Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty said Thursday that the difference between himself and challengers Rich Babcock and Ed France is simple.
“I have a record to run on. My opponents don’t,” the Democratic incumbent said at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Alexander Hamilton School.
The Mayor stressed that record all evening, portraying Morristown as better off by nearly every measure than it was four years ago, with taxes going down, quality housing going up, and “unprecedented civic involvement.”
“Let’s continue moving forward,” he said.
Of course, the challengers saw things differently.
Rich Babcock, a Republican, said if he’s elected on Nov. 5, 2013, he will push for “smarter growth,” asserting: “I don’t favor high-rise apartments on every available piece of land in Morristown.”
He vowed to press for shared recreational programs and other services with Morris Township–contending his GOP contacts across Republican Morris County will help the town–and pledged to reach out to neighborhoods, treat everyone equally, and “do what’s best for Morristown and not my own agenda.”
Ed France emphasized his local roots, describing himself as a champion for residents who feel marginalized politically, or who feel like they are being priced out of town by high taxes, rising rents and luxury housing.
“I am Morristown. I was born here. I am going to die here,” said the Independent candidate, who promised to freeze taxes, squeeze more affordable housing from builders, and push for payments from tax-exempt entities such as Morristown Medical Center and Morris County facilities in town.
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Thursday’s format consisted of opening and closing statements sandwiched around written questions submitted by the audience. After the candidates responded, they could rebut each other. Marlene Sincaglia of the Berkeley Heights League of Women Voters served as moderator.
Mostly, the tone was polite. But things got hot when Rich Babcock suggested the Mayor’s plans to convert foreclosed homes to affordable housing would “decimate” property values by bringing “halfway homes for sex offenders” into neighborhoods.
“That shock talk doesn’t work here,” the Mayor shot back, saying the town has worked with Homeless Solutions Inc. to create affordable housing for working families.
The Mayor, who is 54, is chief engineer for the New Jersey Devils. He said he is proud of a first term that has included three years of reduced local taxes, the long-awaited start of Speedwell Avenue’s redevelopment, and construction of 18 town homes on Maple Avenue. Whole Foods and CVS pharmacy soon will bring good jobs to town, he added.
He also expressed pride in helping the town cope with Irene and Sandy, storms that “showed the true character of Morristown.”
Brainstorming sessions have involved the community in revising the zoning master plan, a first, the Mayor said.
Since laying off 10 percent of the workforce in 2010 to deal with an inherited $4.2 million budget deficit, the Mayor said, he has saved the town hundreds of thousands of dollars more by privatizing trash pickups, buying electricity online from renewable sources, and farming out police dispatching to Morris County.
The town continues an eight-year-old battle with Morristown Medical Center to pry in-lieu-of-tax payments from the town’s largest employer, the Mayor said. In the meantime, he is asking state legislators for tax relief for county seats such as Morristown, he said.
And while it’s not mandatory, Morristown still requires developers to set aside 12.5 percent of projects as affordable housing, as a “moral obligation,” the Mayor said. Trying to prod builders for higher set-asides only will drive them away, he said.
The challengers took issue with the Mayor’s style, and said they would be more inclusive.
Rich Babcock, 51, and the Mayor clashed over the demise of a shared animal control office with Morris Township. The town scrapped the arrangement when the Township failed to pay its share, according to the Mayor. The Township grew tired of “deceptive practices” and “unethical behavior,” maintained the GOP candidate.
Ed France, 60, is a realtor educated at the County College of Morris and William Paterson University. He cited the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf , Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and his late father, a Morristown fire chief, as inspirations for his mayoral bid.
He pledged to bring “extreme accountability” to town hall via monthly public meetings with department heads, who would be required to share their cell phone numbers with residents.
Citing a pair of potentially costly lawsuits by past and present town employees, Ed claimed that female employees fear sexual harassment and some town workers feel they are treated unfairly by the administration.
“There’s no room for cliques in government,” he said. “If you’re not with the administration, if you don’t help with the campaign, you’re on the outside. That’s sad. It hurts me to see that. That’s going to change. I’m going to meet with each and every employee.”
While declining to discuss pending litigation, the Mayor noted that both his opponents had cost taxpayers money with an unsuccessful lawsuit against his administration.
Praising town department heads and employees, the Mayor said morale is good. Union employees are protected by grievance procedures, he said, adding that any residents with concerns should speak with their town council representatives.
Rich Babcock cut the Mayor some slack, observing that all organizations have some unhappy employees, and that lawsuits are inevitable. Rich also differed with Ed France about commercial rents; Ed said they are so high that they threaten to drive out venerable merchants on Speedwell Avenue.
“It’s a good problem to have when a town demands higher rents,” countered Rich, a Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate who works in sales for a security company. “We should all be happy rents are on the higher end and are competitive.”