Council Candidates (Mostly) Play Nice For a Night
Eleven of the 12 candidates for four council seats fielded audience questions Monday, May 23.
Traffic, cost of living, affordable housing and "stacking," when a landlord rents a single-family home illegally to multiple families, were issues that consistently came up during a "Candidate's Night" forum Monday, organized by the League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area.
It was a mostly-civil affair when 11 of the 12 candidates for four open Town Council seats met May 23 at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown Parish House on South Street.
Still, some prospective councilmembers found opportunities where they could to take a jab or two at the competition.
"I'm going to take a risk here and, unlike my other candidates, actually answer the question," Ward 3 Democratic candidate–and current Planning Board member–Stefan Armington said in response to the audience-supplied question on whether he would cut taxes or cut promised retirement benefits if given only those options. He is running in the June 7 primary against fellow Planning Board member, and Chairman, Michael Pooler, and Democratic incumbent James E. Smith.
Armington later made the most pointed dig–at incumbent councilman Smith–when he said, "I don't believe the current council representative is doing much at all."
"It's kind of a trick question," said Republican Councilwoman Alison Deeb, who is seeking a second term in the Fourth Ward. She will face-off in the June 7 primary against fellow Republican Ed France. The winner of that race will face either Democrats Denis Ciklic or Jessica Pierson Williamson in November.
"The pension system is state-determined," Deeb said. "I have always worked hard to reduce the budget ... I always try to look out for the taxpayers."
Independent Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman (who does not need to run in the June primary, but will face off in Ward 1 against Democrat Christopher Kehrli, who was the only candidate not in attendance Monday), who is seeking a second term, said the solution was located "somewhere in the middle."
Ward 2 Democratic candidate Toshiba Foster, a current member of the Planning Board, agreed. She is running against incumbent Democrat Raline Smith-Reid, a council member since 2000, on June 7. Republican Naveen Nadipuram will challenge the winner of that primary in November.
"Property taxes absolutely have to be cut," said Ward 4 candidate France, who passed out election flyers before the event. The flyer, with a picture of the candidate standing next to a few famous statues located on the Green, read: "MEN ON A MISSION ... 1. George Washington 2. Alexander Hamilton 3. Marquis de Lafayette 4. EDWARD FRANCE"
"Under my leadership, taxes are going to be reduced," France said.
France was later asked questions from several reporters regarding a legal notice in the Daily Record that he had not paid sewer fees.
"As far as I know, I might have a payment due," he said. "But, I have had no notice, no tax levy. The town does that standard (make public delinquent payments) if people are behind ... If I was litigated, I would defend it in court. I'm not negligent."
MorristownGreen.com reported Tuesday that France had made a $200 payment that day for those fees, avoiding a sale on his James Street property.
Another question (all questions were asked anonymously by audience members) asked all candidates what their regular lives would prove beneficial to them in the political realm.
Ciklic noted his desire to empower youth, citing his time as the Morristown High School freshman soccer coach as an asset toward that. "I want to work hard to provide communication and transparency," he said.
Williamson–who on several occasions highlighted her youth as a benefit (as well as her non-existent political background)–said her love and passion for her job at a veterenarian's office–as well as her love of Morristown as a multi-generation resident–were assets she brought to her candidacy. "I am excited to bring a young and new perspective," she said.
Pooler, whose comments on more than one occasion drew a few chuckles and cheers, said he benefited from his "B.A., when I was 'Born Again,'" he said. "Do you know what has been lost? The art of listening. I will listen to you. Residents have the answers and you're the key to solving problems."
Smith highlighted his work as a fifth-generation master plumber, which has helped him understand the building process. "I bring a lot of experience, spend a lot of time talking to people, listening to people," he said.
Smith-Reid, as a senior programmer analyst, deals with contracts from all over the world, she said. "I'm also a landlord in town," she said, noting her ability to read plans.
Plans–specifically, those involving redevelopment and access to affordable housing–came up on multiple occasions during the night.
With six active redevelopment zones in Morristown, Feldman said one of the most important things for the council to do right now is "to work with our professional planners, Jonathan Rose Companies," citing previously failed plans proving to not be of benefit to the town.
Several candidates, including Foster and Williamson, noted their lack of experience on this issue, among others. They also highlighted their willingness and desire to learn about everything they need to know. "I'm willing to do the research, willing to get more experienced," said Foster, who recently was one of the beneficiaries of a Habitat for Humanity project on Willow Street.
"40 Park (the new luxury development along the Green) is wonderful, but we also have to consider the big picture," said Nadipuram, an attorney. "We might have wonderful shopping centers, but we have to have housing for everybody."
Smith-Reid referred to the "young professionals" that have moved into places like 40 Park and Highlands at Morristown Station as "one class of folks. We have to make sure the middle class, and the lower class have somewhere to stay in Morristown."
Both councilmembers Smith and Smith-Reid have voiced opposition to the current plans for the Speedwell Redevelopment, which call for Phase I development to have only 5 percent affordable housing allocation. Previous plans had called for 20 percent.
"Redevelopment has to be scrutinized," Smith said.
For several issues, including "stacking" and traffic, most candidates cited a need to work together with the administration, and transparency in government.
"We need to hold landlords accountable (by increasing penalties)," Pooler said. The Planning Board Chair also called for the town and council to make greater use of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. "We need to become more modern," he said.
Smith cited a mayor in the 1960s, who said to alleviate traffic in Morristown, a cop would need to be installed on every corner. "This has been a problem for a long time," he said.
After the meeting, while waiting for a driving rain to let up outside, First Ward resident Lucille Knapik said she thought the Candidate's Night event had been beneficial to her as a voter. "I think it was well done," she said. "I think it's hard to answer that many questions when you have that many candidates. There was a good cross-section of concerns addressed. It's a very diverse [town], so there are a whole lot of concerns."