RED BANK — East Side and West Side. Republican and Democrat. The quality of borough water. And, of course, the ever-mentioned matter of quality of life issues.
These were some of the concerns that residents voiced to this year’s slate of candidates for borough council election.
The West Side Community Group once again conducted its annual Meet the Candidates forum last Wednesday, its 15th year, at the River Street Commons senior housing facility, Catherine Street, with roughly 100 borough voters attending this year’s debate.
This year’s election sees incumbent Democrats Edward Zipprich and Juanita Lewis seeking their second three-year terms facing off against former Borough Councilmember Mary Grace Cangemi and Joseph Mizzi, who ran unsuccessfully last year. The two Republican challengers are seeking to make inroads against the Democrats’ exclusive majority of the six-member council.
The Democrats pointed to what they called a record of successful leadership during what has been an especially difficult financial time, when the municipality has seen cutbacks in its portion of aid from Trenton.
But even with the tightening of the fiscal belt, the council, they said, delivered balanced budgets that also continued to provide needed services.
“We practice fiscal responsibility,” Lewis said, with Zipprich adding, “We have a commitment to our community to make sure we thrive.”
“I think it is of vital importance that all voices are being heard,” Cangemi said, believing the all one-party rule stifles differing opinions. “It’s more difficult today,” than it was three years ago, when last she served on the council, to hear those dissenting voices, Cangemi said.
“We’re all different personalities. We don’t all always agree,” Lewis said later in an apparent rebuttal to Cangemi’s assertion.
“I have my own mind. I make my own decisions,” Lewis stressed. “And it’s always for the taxpayers.”
The questions expressed were not too different than in past years, with audience members expressing concerns over the political partisan divide and whether the racially diverse, economically modest west side gets short shrift compared to the east side, home to the borough’s downtown business district.
“I think the west side has been underserved,” said Cangemi, who lives there. In response to that specific concern raised by Simee Crystan, Leighton Avenue, Cangemi said the area needs more in the way of crosswalks across busy Shrewsbury Avenue and a greater police presence. “The questions on the west side are quality of life issues,” she said.
“It seems like the partisan policies that are affecting Washington are affecting our sweet little town,” said Branch Avenue resident Marybeth Maida (who is active in the local Democratic party) and asked how the candidates hoped to rise above it.
“I’m not running as a Republican. I’m running as Joe Mizzi,” he responded. “I don’t subscribe to labels.”
But Mizzi did offer his take on the current council by accusing, “What this all boils down to is we’re all paying for decades of bad policies.”
As for the water quality, Cangemi said at the forum three years ago that the quality of it and water pressure was truly inadequate and the rates continued to rise to untenable levels. But as to whether the local water utility should be sold to a private entity, like New Jersey American Water, as one audience member asked, the four seemed hesitant to go that far, with Cangemi believing it was something worth analyzing.
But Zipprich pointed out work has been done on the infrastructure, such as on borough wells—and at no cost to the local taxpayers, as the borough received grant money from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Zipprich also fired a shot across the Republican bow, criticizing Cangemi for her apparent lack of involvement since leaving office. “What have you done for your town since you walked through the door?” he asked pointedly of his opponent.
Dorothy Dunbar, who lives at Riverside Commons, said “I’m really a Democrat but it doesn’t matter to me. I go with the person I agree with.” But Dunbar conceded she wasn’t that impressed with any of the candidates. “They didn’t really respond to the questions.” And had Dunbar made up her mind as to how she would vote? “No, not really, not yet,” she said.
Marjorie Clark, W. West Side Avenue, said, “I think they responded OK,” but she too has yet to make up her mind.
Oakland Street’s Carl Colmorgen (who regularly attends borough government meetings) said the political stuff gets distasteful. “The biggest problem is they call it Democrats and Republicans and I hate that,” he said after the debate. “It should be just people.”