Sparks fly at Morris Township candidates forum

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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.

Republican incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Republican incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.”

Democratic candidate Cathy Wilson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic candidate Cathy Wilson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

GOP candidate Nicole Saphier at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GOP candidate Nicole Saphier at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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:

From left: John Arvanites (Dem), Louise Johnson (GOP), Nicole Saphier (GOP) and Cathy Wilson (Dem) at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Republican incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic candidate Cathy Wilson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GOP candidate Nicole Saphier at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic candidate John Arvanites at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Nicole Saphier and Democratic candidate Cathy Wilson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic contender John Arvanites and GOP incumbent Louise Johnson at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Moderator Marlene Sincaglia at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience at Thomas Jefferson School for Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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P1660970 - From left: John Arvanites (Dem), Louise Johnson (GOP), Nicole Saphier (GOP) and Cathy Wilson (Dem) at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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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.

Democratic candidate John Arvanites at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democratic candidate John Arvanites at Morris Township LWV candidates forum, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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. 

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Rosenbush – as others have said, if Honeywell really doesn’t have the lawyers to fight a small group of citizens, well they’re a pretty unique multinational. Isn’t it possible Morris Plains offered them a better deal (for Honeywell, time will tell how it benefits Morris Plains).

    That said, I’ll ask again. If we have so much vacant commercial space, what fiscal sense does it make for someone to add 800,000 more square feet to that inventory? Also, how much tax income does the commercial portion of this new development bring? And if that space remains mostly empty, will they be able to pay their tax bill (assuming the town didn’t just offer them some sweetheart tax break at the expense of the residents)?

  2. As someone who took part in all of the meetings involving the Honeywell property I feel compelled to reply to some of the misinformed replies here. Honeywell originally planned to redevelop their Morris Twp. property and keep their HQ (and employees) in Morris Twp.. An organized and concerted effort on behalf of the residents caused sufficient uncertainty about the planned redevelopment in the company’s management that when it came time to put their address on a grant application to the State of NJ – they used Morris Plains. The Twp. Committee and the Planning Board worked diligently to keep Honeywell in the Twp. and balance the needs of the residents and the company. There is much more to this story but the net result is that Morris Twp. lost its single largest taxpayer.
    The property is being redeveloped and will become a positive tax ratable. But rather than having Honeywell occupy the commercial portion it will take much longer to fill that part of the development thus delaying the tax benefits to the community.

  3. “Dastardly” Dan Caffrey had no problem hitching the Township GOP to the Trump clown car in his infamous screed; let him and the rest of his ilk own the crazy and dysfunction going forward. The voters don’t like being talked down to by candidates and officials; Saphier and Johnson will hopefully be held accountable on November 7 for their high-handed contempt of the electorate on full display at last week’s candidate’s forum. Saphier should consider repatriating to Arizona and run for John McCain’s seat; her right wing extremism will certainly give Kelli Ward a run for her money there; it is certainly not welcome in Morris Township.

  4. Although Ms. Johnson tells us to stay away from national politics, it appears that her running mate and her supporters do the opposite by taking their cues from the bullying now coming from the White House.

    A manifestation of bullying is name calling, which Ms. Saphier has used to describe Cathy Wilson. People do it to gain power over others by using a negative symbol so the audience will reject the person instead of looking at the available evidence.

    Experts say that reacting to bullying only increases their power. The way to win is to counter the insults with substantive talk over trash talk.

    Cathy Wilson stands for opening Morris Township government to new ideas. Ms. Saphier may find this threatening and that’s why she calls it “obstruction.” I call it transparency in government and increased citizen involvement. That’s how good governance works.

    I hope Morris Township voters will take the time to explore Cathy Wilson’s innovative ideas on her website instead of just relying on Ms. Saphier’s negative symbols.

  5. Mr. Henley:

    There was, in fact, an organized effort to obstruct and delay the Honeywell re-development plan. In a comment to a news article published in March of 2013, Steve Lipsky wrote “…me, my neighbors, Michelle (Demarest) and C4BPMT all utilized existing regulations to try to slow down an overzealous, overreaching government from reducing our property values and quality of life.”
    Their tactics were a LOT more than “some neighbors ask(ing) questions and making comments on certain aspects…of the development plan” as you described it above. Because of their tactics, Honeywell had to endure 50 meetings over a two-year period before a vote could be taken. It would be logical for Honeywell to conclude that they were not welcome in the Township and would face this level of obstruction any time they asked for relief in the future. Only a fool would believe that the victimization of this applicant had nothing to do with their decision to leave.
    Jeff Grayzel, a Democrat member of the Township Committee, was a member of the C4BPMT activist group while he was in a position to vote on the Honeywell plan. This was not the only conflict of interest he had. His wife had worked for Honeywell several years before, yet he never disclosed that fact…another glaring conflict of interest that should have led him to recuse himself from the whole matter. So Ms. Johnson was absolutely right to cite the sorry tale of Honeywell’s move as an outcome of the bad faith and obstruction served up by a small group of Township Democrats at that time.
    And Mr. Henley…the fact that the Township appears on track to benefit from the re-development plan owes absolutely nothing to the people who caused the wreckage in the first place. If anything, the Township’s leadership was able to re-establish credibility with the developers to get them comfortable with investing there. This is the kind of leadership the Township needs going forward…and voters need to know the whole history of the Honeywell story.

  6. “Nonsensical Obstructionist” is by far the best description of the current candidate that I’ve ever heard, well said Ms. Saphier. Reminds me a past Democratic candidate and eventual Township Committee Member that caused more problems than he ever solved. Morris County Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for continuing to put forth candidates that can’t bring in the necessary votes.

