By John Burton
RED BANK – It was an evening of quick jabs, some not-so-veiled insinuations and assertions of what has been done and would be done with an election victory, as the three candidates campaigning for Borough Council seats squared off to answer questions from voters and address each other about the issues.
During the fast-moving 90-minute session, incumbent Democratic Councilmen Arthur V. Murphy III and Michael DuPont joined challenger Suzanne Viscomi, a Republican, for what has been traditionally the only opportunity for residents to have all candidates at one time to field their questions.
The audience of more than 75, gathered at the River Street Commons senior housing facility at 49 Catherine St., was a collection of familiar faces, many of who have made their political allegiances known. They included elected officials and residents who peppered the trio with inquires.
“You know I’m standing up here because it’s the same thing every year – taxes,” said Kim Senkeleski, John Street, aiming her questions at the candidates. Senkeleski made an unsuccessful run for borough council in the past and is the vice president of the borough’s Republican club. “I want you guys to prove to me that keeping taxes low is a priority.”
DuPont, who chairs the borough council’s finance committee, responsible for drafting the annual municipal budget, said the council over the last few years has been able to reduce debt by 30 percent, reduce operating costs and increase the budget surplus.
DuPont also pointed to a recent decision by Moody’s financial ratings service, which upgraded the borough’s financial rating from a negative outlook to a positive one. “We made sure we were fiscally accountable,” DuPont said.
Viscomi challenged DuPont on the Moody’s point, alleging the ratings upgrade was based on an increase in the borough’s recurring revenue. “Who pays those recurring revenues? We do,” she said.
But DuPont shot back. He pointed to Viscomi’s vote as a current member of the borough’s board of education when she voted against the board’s budget, even though she chairs the board’s finance committee and presumably played a significant role in creating it.
“We can’t be making political statements at the expense of our kids and our residents,” DuPont said.
Marybeth Maida, a Branch Avenue resident long involved in local Democratic politics, wanted to know why Viscomi was forsaking the board of education to pursue municipal politics. “You made a commitment,” Maida told Viscomi. “Why can’t you get elected another year?”
“I just see a bigger need,” Viscomi responded.
Richard Merach, John Street, asked about water and sewer costs, and whether the borough should sell its system. The Democrats said no, because it would be more expensive. Viscomi said, “They don’t want to lower your water bill,” as it would reduce some of those recurring revenues.
Other questions raised by residents concerned repaving of streets in front of their homes; the revitalization of the Shrewsbury Avenue corridor; whether council members do or should take health-care insurance as a benefit for their office – Murphy does so without apology, DuPont doesn’t but defended Murphy and Viscomi said she wouldn’t – and the cost to the borough for the extensive renovations to Count Basie Field, a borough-owned park and sports fields, located on the west side.
DuPont and Murphy touted what they said was a proven record during their time in office. Murphy, a construction contractor, has been a council member for more than nine years. DuPont, a lawyer, has been a councilman for six.
They pointed to the creation of the Cedar Crossing residential development, allowing home ownership for low-income community members, and the redevelopment of the Monmouth Street corridor, along with emphasizing what they said was responsible financial management.
“We’ve done a lot of great things on this council,” Murphy said. “I’m proud of that.”
But, added DuPont, “The job is not complete.” They would like more time to move forward.
“For the last 20 years or so, Red Bank has been run by a majority party,” the Democrats, Viscomi told the audience. “For the last five years or so Red Bank has been run by a monopoly party” with all six council members being Democrats.
Viscomi, who works as a chief financial officer for a private-sector company, said she would bring a differing viewpoint and give voice for those, she said, who are not being heard by the current governing body. “My idea is to make sure all our voices are heard,” she said.
Afterward Linda Glasschroeder, Arthur Place, said she had come into the debate pretty certain about who she would vote for and that is still the case. She said she votes Republican (though not always) and planned to vote for Viscomi. “We need another voice,” she said, adding that she has attended council meetings and didn’t always like the way the governing body treated public members who made comments. “They need to be more respectful,” she said.
Marjorie Clark, a soft spoken senior living on Westside Avenue, wouldn’t say how she would vote, but said she agreed with what the Democrats have done and their agenda. “I think Red Bank has shown a lot of improvement,” she said.
The West Side Community Group, which advocates for west side residents and businesses, has been conducting these candidates’ debates for 16 years, according to its president, Amy Goldsmith, a west side resident.
There are two three-year borough council seats up this year, but Viscomi is running solo. Her running mate, Allen Palma, dropped out of the race last month for personal reasons.