Tall order: Morris Plains mayoral- and council candidates ponder life after Uncle Frank

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Morris Plains voters must await Tuesday’s election to know who will be their next mayor, and who will be their new council members.

But this much is certain: Mayor Frank Druetzler, known to generations as “Uncle Frank,” won’t be back in 2019. After 32 years leading the “Community of Caring,” the Republican stalwart is retiring.

Council members Sal Cortese, a Republican, and Jason Karr, a Democrat, are vying to succeed him. 

A pair of three-year council seats also is being contested. The Democratic contenders are Christina Genest and Jessica Prater. The Republicans are running Catherine Kelly and Dennis Wagner.

We asked all the candidates about Druetzler’s legacy, among other topics. Here are their responses.


MAYORAL CANDIDATES

Jason Karr  (DEMOCRAT)

Occupation: Heavy construction.
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Morris Plains Council since 2008, Council President 2010, 2015
Chair, Finance Committee since 2010
Former Chair, Pulbic Health, Sanitation & Sewer Committee
Borough resident 47 years,
Graduate of borough schools and Morristown High School
Former officer and trustee, Morris Minute Men

Sal Cortese  (REPUBLICAN)

Occupation: Runs family masonry, construction business; owns and manages properties
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Councilman for four years.
Council liaison to planning board.
Former chair, borough recreation board.
Morris Plains Rotary
Knights of Columbus
Columbian Club of Morristown
Plays recreational soccer

MORRISTOWN GREEN: Why do you want to be mayor?

Jason Karr
Jason Karr

JASON KARR: It has always been an honor to serve Morris Plains residents, whether coaching or as a Council member.  My focus will continue to be Morris Plains, our quality of life and financial stability.  I have a passion for Council and would like to continue this as Mayor.  Morris Plains was a wonderful place for me to grow up and I chose to give my children that same opportunity.  I would like to see Morris Plains families and residents have the same experience.

Sal Cortese
Sal Cortese

SAL CORTESE: I love Morris Plains. And I want to see that everything that we have here, especially the quality of life that we enjoy, will always stay that way, and will get better.  We have a great downtown, a train station, we have the [Memorial Day] parade, Easter egg hunts. The Halloween parade, we probably had about 750 kids, plus parents. The volunteer fire department gets into the spirit of the Halloween parade…That’s what makes Morris Plains a wonderful town to live in.

 

 

MG: What makes you the best person for the job?

JASON KARR: I am passionate about Morris Plains and I have been dedicated to the residents and the Town for the past 11 years in my role as Councilman.  I feel my experience and background will serve me well as Mayor.  As a member of the Finance Committee since 2008 and Chairman since 2010, the experience and knowledge gathered on the budget process and personnel and labor negotiations are an attribute that will be benefits as Mayor. The bipartisan way I work with Morris Plains boards and committees, as well as local, state and federal officials, has been an asset and a positive way that many goals have been accomplished.

SAL CORTESE: I feel it’s my experience. I graduated from Bayley Ellard High School, and went to work full-time and went Fairleigh Dickinson University, where I got a bachelor of science in finance and economics in 1983.  I think I have leadership skills, from having a business and having to make the calls. I believe you never quit playing until the time is over, until it’s done, that was instilled in me by my parents. They are Italian immigrants. My father was a mason when he first came here with Local 21. After three years he started our company, which is masonry and construction.

MG: What is the biggest challenge (challenges) facing the borough, and how would you solve it (them)?

JASON KARR: I feel one of the biggest challenges is the upcoming building of residential units and the attracting of new businesses to Morris Plains along the Route 53 corridor that are suitable for Morris Plains.  I vow to work diligently to meet the needs of our town and residents.

SAL CORTESE: The challenge facing the borough, like any municipality, is your Mount Laurel situation, your low-income housing. We’re at a time now where we have fulfilled Round 3 with the current council. That gives us what’s called “repose” until 2025. but it’s still a challenge, because the rounds are going to keep coming out. So after 2025, when we’re out of repose, if Round 4 comes out, we’re going to have to prepare to meet that challenge.  Overseeing what’s going on on Route 53, and also the eastern side [the completion of major housing projects on Route 53 and American Road, per Mount Laurel agreements, is another challenge]. And hopefully, trying to get some more ratables in town, and not go with residential, which can have a negative impact in our small community.

MG: You seek to succeed Frank Druetzler, mayor for longer than many can remember. What is his legacy?  What, if anything, would you continue from the Druetzler years?  What would be different under you?

JASON KARR: I would like to thank Frank Druetzler for his 38 years of service and 32 years as Mayor to the residents of Morris Plains. Being a resident here for 47 years, it is hard for me recall anyone else. Mayor Druetzler has provided an excellent backbone and real sense of community which I can build upon.  I feel the community events we share, for example the Memorial Day Parade, annual Block Party, Community Bonfire, Halloween Parade, Santa’s arrival, Menorah Lighting, Fireworks — to name a few — are extremely important to the small-town feel, and I would plan to continue this. Our residents have been accustomed to the many services and activities that the Borough offers.  I plan to continue with these services and activities. My goal is to continue to advance and upgrade technology to make it more user-friendly with more information accessed easily.

SAL CORTESE: Uncle Frank, as lot of people call him, he has a size 24 shoe–a big, big shoe to fill. I hope to keep everything that he’s built up, and try to improve on certain areas. Social media, it’s the future. It’s how people are getting more involved and active with the community. So you have to continually put the information out. We’re doing our best in a small town to do that, but there’s always room for improvement.

MG: How much does party affiliation matter at this level of government?

JASON KARR: I have been one of the few Democrats on the Morris Plains Council in the past 11 years and it has not been an obstacle in working with my fellow Republican members on Council or the Mayor.  My concern is all the residents of Morris Plains, regardless of party affiliation.

SAL CORTESE: I have  a lot of friends that are Democrats, Republicans,  Independents. We don’t ask the question which party are you from. How can we serve you? Give us some ideas to better ourselves or open up the net. Republicans and Democrats both have come up with great questions during planning board meetings, and suggestions during the master plan. Do you remember Mayor Koch in New York?  He’d say, “If you’re going to come and complain about potholes, grab a number and go online. But, if you’re going to tell me about a grant, or how to fix them, you can sit in the front.”


COUNCIL CANDIDATES

Christina “Tina” Genest  (DEMOCRAT)

Occupation: Nonprofit administrator and communicator
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Tina Genest
Tina Genest

Borough resident since 1994
Degrees in administration, communication
Chair, Morris Plains Democratic Committee
Past President, Morris Plains Board of Education
Former member, Morris School District Board of Education
Past President, Morris Plains Home & School Association
Past Chair, Morris Plains Municipal Alliance
“Volunteer of the Year,'”1998 (Morris County Freeholders)

 

Jessica Prater (DEMOCRAT)

Jessica Prater
Jessica Prater

Occupation:  Healthcare Management
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Morris Plains resident since 2014
BA in Psychology from Western New England University
Member, Morris Plains Democratic Committee
Regular participant at Council, Planning Board and Board of Education meetings

 

Catherine “Cathie” Kelly (REPUBLICAN)

Occupation: Substitute teacher; career educator
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Cathie Kelly
Cathie Kelly

Borough resident 39 years
Community Service Award 2011
Computer Curriculum Committee, Morris Plains Borough Schools
Authored Computer Curriculum, Morris Plains Borough Schools
Developed Synergistic Lab, Morris Plains Borough Schools
Member, Juvenile Conference Committee in Morris Plains
Honored by New Jersey Education Association for “I Know a Hero” Program
Corresponding Secretary, Morris Plains Republican Club
Former Corresponding Secretary, Morris Plains Education Association
Member, Morris County Women’s Republican Club
Former Member, Seton Hall Preparatory School Mother’s Club
Volunteered with Morris Plains Little League, Morris Plains Hockey Association, Swim Team and Cub Scouts

Dennis Wagner (REPUBLICAN)

Occupation: Owner, Lovey’s Pizza & Grill
Activities / Boards/ Organizations:

Fairfield University graduate
Former coach, youth sports
Volunteer, parish Appalachia Outreach Program
Fundraiser for many local charities and events
Member, Morris Plains Republican Club
Member, Morris Plains Republican County Committee

 

 

MORRISTOWN GREEN: Why are you running for council?

TINA GENEST: As Chair of the Morris Plains Democratic Committee, I have advocated for citizen engagement and public service. In the past several years we have seen civic participation rise not only on a national level, but also locally. With the retirement of Mayor Frank Druetzler, we are faced with a transition and an opportunity – – providing our citizens with a choice of leadership to bring us into the future. We are fortunate to live in a wonderful small town with excellent services and family-centered activities. Our municipality has been fiscally well run, under the tutelage of Mayor Druetzler, and the direct oversight over the past eight years of Councilman Jason Karr, running with us for Mayor of our borough. In our conversations with residents they see an opportunity to adopt a vision for the borough that informs its planning for the future. Within that vision is a vibrant downtown, and the expansion of safe walking and biking paths, reflecting a desire for a more active, community-centered lifestyle.  They envision governing boards and committees that more broadly reflect our residents’ diversity, and enhanced avenues of communication that respond to how we seek information and do business in a digital age. Given my experience and skills, and those of my running mates, Jason Karr and Jessica Prater, I believe we are in the best position to respond to this vision for our future.

JESSICA PRATER: I am pursuing the council seat because I feel strongly about public service and I want to set an example for others in the community, including my two young children.  I lead by example and hope that stepping up and giving back, others will also be inspired to get involved as well.  I want to show young families they can be involved and have a voice about what happens in their communities.  I am extremely invested in Morris Plains and have chosen to raise my family here. I want to be part of building this community.

CATHIE KELLY:  All my adult life has been associated with the Borough of Morris Plains. I was a teacher both as an elementary school teacher and later, as the computer teacher in the Borough Middle School for the second half of my career. I married, raised my children in the Borough, which entailed participation many activities such as Little League, Youth Hockey, Cub Scouts, and the Swim Team. I have benefited greatly being a part of the Community of Caring. When I was approached to seek the nomination for a seat on the Borough Council, after discussing with it my husband, Bill, I decided it would be an appropriate way to show my appreciation for those benefits my family and I derived over these many years. It is my way of giving back to the Community.

DENNIS WAGNER: I am a big fan of Morris Plains – having lived here for 21 years, and currently owning a business in town for 20 years. It’s a way to give back to a community that’s been so good to me.

MG: What makes you the best person for the job?

TINA GENEST: I am by nature and profession, a communicator and collaborator. I am also an experienced administrator and leader. I have worked on local as well as global initiatives. My goal is consistently to build community.

JESSICA PRATER: I manage a family medicine practice, where one of my strongest skills is to listen to stakeholders and use this information to improve processes, making them more efficient and customer-focused. My ability to look at things with fresh eyes and offer practical solutions will help me serve the taxpayers of Morris Plains  I also feel that having children in the elementary school, and the desire to raise my family here for many years, brings a different perspective than the other candidates, in that I am invested in the future of Morris Plains.  I am willing to listen, learn and work with all residents to ensure we are building a thriving community for the next generation.

CATHIE KELLY: As I previously indicated, I have been a part of this community for a long time. Being a teaching professional requires that you engage with people from all walks of life, addressing their needs as regards their children. Further, interaction with the school administrators and Board of Education members, giving presentations as to curriculum development as well capital expenditures, has nurtured in me the ability to identify problems and search for and apply adequate and appropriate measures to solve problems.

DENNIS WAGNER: I know I will represent a larger portion of the constituents in Morris Plains. I am not a “finger pointer” –- I am a person of action.  This is about what’s doing best for our residents and our community. It’s not about any political party’s agenda.   

MG: What is the biggest challenge (challenges) facing the borough, and how would you solve it (them)?

TINA GENEST: Morris Plains has relied upon business ratables on its Route 53 corridor. What the Mane application controversy [a proposed fragance plant, opposed by the public, rejected by the planning board, and now subject of a lawsuit] has taught us is the need to attract suitable businesses to that area that can co-exist with the residential nature of our community and the health and safety concerns of our residents. We applaud our governing body for bringing in Honeywell [from Morris Township]. Our priority is to continue the search for other compatible opportunities. We also need to attract businesses to our downtown area that will add vibrancy to Morris Plains and contribute to the quality of life of our citizens. Research should be undertaken to determine the methods used by those communities who have reinvigorated their downtown areas. Citizen participation in this effort is a prerequisite for success.

JESSICA PRATER: One of our challenges is being able to encourage businesses to come into Morris Plains, which helps to keep the taxes low, while being sure that those businesses fit the standards of the residents view of what our town should look like.  The world is evolving, with more people working from home and increased eCommerce, we need to be open to working with sustainable companies that can hopefully evolve through the years and stay here long-term.  

CATHIE KELLY: First and foremost I feel it is to maintain a stable tax level for the Borough.  The proper oversight of budgets as presented by various departments is always in order. So is maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for commercial development, with attention to the concerns of all factions of the community, insuring that their ideas are given a forum for discussion. There is a lack of participation by residents.  It seems that the only time citizens participate is when there is a crisis. Our citizens need to come to meetings, listen, and participate. Another possible solution to this problem would be to establish a 311 phone exchange where citizens could make known their problems before they become extreme in nature. Pedestrian safety, in the center of town has, again, been raised as an issue partly because of the train station and the many commuters crossing during the major traffic hours in the area. Presently, a study has been undertaken to evaluate the problem and recommend steps to be taken. Once the the study is completed it should be determined how the recommendation should be implemented.

DENNIS WAGNER: There’s going to be an increase in our residential population. I am concerned about our infrastructure and our school enrollment. In addition, attracting tenants to our commercial downtown properties and keeping them here is a priority. 

MG: How do you view the council’s role in Morris Plains’ form of government?

TINA GENEST: Like many small communities, we do not have a town manager. Our role is not only to set policy, but also to provide management oversight to those functions of municipal government assigned to us by the mayor. It requires strong personal skills and administrative follow-through. It also requires responsiveness to our citizens and the ability to constructively facilitate their engagement in borough governance.

JESSICA PRATER: I view the council as representatives for the residents that listen to their needs and desires then help facilitate those visions alongside of them.  I feel strongly that the council is there to encourage citizen engagement, because working hand in hand with residents is the best way to build a community that we can be proud to call home for many years. 

CATHIE KELLY: The Borough’s role is the oversight and control of all aspects of the services provided. Each Council member is assigned as chairman of a specific committee providing specific services, for instance Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, etc.  In addition each Chairman is required to serve on two additional committees.

DENNIS WAGNER: The Council’s role is pertinent to the decision-making process of all things related to town. We work directly with the Mayor, the planning board, the board of adjustment, and all related agencies and organizations. 

MG: Frank Druetzler is stepping down after many years as Mayor. What is his legacy?

TINA GENEST: Frank Druetzler’s dedication to the Borough is unquestioned. He leaves a legacy of good government and deep caring for our community. Uncle Frank has set the tone that we are family. His 32 years of leadership have had a major and lasting influence on all aspects of our community.

JESSICA PRATER: I believe that Mayor Druetzler has dedicated his career to making Morris Plains a community where people are proud to live.  Under his leadership, we became the “Community of Caring,’ and that is not just a motto, but a way of life for the residents.  Morris Plains residents are always there for each other. We all look out for each other’s kids and families in times of need. 

CATHIE KELLY: One has only to look around the Borough of Morris Plains to see his legacy:

    • a variety of parks and recreation areas
    • the 911 Memorial
    • the Memorial Day Parade, which has grown to be the biggest in the county
    • Speedwell Avenue sidewalks and street lights  
    • well-maintained roads and repaving projects
    • senior citizen transportation
    • shared service agreements

These are only SOME of his accomplishments. Frank Druetzler’s legacy is a challenge to us who follow his administration, to maintain the quality of life he has endeavored to provide to all of us, which has made Morris Plains, “The Community of Caring.”

DENNIS WAGNER: Mayor Dreutzler will certainly be missed. For the past 32 years, Mayor Frank has acted as a full-time Mayor – which is a luxury many communities do not get.  We are very fortunate here in our Borough – thanks to the years of dedication from Mayor Frank and the many people who have worked under his leadership. 

MG: How much does party affiliation matter at this level of government?

TINA GENEST: While political parties are built on values and a set of principles, the building of community necessitates the inclusion of all concerned constituencies.  At the local level we are joined by a common purpose: The well-being of our citizens and the best interest and sustainability of our community. Joining together as community, we create our future.

JESSICA PRATER: While it is true that different parties bring different ideals, at this level of government it is about the best interest of the growth and sustainability of the town. No matter the party affiliation, what matters is the ability to work across party lines to ensure we keep moving forward into the future.

CATHIE KELLY: I’ve heard it said that party affiliation doesn’t matter in a small town like the Borough of Morris Plains. That may have been true when the Borough was small and everyone knew everyone else. That is no longer the case, as large numbers of new residents have moved into the Borough in recent years, because they wanted a place like the Borough to live, work and raise a family. Few of these newcomers have any idea which political party was responsible in large part for making this a great place. I think for that reason alone party affiliation is of value as it represents a specific set of ideas and method of governing. The Republican party has steadfastly maintained a course developing Morris Plains in a well-run community. The Republican brand is on this town. We will continue moving forward!

DENNIS WAGNER: Party affiliation at the local level can often times be influenced by our state and  national  government.  Ideally, people should vote for the person — not the party.  

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