  7. I wonder how Township residents would feel about their community if they did not have access to Morristown. As a result of taxes paid by Morristown property owners, the Township residents benefit from the nearby location and services of the Morris County courthouse and administration offices, the Morristown Medical Center, the Library, its many religious institutions and schools, both public and private, that their children attend. Would they feel as satisfied with their homes, if they could not come into Town to be entertained,or to shop, work or visit our historic sites.

    When I lived in the Township, my entire family came to Morristown, almost everyday. As a resident of Morristown, everything we need is right here, especially my wonderful neighbors in my Franklin Corners neighborhood. I’ve learned to deal with the traffic and noise from Township traffic, firetrucks and emergency vehicles on our streets. Perhaps its time for the Township officials to become more appreciative of all they gain from Morristown and work to find ways we can continue to support each other rather than encouraging such snobbery..

  8. “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.

    That’s quite rich coming from someone who’s in lockstep with Caffrey, who let loose a long, very emotional, very focused on national issues rant right here on Morristown Green. Out of nowhere Caffrey apparently lost his mind and declared that all Township residents who are not Republicans are the enemy. Divisive and small-minded and he fully endorses both Republican candidates. That rant is here: https://morristowngreen.com/2017/02/17/commentary-morris-township-official-reflects-on-the-vitriol-of-the-left/

    I think this council is simply running on fear – fear that someone will raise taxes (even though if I follow the budget correctly, minus school/county/state contributions, our township rate is HIGHER than Morristown), fear that immigrants are going to invade (we waste so much on such a large police force for such a small town, and so many raises/promotions), and fear that all the closed-door development meetings will reveal some kind of shenanigans.

    Any resident that thinks single party rule is a good thing should really reconsider that – these are politicians, it’s in their nature to rip you off if there’s no opposition.

  9. There was a time in the recent past when some Democrats served on the Morris Township Committee, but no one can point to any good result coming from this.

    Taxpayers should get out their tax bills and see what changing the Morris Twp local rate to that of Morristown would do to their bottom line.

    And kudos to the incumbent Committee for supporting out nation’s immigration laws. The opposition seems to think, like their candidate for Governor, that localities can pick and choose what National laws to obey.

  10. Anyone who believes that Honeywell moved to Morris Plains because some neighbors asked questions and spoke against certain aspects of Honeywell’s redevelopment plans at board meetings is a fool. Honeywell, a company with over $35 billion in sales in 2016, did not leave because some citizens spoke up. Honeywell’s buildings were deteriorating and Honeywell was planning for years to leave and saw the sale and development by others of its property, coupled with the move-in Morris Plains site, as a good business opportunity. And, of course, the property is being developed, will be a higher ratable when the work is completed, so nothing was lost. But if our leaders in Morris Township want to blame anyone for the move, look in the mirror.

  11. Louise Johnson tells us:
    “…I don’t want you to be sidetracked by national political issues or emotions…..If you think life is good here, don’t mess it up.”

    A problem with this statement is that Johnson is encouraging civic ignorance. It seems that she’d prefer the electorate live in a bubble and not connect national and local politics.

    I’m sure she understands that leaders at local levels are the source for candidates running for state and federal offices. Why would we choose local candidates who are not in agreement with our basic philosophy of government?

    I can only believe that Johnson doesn’t want to be closely examined on issues like the environment, healthcare, support for women, immigration reform, sensible gun control and more because we will find that she is out of step with the voters in Morris Township.

    Ms. Johnson, please don’t continue to encourage civic ignorance because that is the way democracy dies.

  12. The desire of the GOP candidates to distance themselves from the national political climate seems a bit ironic. It’s only in this climate that some feel emboldened enough to issue such thinly veiled divisive comments. “We chose Morris Township for a reason–because it’s Morris Township, not those around us.” Perhaps Ms. Saphier can clearly explain what she means by this statement.

  13. I attended the Forum last night and came away rather bothered by the comments Ms. Johnson made at the end of the evening alluding to not letting things at the national level affect us in our local elections and saving any “emotions” we may have for what is going on nationally for something like a sports team. They sounded rather condescending to me, and. while on the one hand I do understand the importance of keeping track of local issues and learning what each local candidate stands for, I also cannot forget that there are a number of folks here at the local level who are being negatively impacted by things that are going on at the national level. I was also struck by remarks made earlier in the evening about how good it is and always has been here in Morris Township and what a rich Revolutionary history this area has. The remarks caused me to recall that this area, as anyone who has studied history or watched the film at the Ford Mansion knows, was somewhat divided in its revolutionary sentiments at the time and that those who continued to press forward to rebel against a King they found arbitrary and not quite in his right mind were propelled forward with not only courage, energy, and an innate sense of what they found right and wrong, but also that “E” word I heard a Republican candidate tell us not to use today: EMOTIONS. I’ll be going to the polls on November 7th using what I hope is a healthy combination of intellect and the “E” word in the sense that I do not want to vote for those who would dismiss so easily concerns as to what is going on at the national level that relates to their party and have us go to the ballpark instead. I love Morris Township and have done so ever since my family moved here in 1958. I’m a product of the public school system here. I think it is indeed a great place to live … but, from being here for so long, I have also found that for some it is not so great … Some folks feel (that ole “E” word again) marginalized and ignored … I want voices, ears, and energies like those of John Arvanities and Cathy Wilson’s to be in a position of being able to help carry the heavy load of running our local government. I believe it’s high time to have some Democrat representation on the Morris Township Committee. With a history of some 250-plus years and just four Democrats up to now sitting on the Committee, it would be refreshing, in my opinion, to see that number rise to six at the present time. Both John and Cathy have said they believe in reaching across the aisle to work on issues with different views as they occur. They believe in transparency of government. This sounds good to me, and I suspect that they would not mind at all if I take some of my “emotions” about national concerns to the polls with me on November 7th.

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