In a year of new town leadership and on the eve of another election, here’s a look back at Jefferson governance from the beginning.
Jefferson Township was created on February 11, 1804, by the state legislature “as a political community by gerrymandering the boundaries of Pequannock and Roxbury Townships,” according to research by 1976 high school graduate Bob Opiekun.
Two months later, on April 9, the new township held its first meeting. The historic event took place at Seward’s Tavern on Union Turnpike, a toll road known today as Route 15 South. “The taverns and inns of the time were gathering places to learn of what was happening, discuss crops, family matters, gossip, talk politics, and to vote” wrote local historian R. Richard Willis during the township’s bicentennial celebration in 2004.
Those assembled at that inaugural meeting elected John Losey as president and tax assessor and John Kelso as town clerk. The next meeting was held a year later on April 11, 1805. At the following meeting on April 14, 1806, John DeCamp was elected president with John Kelso retaining his position as town clerk. Opiekun noted that the town’s first three meetings were “basically the same with no tremendous revelations” and “the succeeding meetings were not much different.”
The township clerk’s office compiled “A History of Council/Committee Members and Their Professionals,” which traces local government officials back to 1889. Leaders operated under the town committee form of government, which allowed three to five members usually chosen at large in partisan elections. The committee selected one of its members to chair meetings. Over the decades, changes made to assist the governing body included the addition of positions such as township attorney (as early as 1896) and township engineer (1936).
Who Was the First Mayor?
Although library director Seth Stephens found the term “mayor” first used in the 1956-1957 Morris County Manual, the county seems to have anticipated an upcoming change. The municipal record for 1956 and 1957 shows Wilbur Willis still designated solely as chair of the township committee. Several reliable township sources confirm that the mayoral title was not added until 1958, when Raymond Burkett was chosen to preside as the first mayor/chair2. Recently retired township administrator James Leach recalls that “mayor” was initially an honorary title. Its bearers had no more authority than other committee members, although they could perform weddings in addition to chairing meetings.
In 1959, Horace Chamberlain was one of only three Democrats to date to run for the mayor/chair position. He secured enough signatures for a ballot referendum on increasing the township committee from three to five members. While Chamberlain lost the election, voters approved the increase to better represent the growing population.
In 1960, Everitt Rhinehart moved up from committee member to mayor/chair. After the next election, Burkett was back in the chair with fellow committee members Arthur Mitchko, Albert Riggs, George Tweedley, and Wilbur Willis. Disbrow continued as clerk. After 10 months, Willis (who had served as chair from 1946-1957) was appointed to replace Burkett until 1963.2 As the township evolved, Mitchko was named the first vice chair in 1963. Subsequent mayor/chairs were Samuel Sutphen, Jr. in 1964, Arthur Mitchko from 1965-1968, and Ralph Atkinson from 1969-1970.
Mayor/Council Form of Government
Leach recalls that a charter study commission was formed to research changing to a mayor/council form of government with a strong mayor, in accordance with the Faulkner Act. Township sources confirm that a referendum to do so was passed in 1969. Until then, Leach noted, the tax collector, tax assessor, and clerk were elected officials. With the change in governance, they became appointees with four-year terms.
The position of administrator was added in 1970 in the person of Harold Christy. The following year, the newly elected leadership team consisted of mayor Ralph Atkinson, council president James Opeken, vice president Richard Dunney, and council members Horace Chamberlain, Jr., Joseph Florio, and Alvin Gunneson. Appointees included attorney Joel Murphy, administrator Harold Christy, and clerk Amelia Abriola. Atkinson did not finish out his four-year term, said Leach, resigning in November 1974 due to personal legal problems. Samuel Sutphen, Jr. was appointed by the council to serve as mayor for the remaining six weeks of the term.
In 1975, Horace Chamberlain was successful in his mayoral bid. After having served on the Town Council for 15 years and the Board of Education for three years, he continued for 12 years as mayor.
Women on the Rise
During Chamberlain’s initial term, Grace Teese became the first woman elected to serve on the council (1975-1978). Frances Slayton followed in 1977 and remained on the council until 1986. She was the “first woman member of the planning board and the board of adjustment,” wrote Jane Primerano in Aim Jefferson, adding that she also held the distinction of being “the first woman public safety director and the first woman council president.” Not surprisingly, Slayton was elected the first female mayor of Jefferson Township in 1987, serving in that capacity until 1994.
Evelyn Brown, born and raised in Jefferson, was a noted historian and lifelong educator, retiring as a middle school language arts teacher. She was elected to the Town Council and served from 1987-1994, defeating Slayton in her bid for a third mayoral term and serving in that position from 1995-1998.
Next up in the mayor’s chair was Russell Felter. After serving four years on the Town Council and three years on the Board of Adjustment, he was elected mayor and held the position for five terms totaling 20 years (1999-2018) – the longest consecutive tenure for any committee chair or mayor in the township’s history.
That brings our story to the present. Eric Wilsusen grew up in Jefferson and served in the Police Department for more than 30 years, retiring as the deputy chief. He launched a successful campaign to unseat Felter, a fellow Republican. Township administrator James Leach, who served throughout Felter’s two decades at the helm, retired at the same time. Wilsusen began his mayoral term in 2019 and appointed Debra Millikin as administrator.
The current Town Council consists of five Republicans: president Debi Merz, vice president Kim Finnegan, and members Robert Birmingham, Jay Dunham, and Melissa Senatore. Together with Wilsusen, these elected officials are leading Jefferson Township into the future.
The Government of Jefferson Township 1804-1885 by Bob Opiekun, A History of Council/Committee Members and Their Professionals provided by Michele Reilly, Township Clerk, Fran Slayton Was a Major Influence in Shaping Jefferson by Jane Primerano, Aim Jefferson, April 2016, History of Morris County by Edmund Drake Halsey et al., published by W. W. Munsell, 1882, Northwestern New Jersey: A History, compiled by A. Van Doren Honeyman, 1927, Horace Chamberlain, Nancy Chamberlain, Jack Kelly, James Leach, Seth Stephens, Jefferson Township Library Director, Christine Williams, Jefferson Township Historical Society President, R. Richard Willis, Jefferson Township Historian.