administration and public works together at a mini-campus at 80 East River Road.
Super Storm Sandy will be Ekdahl’s “most lasting memory.” The 2012 storm caused over $8 million worth of damages to the borough infrastructure and he was in charge of the entire rebuild.
“That was a three-month slog, really, to get the town picked up,” said Ekdahl. “We were out of power for about three weeks. Just to get the town put back together and try to get it running again and get some sense of normalcy (was important).”
About 30 residents and a handful of local elected officials attended the May 22 Borough Council meeting to send Ekdahl off. Fair Haven Mayor Benjamin Lucarelli sat beside Ekdahl’s wife, Lolly, throughout the goodbye.
“When I came in, I was still wet behind the ears, didn’t know the ropes and had a lot of enthusiasm,” said Lucarelli, a Fair Haven official of nearly a decade. “I guess you could really say he was my mentor.”
Lucarelli said his friendship with Ekdahl helped the two neighboring communities grow together. In 2015 they both successfully pushed Monmouth County officials to incorporate bicycle lanes along Ridge Road to benefit both towns. They also struck deals on interlocal agreements as Fair Haven moved its municipal court and building department to Rumson over the years.
“He carefully considers what’s going on and then does what he believes is best for Rumson residents,” said Lucarelli.
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), who also was a borough councilman in nearby Little Silver during Ekdahl’s tenure, said “Rumson was very lucky to have someone so dedicated.”
“You have your standouts and John has been that for a long time,” O’Scanlon continued. “It’s a big loss and we’re going to miss him.”
Although he’s stepping away from public service, Ekdahl said he’ll stay on at Merrill Lynch “certainly for the balance of the year and maybe beyond.”
He and Lolly have a second home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, in the same development where their son’s family and grandchildren currently live. They have plans to spend a lot more time down there.
Ekdahl didn’t shed any tears throughout the evening – instead there were firm handshakes and hearty hugs passed around. He hearkened back to that even-keeled mindset when asked what his impact on Rumson would be.
“Having a system in place that seems to be moving seamlessly (is the most important),” he said. “I just think we’re in a good place right now as we improve our assets.”
The Borough Council unanimously approved council president Joseph Hemphill to serve the as mayor for the remainder of 2018. A closed session to discuss that appointment didn’t last two minutes.
Hemphill, a 70-year-old lifelong Rumson resident and business owner, said he’s excited for the challenge ahead.
“It’s just an honor to be here to try and take care of our town,” he said. “It’s what the residents want, that’s why they moved here.”
Councilwoman Laura Atwell was chosen to serve as the new Borough Council president.
This article was first published in the May 24-31, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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