The next time Terry Thompson moderates a Morristown mayoral debate, she may want to wear the zebra stripes of a hockey referee.
“If you guys want to square off, do it afterwards,” she admonished Mayor Tim Dougherty and challenger Alison Deeb, who jousted at Wednesday’s League of Women Voters forum at the Thomas Jefferson School.
Deeb took the offensive from the opening statement.
“Morristown is at a crossroads,” having grown from a vibrant town to a small city, said the Republican councilwoman, now in her third term representing the Fourth Ward.
“There’s a lot to be proud of — but at a cost to our quality of life. Our roads are congested, parking is difficult, crime is a problem, housing is unaffordable, and our beautiful lakes and ponds are deteriorating.”
Dougherty, a Democrat seeking his third term, pointed to a record many politicians would envy: No municipal tax hikes for seven years, a landmark tax settlement with a nonprofit hospital, and construction of more affordable housing units on his watch than “the last five mayors combined.”
He also touted a progressive record that includes an ordinance mandating paid sick time for workers in town, a voluntary municipal I.D. program, and a “safe places” program for the LGBTQ community.
Video: Opening remarks:
But things grew testy as they clashed over development, traffic, snow removal, preservation of Foote’s Pond, a town bid to buy the downtown post office, budget caps, and approaches to Morristown’s diverse population.
Dougherty expressed optimism about securing grants to preserve 11 acres around Foote’s Pond, “a true gem,” which Deeb wants dredged of silt. “The mayor has studied this to death…he hasn’t done anything in eight years,” Deeb said, earning a reprimand against ad hominem attacks from the moderator.
Knocking Dougherty’s slogan of “Open and Transparent Government,” Deeb contended she was a victim of the “politics of exclusion,” claiming she only learned of the town’s $1.5 million bid on the post office from a postal clerk.
“You have to understand how government works,” the Mayor retorted. He had made the administration’s intentions clear at a public hearing, and it’s the administration’s purview to make bids–which the council then approves or disapproves.
When the challenger started interjecting rebuttals, Dougherty turned to her: “Excuse me. Let’s just be civil and let me speak.”
When Deeb knocked the town’s approval of apartments, instead of condos, on DeHart Street, Dougherty reminded the councilwoman: “You voted for it.” Referee Thompson again had to verbally separate the political combatants.
If elected, Deeb vowed, she would retain the 2 percent municipal budget cap even if Democrat Phil Murphy wins the governor’s race and eliminates the statewide limit. Dougherty noted that the gubernatorial debate is focused on a different 2 percent cap–which pertains to arbitration for police and fire unions.
With contract talks approaching in Morristown, the Mayor said he and other mayors are urging Murphy, if he is elected, to renew that measure when it expires later this year.
Dougherty, who is chief engineer at the Prudential Center in Newark, credited “smart growth” with helping him hold the line on taxes, in a county seat where numerous Morris County buildings, churches and nonprofits are off the tax rolls. Without it, he said, residents might be paying $3,000- to $4,000 more in annual property taxes.
Acknowledging residents’ frustration with traffic, the Mayor said a $400,000 study nearing completion indicates that more than 60 percent of vehicles are cutting through Morristown trung to avoid congestion in rapidly developing neighboring towns.
He pledged to push for better regional cooperation on development issues, and said money from Morristown’s 2015 tax settlement with Atlantic Health, the parent of Morristown Medical Center, should fund upgrading and synchronization of signals at 20 intersections, which he predicted will improve traffic flow by about 30 percent.
Deeb, a Seeing Eye puppy raiser and founder of MARDOG, got on the ballot as a write-in candidate, as did GOP council candidates William Needham, James Sullivan and Celeste Kaitsa.
Video: Closing remarks:
They face an uphill battle in a town where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about two-and-a-half-to-one. And Dougherty’s ticket–which includes Council Members Michael Elms and Toshiba Foster and newcomer David Silva–enjoys a huge fundraising advantage.
After the June primary, Dougherty Team 2017 reported it had raised $103,000, and spent $87,600. (Figures are rounded). Manydonors were developers.
The candidates responded to questions submitted by the audience during Wednesday’s hour-long forum.
Deeb took issue with the town’s stockpiling dirty snow near the Whippany River, a source of drinking water. Dougherty said a new snow shredding machine will help–but streets must be plowed for public safety and there is nowhere else in the 2.8-square mile to pile snow.
A question about how to approach Morristown’s diverse population struck a nerve with the Mayor.
“I can honestly tell you that the last eight years have not been inclusive,” Deeb said.
Dougherty shot back that she was “sadly mistaken.”
“The way you get involved is, you show up… You go to the churches, you go to the Spanish churches, to the Baptist churches, you go to the picnics at Cauldwell … I have been the most involved mayor that this town has seen since it’s ever elected a mayor.”
Afterwards, Dougherty extended his hand to Deeb. She declined to shake it.