The mayoral candidates at last night’s debate didn’t deviate too far from each slate’s respective script, responding to questions in front of a packed gymnasium. Questions ranged from Board of Education appointments to revenue generation, debt reduction and affordable housing for Montclair.
The subject of PTA-gate did not come up, and mayoral candidate Harvey Susswein — who has stayed out of the fray — declined comment when asked about it after the debate.
Moderator Michelle Bobrow from the League of Women voters kept the candidates in tow, cutting candidates off if they exceeded their two-minute speaking time limits and occasionally sshh-ing the crowd.
Mayoral candidates Robert Jackson, Harvey Susswein and Karen Turner were seated on the left side of the stage. The mood was serious, with few smiles or laughs, and Jackson and Susswein looked particularly grim.
Also on the panel were at-large candidates Rich McMahon, Robert Russo, Kathryn Weller-Demming, Patricia Hurt, Leeann Carlson, Tim Barr, and Peter Zorich.
When asked about Board of Education appointments, Susswein said that he would continue to utilize Mayor Jerry Fried’s nomination committee, but added that he would then have the council ratify those choices, saying if that method is “good enough for a Supreme Court justice, it’s good enough for a school board.”
Bobrow asked all candidates to give their ideas for revenue generation. Responses ranged from Barr’s “build more commercial ratables,” to Russo’s emphasis on consolidating services with other municipalities. Montclair “can’t afford to exist alone,” he said.
Zorich suggested that Montclair cannot develop its way out of debt and suggested that it would be a long time before the DCH and Assisted Living projects would produce revenue for the town. But he also said that the Montclair is “notoriously anti-business,” and needs to become more welcoming to business owners.
On the issue of affordable housing, Weller-Demming emphasize her support for developing Wildwood, saying that establishing housing in the north side of town is a “social justice issue.”
Carlson responded by calling the Wildwood affordable housing plan a “knee-jerk, band-aid approach” to addressing the need for affordable housing in all four wards. Slate mate Zorich later commented that Demming’s “social justice argument doesn’t fly” and said that Montclair should work towards making the community more affordable for current residents.
Regarding the Montclair’s debt, Turner said that she would issue a moratorium for debt on nonessential items, finishing current projects and looking at outstanding debt in a “thoughtful and measured manner.” Jackson emphasized bringing in new revenue to pay down the debt and generating revenue by offering services like police dispatch and recycling to Glen Ridge.
The proposed assisted living facility was brought up, with Turner saying that the council needs to “do more homework” before going ahead with the project. Susswein expressed his direct opposition to what he said would be an “inward looking facility” in the middle of the central business district. But Jackson, a developer, said that whatever the objections, it would be unlikely Montclair would be able to stop the project because the state considers assisted living a beneficial use.
The candidates offered a few specifics on cuts they would make to spending. Susswein said that they couldn’t wait for multiple town agreements that Jackson advocated. Turner said she would outsource sanitation, as well as other public services, citing that the 70 percent of towns in the state do it, and 50 percent have had success.
Audience member Michael O’Leary raised the issue of the healthcare benefits package that’s available to council members and asked the candidates to offer a show of hands over who would take the package. The candidates appeared somewhat befuddled by the question, exchanging glances with one another.
Each of the candidates said they would not accept the benefits, except for McMahon, who said he could use them, and Weller-Demming, who suggested that the other candidates’ refusal was an insincere gesture. Her comments were met with boos and hisses from the audience.
”I would be suspicious of people who are trying to tempt you with a few dollars of savings, while spending massive amounts of money on an expensive campaign,” said Weller-Demming after the debate. “If they’re going to turn down the health benefits, why don’t they give back the $7,000?” she said, in reference to council members’ yearly salaries.
Russo said he would turn down the benefits, “symbolically” accept the salary of $5,000 that he had in 2004 and donate the rest to local services he feels deserve the money, including the pre-school, ambulance squad and adult school.
After the first portion of the debate, first, second and third ward candidates filed into individual classrooms that were soon packed with residents who posed questions to the candidates.
William Hurlock, first ward candidate, debated incumbent Rich Murnick over privatization and the value of outsourcing public services to private companies. Hurlock said the two most important issues facing the first ward the “rampant growth of property taxes,” which have increased 20 percent over the past four years, and 50 percent over the past seven. He also said that there was a general “erosion of the quality of life” in the first ward.
Robin Schlager of the second ward proposed a renovation of Edgemont Park. Independent candidate Selma Adicevic responded to a question of how she would populate vacant storefronts by saying “landlord education” was necessary because because a number of landlords hold onto vacant properties and are slow to develop them. She mentioned that the same two landlords own most of the property in town.
Third ward candidates Jeff Jacobson, Chris Swenson and Sean Spiller discussed revenue generation. Spiller commented on the need for more ratables that would generate revenue and potentially lower taxes for residents. He also said that he felt the proposed assisted living facility should be built in a different location other than Church Street.