By Kevin Coughlin
Anyone who went to Thursday’s Morristown candidates forum expecting fireworks will have to wait until the Fourth of July.
Six people running for three council seats agreed on almost everything. They all like smart growth, open space and affordable housing. Social media is great. Pressing the flesh is better. Everyone opposes higher taxes…and can’t really complain after five straight years of zero municipal increases.
Pledges were plentiful, plans were scarce. The League of Women Voters posed generic questions submitted by citizens who packed the gym in the Alexander Hamilton School.
Nobody was asked about alleged rental stacking, turmoil at the housing authority, friction between downtown bars and the council, or a cop’s lawsuit against the police chief, to name a few hot topics.
So the forum mostly boiled down to personalities.
In the First Ward, Republican Robert Iannaccone is competing against Democrat Chris Russo. In the Second Ward, Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. is running for the Republicans against Democrat Hiliari Davis Oyesanya. The Fourth Ward pits the council’s lone Republican, Alison Deeb, against Democratic challenger Justin Davis. The Third Ward is uncontested.
SECOND WARD: ‘NO PERMANENT ENEMIES’
The strongest words of the 90-minute session came from Williams, who seeks the seat being vacated by Democratic Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid (who supports the Republican’s candidacy) in the heavily Democratic Second Ward.
Williams accused a succession of mayors of failing to solve flooding there.
“It needs to be addressed, it must be addressed, and it will be addressed,” said Williams, pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Likewise, he said, truck traffic does not belong on Abbett Avenue. And residents’ input should be solicited on projects like a streetscape plan for Martin Luther King Avenue. Documents for that plan should have been illustrated by local graphics talent instead of “an artist from Switzerland,” he added.
The pastor also called for free youth athletic programs. “It is cost-prohibitive for our children to participate in athletic activities. Now it’s $800 for this, $1,000 for that,” he said, without suggesting how to subsidize such programs.
One of the achievements he cited was a mentoring program for minority students, at his Spring Street Community Development Corp.
A Wharton School graduate who worked on Wall Street prior to becoming a minister, Williams emphasized his ability to get along with people from all walks of life. If elected, he promised: “No permanent enemies, no cliques, no camps.”
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His opponent, Democrat Hiliari Davis Oyesanya, emphasized a family history spanning five decades in Morristown.
“I understand the things we want in our neighborhoods. I don’t think I need a special education to be effective,” said the former star hurdler at Morristown High School.
Oyesanya said she would strive to attract businesses to the Second Ward.
“Businesses are shooting up [around town], but our little ward is dead. I would love to see a cool coffee shop or boutique come to our area, too.”
She also said affordable housing should be spread across town, rather than being concentrated in the Second Ward.
“You should be able to drive from one end of town to the other and not know the difference,” Oyesanya said.
She said public housing has been crucial for her, as a single parent raising a second-grader. If elected, Oyesanya said her first step would be to invite fellow council members “to see what it’s really like living from check to check, to get paid on Friday and not have anything left on Monday.”
FIRST WARD: ‘DON’T LET MY APPEARANCE FOOL YOU’
Both candidates in the First Ward race called for a balanced approach to development.
You can’t build just for the sake of attracting new tax ratables, said GOP candidate Robert Iannaccone, a lawyer in the health care industry who has spent 34 years in town with his wife Karen.
“A development has to have harmony with our community,” with ample parking, said Iannaccone. He has support from First Ward Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman, an Independent who is not seeking re-election.
Iannaccone said he fears his sons and future grandchildren will be unable to settle in Morristown without more affordable housing, spread throughout the town.
Citing Morris Township’s athletic facilities, he called for a town recreation center. He did not specify a location or cost.
Iannaccone noted his legal experience dealing with large budgets, bond financing and zoning issues.
“This town is a complex organization, and it needs people with skills. I think I can work with the mayor, I can work with the council, to actually move this town to the next level [where] it needs to be,” Iannaccone said.
Chris Russo, Democratic candidate in the First Ward, also pointed to his resume.
“Don’t let my youthful appearance fool you. I’m a successful entrepreneur. I’ve been very successful in corporate America,” said Russo, 35, who works in pharmaceutical sales and is co-founder of Superhero Events, a road race company.
“I’ve organized thousands of people to come together for the greater good of Morristown. We’ve raised funds for numerous and different local charities,” he said.
Russo cited affordable housing as his top priority, and advocated for responsible growth.
“Whether it’s a boutique shop, a restaurant or a bar, I want to see everyone flourish. If the streets are too loud at 2 am, we should talk about police being hired by the business owners to take care of it,” said Russo, whose ward includes Morristown’s busiest bars.
FOURTH WARD: ’24-7 CONSTITUENT SERVICE’
In the Fourth Ward, Councilwoman Alison Deeb is touting her face-to-face style.
“I bring 24-7 constituent service,” she said, mentioning an informal post-Sandy survey she conducted among ward residents to critique JCP&L’s performance.
“I work behind the scenes. I talk to my fellow council members,” said Deeb, whose community involvement includes creation of the MARDOG dog park and puppy-raising for The Seeing Eye Inc.
Traffic, parking and walkability are her top concerns as she seeks a third four-year term.
While most constituents tell her they are pleased with Morristown’s “renaissance,” Deeb said she’s not afraid to oppose Mayor Tim Dougherty’s Democratic administration. She voted against red-light cameras, insisting they cause accidents. The state eventually halted the program.
Deeb also pushed to require a traffic study for a triangular office building being constructed at Market and Bank streets.
Next, she said, she hopes to sway the Morris School District to let nearby families send their children to the Thomas Jefferson School, instead of busing them across town.
Her challenger, Democrat Justin Davis, has his sights set a little farther down James Street, where one of his council priorities would be securing grants to acquire the 30-acre Loyola House of Retreats.
“Unfortunately, it’s zoned for housing right now. But I would love to see that property preserved, so town residents can go there and enjoy the property and use the open space,” said Davis, who has spent 11 years working for Gov. Richard Codey.
“I know a lot of people in local governments. I know how to get things done,” said Codey’s assistant chief of staff.
Davis also vowed to push for a more comprehensive town traffic plan; he shared his frustrations about hellacious commutes home to his pregnant wife and two young kids.
And Davis said the town government can make better use of social media tools to inform citizens.
The forum was moderated for the League by Louise Davis of Mountain Lakes.
Stay tuned for complete video from the forum.