Is the glass half full or half empty?
In Morristown’s Democratic council primary, it depends which side you’re on, according to candidates who spoke Monday at a League of Women Voters forum.
The incumbents’ ticket painted a picture of three people rowing in the right direction with Mayor Tim Dougherty, heading for a vibrant, walkable town while holding the line on taxes.
Challengers insinuated council members are rubber-stamps for the mayor, and spoke of disenfranchised voters, traffic and high taxes.
Three at-large seats are up for grabs in the June 4 primary.
Incumbents Michelle Dupree Harris and Toshiba Foster and running mate Michael Elms are being challenged by former Chief Housing Inspector Tommy Alexander, planning board member Michael Pooler and environmental commission member Jessica Williamson.
No Republicans filed for the primary; any noise from them in November would come from write-ins.
The Democrats fielded a half dozen written questions from the audience at the Thomas Jefferson School, in a forum hosted by the League’s Morristown-area chapter.
Monday’s format called for brief answers and even shorter rebuttals; candidates were not given the opportunity to grill each other.
Broad questions required few specific answers, and so the evening played out more like a series of candidate impressions than action plans.
Questions touched upon the town budget, and costs for police and firefighters; affordable housing; the downtown; property maintenance; programs for teens, and government transparency.
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‘NO ONE’S PUPPET’
Borrowing a page from President Obama’s first campaign, Mayor Dougherty has made “open and transparent” government a theme of his administration.
“I think a better word would be opaque. A little cloudy, don’t really know what’s going on. Deals made here, deals made there,” said Jessica Williamson, who is making her second council bid.
“I will be no one’s puppet, I will not be intimidated, and I will not be told how to vote,” she said.
Tommy Alexander asserted residents feel “disenfranchised, because they’re not listened to when they come to town hall, or treated with any respect. And that my dear friends, must stop.”
He also accused unnamed officials of “inefficient meddling” in municipal operations. A veteran of 35 years as a town employee, Tommy stepped down after being convicted last year of neglecting his dog. An appeal of that conviction was postponed on Monday in Superior Court.
Council President Michelle Dupree Harris offered a different view of town hall.
“When I think of transparency, I think about honesty, I think about providing facts, having no hidden agendas. And I think our administration has been doing that over the course of X number of years,” said Michelle, a teacher seeking her fifth council term.
While Tommy and Jessica claimed residents are fed up with “outrageous” taxes, Michelle said it’s just not so.
“We’ve had a decrease in taxes in the past three years. So when it comes to property taxes, I think that you should be elated,” she said, adding that council members are easily accessible, from email to the grocery store to open council meetings.
“Don’t take my word for it,” Michelle told the audience. “You need to attend a meeting. You need to learn how your government works, and learn for yourself. Don’t just take it second hand.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
Toshiba Foster and Michael Elms said they like the downtown, though they agreed it doesn’t need any more bars.
“We obviously need to strike as balance with the homeowners and the quality of life and with the bars and nightlife in town,” said Michael Elms, a realtor, who contended that the town has made progress in the last three years.
He envisions a walkable, pedestrian-friendly, “vibrant center where people come to eat, and shop, and laugh and have fun, and spend money, and make this town a successful place for commerce.”
Michael Elms replaced Councilman Kevin Gsell on the ticket last month after the incumbent quit the race just after the deadline for ballot changes. The challengers lost a court bid to block the switch.
Affordable housing also stirred passions.
“I’m a product of affordable housing, so I believe affordable housing should be for everyone,” Michael Pooler said. “But also it should not just be in one part of town. Our diversity is our strength.”
Toshiba Foster, co-founder of the nonprofit Our Youth Their Future, voiced gratitude for her subsidized housing, and pledged to push for more affordable units.
Morristown has “dire need” of them, said Tommy, whose daughter and small child cannot afford the town’s “exorbitant rents.”
Jessica, who described herself as a fourth-generation Morristown resident, said she plans to raise her two daughters in town and buy a house. “If it’s not affordable, how am I going to do it?” she said.
Working with nonprofits, the town has rehabilitated houses on Abbett Avenue, Madison Street and elsewhere for affordable housing, said Michelle. She also cited interests in creating a town teen center and housing for children like her daughter, who have intellectual disabilities.
Michael Pooler, who proposed greater use of social media and shared computing services with neighboring towns, said Morristown must limit building heights to protect the character of the town Green.
“We’re struggling with whether we want to be historical, or trying to be like Hoboken,” he said. “This is historical Morristown. That’s what our master plan says. So moving forward, that’s a very important issue that needs discussion.”
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