The Republicans stressed stable taxes. The Democrats promised better communication.
They differed over sidewalks and speed bumps, traffic and development. And they mirrored their national parties on immigration.
Four candidates vying for two seats on the Morris Township committee fielded public questions for 90 minutes on Monday, in a race that red and blue voters across Republican Morris County will be watching closely.
Democrats can gain control of the governing body for the first time–the first time anyone can remember, at least–if former Committeeman Jeff Grayzel or newcomer Mark Gyorfy wins on Nov. 6.
Incumbent Republican Bruce Sisler, seeking his fourth three-year term, and running mate Joseph Calvanelli Jr. are determined to preserve the GOP’s 3-2 majority. Before two Democrats won last fall, Republicans held all five seats. Registered Democrats have closed the gap with registered Republicans in this longtime GOP bastion.
“We need new leadership,” Gyorfy told a sparse crowd at the Morristown Area League of Women Voters forum in the Thomas Jefferson School.
Although he is the youngest candidate at 26, Gyorfy has been a volunteer firefighter for a decade. The township committee needs to emulate firefighters, he said, by becoming more responsive.
Grayzel hammered that theme all evening, accusing the GOP majority of cutting “back room deals” with builders and springing development plans on the public with scant notice. “Morris Township deserves better,” he said, asserting that 1,500 residents subscribe to a newsletter he created to update them about their local government.
Knocking the challengers for doing “a great job of confusing the issue,” Sisler countered that the committee communicates well, via Messenger e-blasts, Nixle police alerts and a twice-revamped municipal website.
Residents care most about stable taxes and quality services, and the GOP has delivered both, Sisler said. Municipal taxes were lowered twice during his tenure, and were held flat for the other years, he said.
Calvanelli vowed to keep working to curb taxes. “We have a stable tax base in our town… we get great value for our money,” he said.
The Democrats said the Township should explore more shared services with the nine towns it borders, to save money.
Shared services demand careful study, Sisler said. While a shared library, municipal court, police dispatch center and sewer system have worked well, sharing animal control services with Morristown “was a disaster. They were over-billing us.”
‘YOU INVITE GANGS’
Immigration sparked the sharpest differences of the night. Audience members asked for the candidates’ views on Sanctuary Cities and specifically, on Morristown’s adoption–and the Township’s rejection–of a “Fair and Welcoming” policy.
Such resolutions state that police and local employees won’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers, or inquire about residents’ citizenship, unless compelled by law. They also oppose any government registry based on religion or national origin.
Sisler said these legal protections already exist, and Township police comply. Individuals who commit felonies and violent crimes will be prosecuted and handed to federal immigration authorities, he said, concluding with a 2006 quote from then-Sen. Barack Obama calling to stop the flow of undocumented people into the U.S.
Calvanelli said his Italian and Irish ancestors immigrated legally, “the way it should be.” While he supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he opposes the Sanctuary City concept.
“You invite gangs. That’s one thing that people don’t know too much about. It’s not highly publicized. It exists in our neighboring communities,” Calvanelli said, without naming any.
Grayzel acknowledged the country has immigration issues. But “everybody in this country came from somewhere,” and many undocumented people are law-abiding citizens who contribute to the community.
“There is no reason why we should even be thinking about kicking them out,” Grayzel said.
Morris Township as Sanctuary City? Video by Kevin Coughlin:
Many police departments support Fair and Welcoming policies because they reassure undocumented immigrants, so they won’t be afraid to report crimes, said Gyorfy, who formerly worked for a congressman on homeland security matters.
Gyorfy said his ancestors emigrated from Hungary, Poland and Italy.
“I think if Hungary or Poland or Italy were on our southern border and they were dealing with civil war, gang violence, mob rule, and they’re trying to flee for the safety of their lives and their children’s lives, I think our whole mentality at this stage would be completely different right now,” he said.
“We have to look at these people not as illegals, but as human beings, and we need to treat them with the respect that they deserve. Because they are not all criminals. Some of them are here just for the safety of their own children,” Gyorfy said.
SPEED BUMPS AND SIDEWALKS
Speeding also concerned residents on Monday. Calvanelli wants Morris Township to become a leader in cracking down on distracted drivers; texting behind the wheel is the new drunk driving, he said.
Grayzel, an engineer, suggested the Township should emulate Morristown’s use of speed bumps and other traffic calming measures.
Sisler said Township police are doing a good job of speed enforcement, including use of electronic speed signs and strategically parked “ghost” patrol cars. Many residents dislike the noise of cars hitting speed bumps, he added.
Parents worried for their kids’ safety will accept that sound, Gyorfy said.
Grayzel wants sidewalks along James Street, he said, so Township children will have safer walks to school in Morristown.
“Sidewalks are great–but where is the money going to come from?” asked Sisler, noting the Township has 271 miles of roads, and sidewalks cost $1 million per mile.
Gyorfy and Grayzel, who won the June Democratic primary on separate tickets, said traffic congestion only will intensify thanks to large housing developments approved for Mt. Kemble Avenue, Punch Bowl Road and the former Honeywell and Colgate sites.
“People moved to the Township because they enjoyed open space,” said Gyorfy. “This is an opportunity to be a regional leader and take a stand” against over-development.
The Township should create connector routes to bike lanes in Morristown, to encourage motorists to bicycle instead, Grayzel said. He favors pursuing regional solutions to traffic and development.
Much of the Township’s growth is necessary to meet court-mandated affordable housing numbers, Calvanelli said.
And the Honeywell and Colgate housing projects will generate less traffic than the corporate operations they are replacing, according to Sisler. Still, some congestion is inevitable in the country’s most densely populated state, he said.
“It’s not like we live in Montana. Traffic is going to happen. We do our best to mitigate it. It is what it is,” Sisler said.
NO HARD FEELINGS?
League moderator Dawn Clarke posed questions submitted in writing by spectators. Asked to contrast themselves, the candidates gave short pitches.
If Calvanelli harbors any hard feelings towards Grayzel–who challenged his one-vote victory a decade ago and “whacked” him in a court-ordered special election–he didn’t show it.
Rather, he emphasized his calm demeanor, saying his main motivation for running was to help heal the “toxic civil discourse” pervading the nation. “I don’t want to live in a situation where we’re at each other’s throats,” Calvanelli said, vowing to represent all 24,000 Township citizens if elected.
A Township resident for 35 years, Calvanelli owns a market research firm. He is past president of the Morristown American Little League, a former chairman of First Night Morris County and a trustee of the Morris Museum.
Sisler, the chief of staff for state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.), said he visited his grandparents often while growing up in the Township, because they lived there, too. His goal, he said, is keeping a lid on taxes so different generations can continue living in the municipality.
“I really take this job seriously, and love doing it for all of you,” Sisler said.
Gyorfy works in public affairs for a large financial services company. But volunteer firefighting and his prior staff job for Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th Dist.) best prepared him for public service, he said. He appreciates the value of door-to-door campaigning.
“So many people I’ve met said, ‘Nobody ever knocked on my door for the last 10 years,'” said Gyorfy, a lifelong Township resident who spent summers as a lifeguard at the municipal pools. “Residents want a booster shot in town hall,” a more pro-active committee, he said.
Grayzel served from 2007-2009 and again from 2011-2014. He has run several times, and experienced three recounts.
If voters send him back to the committee, Grayzel said he will make sure ordinances and their implications are explained at meetings, and residents are consulted and apprised of important matters.
“Mark and I plan on keeping the good,” he said. “But there’s plenty of room for improvement.”