Morristown is a hot destination, a place to be. Restaurants and bars are busy. More than 200,000 people flock to the Mayo Performing Arts Center annually. Municipal taxes have not increased for seven years.
Democratic Council Members Toshiba Foster and Michael Elms, both seeking their second full terms, point to their record with pride. Pastor David Silva, their running mate, says he hopes to help them build on that record along with Mayor Tim Dougherty, pursuing his third term.
Yet Morristown risks becoming a victim of its own success, according to GOP council challengers William Needham III, James Sullivan and Celeste Kaitsa,
who contend that development, traffic and immigration issues threaten the town’s future.
“I really think we are at a crux, a breaking point, almost a point of no return,” Needham said at Wednesday’s League of Women Voters forum at the Thomas Jefferson School.
“James and I will no longer stand for a rubber-stamp government. We will be a voice, I can guarantee you.”
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:
It’s a stretch to call the Republicans a ticket. Needham, who owns a furniture gallery, and Sullivan, a local lawyer, worked together on Preserve Greystone, the grassroots effort that tried to save Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital from demolition. They are campaigning together.
Kaitsa, a legal assistant who moved to New Jersey from Ohio two years ago, acknowledged she is running solo. None of the trio mentioned Republican mayoral candidate Alison Deeb until their closing statements at the hour-long forum, moderated by Terry Thompson of Bernardsville.
All four GOP candidates skipped the June primary, taking the simpler, less-expensive write-in route to next month’s ballot. That’s common practice for Republicans in Morristown, where registered Democrats outnumber them by about two-and-a-half to one.
Needham and Sullivan contend Morristown is developing too fast, and they questioned why the town granted several major PILOTs — “payments in lieu of taxes” that essentially excuse developers from paying taxes to the Morris School District.
The Mayor has said PILOTs put hard-to-develop properties onto the town tax rolls, with projects that don’t add many children to the regional school district.
Contrary to its motto of “Open and Transparent Government,” the administration has stonewalled requests to see those agreements, Sullivan charged.
“I feel we are losing our green space with all the building that’s going on,” added Kaitsa, whose other main concerns are pedestrian safety and traffic.
Video: Opening remarks:
FAIR & WELCOMING?
The challengers differed–sometimes sharply–with the incumbents over their support for a “Fair and Welcoming” resolution and a voluntary municipal I.D. program, which both help undocumented immigrants.
“I think it’s more of a P.R. thing, and politicians taking advantage of a situation,” said Kaitsa, an alumnus of Otterbein College and member of the Woman’s Club of Morristown.
“I feel like if you’re really going to help somebody, then help them get legalized. Help them get benefits. Help them have a better life. Don’t just say you’re going to do it. And an I.D. card, that’s good for here. What if they take it anywhere else? It’s no good anywhere else,” she said.
Sullivan accused town officials of looking the other way on apartment-stacking.
“We see single family homes with four or five families in them. The safety concerns are obvious. I don’t know why it’s selectively enforced. I just don’t. To really improve these people’s lives is to give them safety, to give them security, rather than just an ID card,” said Sullivan, a lifelong Morristown native.
Needham went back and forth with Silva, a Colombian immigrant and pastor of the Centro Biblico Church, over living conditions for immigrants around Speedwell Avenue.
“I gotta tell you, there’s a downed power line on Grant [Street] that has been down so long, that there’s trash sitting over the top of it,” said Needham, the son of former Councilwoman Theresa Needham.
“In the ’90s my mother rode the garbage trucks to identify stacking issues. We’ve heard recently from retired firemen, that there’s people living in closets,” William Needham said.
Before Dougherty became mayor, countered Silva, Morristown “was not a welcoming and fair community. So of course I applaud that. I was part of process of bringing that into fruition in our beautiful and diverse Morristown.
“I want to contradict Mr. Needham in saying that there is no caring for the people on Columba [Street] and all those streets. The quality of life at this time in those areas is better than eight years ago. And I myself worked day to day with people in that area,” said Silva, who described Morristown as “the best pace on earth.”
“Of course,” the minister noted, “there is huge room for improvement, and that’s why I’m running to be the next council-at-large [member]. That will be one of my projects, to help that area of town.”
Video: Closing remarks:
‘HEADING IN RIGHT DIRECTION’
Silva said he has “agreed to disagree” with his running mates when necessary. He vowed to push for more affordable housing if elected.
Foster cited council votes to increase mandatory affordable units, to 15 percent for apartment projects and 20 percent for condo developments.
She defended the Fair & Welcoming and I.D. programs as reflections of a caring, compassionate community.
“It makes the children who come up in these families feel secure,” said Foster, a mother of two who co-founded the nonprofit Our Youth Their Future to help disadvantaged kids succeed.
At council meetings, Foster said, “it is kind of heart-wrenching to hear some of these stories of these people who have lived in fear because they don’t know if they are going to be deported. They don’t know if their child is going to be sent back. We want to protect the rights of the residents of Morristown. We want to make sure everyone is treated with dignity, honor and respect.”
“The efforts of me and my colleagues to continue to move our town in the right direction, by making smart decisions and creating hopeful, safe environments in which to live and work, should be clear,” Foster said.
“Morristown is full of so many hardworking people who simply want a good quality of life for their family, and it’s our responsibility as council members to govern with that goal in mind,” she said.
Elms, a realtor and longtime Rotarian, said helping Morristown’s diverse population is one reason he loves serving as an at-large councilman.
“There are [immigrant] families here, some have been here three or four years, some have been here for 25 or 30 years. They’ve become ingrained in the community, they’ve become our neighbors, they’ve become our friends. And they’re all great people that are chasing the American dream, and trying to provide for their family. I certainly support the Fair and Welcoming resolution,” Elms said.
Fielding audience questions, all the council candidates favored expansion of the Colonial Coach bus service for seniors.
Elms said he and Foster are revisiting the idea of a jitney service, to ease traffic and help everyone get around town. They are hopeful that a pending traffic study will offer additional traffic solutions.
“Morristown is headed in the right direction,” said Elms, a former zoning board member and Morristown Parking Authority commissioner.
“The school system really is excellent. I have three young children right here in TJ [Thomas Jefferson School], and we could not be happier with the school… Taxes are stable, crime is at its lowest rate, and the town, no doubt, is bustling and vibrant.
“We have great experience, we have passion, dedication and the ability to move Morristown forward and make it an even better place to live,” Elms said of the Democratic slate.
Election Day is Nov. 7, 2017.