Morris Township voters will have distinct choices when they go to the polls next month to elect two committee members.
At a sometimes-contentious forum on Monday, the Republican team of Committeewoman Louise Johnson and Nicole Saphier presented themselves as fiscally conservative law-and-order candidates who chose to reside in Morris Township because it’s not Morristown.
Democratic challengers Cathy Wilson and John Arvanites painted the all-Republican Township committee as secretive and vowed to solicit input from residents and pursue more regional services if elected.
“Folks, Morris Township is your home. And I don’t want you to be sidetracked by national political issues or emotions,” said Johnson, who doubles as deputy mayor.
“If you think life is good here, don’t mess it up. Do everything you can to preserve it. Vote unemotionally for qualified candidates.”
Saphier, a medical doctor who has offered health commentary on Fox & Friends, suggested “we need to do a little bit more to protect Morris Township from the influence of our neighboring municipalities, because we chose Morris Township for a reason–because it’s Morris Township, not those around us.”
Wilson, the local Democratic chairwoman, challenged her opponents to repudiate the GOP’s national agenda. She described the Township committee as “big on lip service and short on action.
“Our governing body would have you believe that they’re the only ones who know what’s good for our community, and they’re the only ones who can deliver it. With all due respect, they’re wrong,” Wilson said.
Video: Closing statements
The gloves came off almost immediately. Wilson chided Saphier for missing meetings of the Economic Development Advisory Committee, a volunteer group Wilson claimed has produced nothing beyond a brochure.
Jabbing back at Wilson, Saphier said the Township committee doesn’t need any “nonsensical obstructionists.”
She also said national politics have no place in local government. “The political water right now is pretty muddy,” said Saphier, an Arizona native who came to the Township about three years ago.
Arvanites, an accountant and former Roseland mayor, took aim at Johnson, who cited the Township’s AAA bond rating and recent flat taxes as examples of sound management and personal leadership.
“One thing I do not stand for, and will never stand for, is politics of deception,” Arvanities said. Residents with homes assessed at $500,000 have paid nearly 20 percent more in municipal taxes than necessary over the last two years to fund budget surpluses, he said.
“To create these surpluses, you overtaxed residents. And that’s not a proper way to budget,” said Arvanites, who moved to the Township last year.
Johnson, a retired Exxon Mobile manager, has lived there for three decades.
“I don’t see the Township as a place to be descended upon and critiqued and made over,” she said.
Poking at Arvanites’ record in Roseland, Johnson said that borough’s budget is about half the size of the Township’s — with just a quarter of its population.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:
Moderating the 90-minute session at the Thomas Jefferson School, Marlene Sincaglia of the League of Women Voters posed questions from the audience. Some queries probed the candidates’ views about Morristown, a Blue town encircled by the Red Township.
Johnson voiced frustration with the funding formula for the regional Morris School District. The Township and Morristown send the same number of students, she said, yet the Township shoulders 65 percent of the costs.
Nor is she keen on Morristown’s “fair and welcoming” policy, in which the town has pledged not to voluntarily cooperate with federal agents seeking to deport undocumented people.
“Sanctuary cities are nothing more than a way to skirt the law and hamstring our police officers from keeping you safe,” Johnson said, contending she would not want to hinder Township police from questioning suspected criminals.
Saphier expressed doubts that the Township needs a municipal I.D. program like Morristown’s. She added that Morristown officials have been “obstructionist” regarding a redevelopment project straddling the border on Mt. Kemble Avenue.
As for shared services, they are not always beneficial, said Saphier, who volunteers on the Township’s health board.
For her part, Wilson wants to revive efforts to extend James Street sidewalks from Morristown into the Township. She also favors creating a seniors ride sharing service similar to one serving Madison and Chatham, and starting a “green team” to explore solar panels and other environmental practices.
Wilson began webcasting committee meetings last year. Johnson accused her of “grandstanding.”
A seniors/recreational center can be established at no cost to taxpayers, according to Arvanites. He did not share his secret sauce, however.
Development was another hot topic.
Johnson was enthusiastic about redeveloping the former Honeywell headquarters with 235 “spectacular” townhouses and, potentially, 800,000 square feet of office space. Filling vacant commercial space is a top priority for Saphier, who said about 25 percent of offices are empty across the Township.
But development breeds traffic and overburdens municipal resources, warned Arvanites.
Johnson blamed Wilson for banding with a citizens group to drive Honeywell to Morris Plains in 2013. Wilson, a retired educator, called such claims “fiction,” saying she made Honeywell a case study for a college course she was taking at the time. The GOP, she said, must answer for the company’s defection.
Video: Who lost Honeywell?
Wilson accused the committee of repeatedly breaking promises to upgrade the Collinsville playground, and of planning $2 million of improvements to Cornine Field without public discussion.
Johnson explained the state approvals required for cleaning up the former dump site, prompting Wilson to suggest that such explanations should be shared at the Township’s monthly committee meetings.
“Okay–I’ll do more!” Johnson shot back.
In another light moment, Johnson exhorted voters to save their emotions for the World Series.
“Go Yankees!” she exclaimed–only to be informed by the crowd that New York was eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend.