This Morristown council race puts Stigma-Free vote to the test

Morristown Third Ward Council Candidates: Lorena Inestroza (I) and Incumbent Stefan Armington (D).

In 2017, Morristown’s council voted unanimously to declare the town Stigma-Free, joining other Morris County municipalities in a grassroots movement which, among other things, aims to create “a culture wherein residents with mental health and substance use disorders feel supported by their community and neighbors.”

That declaration is being put to the test in the Third Ward council race.

DIGGING IN: Morristown Councilman Stefan Armington prepares terraced garden plots in the Elliott Street Park. Photo courtesy of Stefan Armington
DIGGING IN: Morristown Councilman Stefan Armington prepares terraced garden plots in the Elliott Street Park. Photo courtesy of Stefan Armington

Councilman Stefan Armington, a Democrat who seeks a third term, introduced the Stigma-Free resolution as council president two years ago.

The professional planner has earned a reputation as a straight-arrow– a family man and diligent public official who has served on the town’s planning board and environmental commission, advocating for quality-of-life issues including stricter noise ordinances and safe biking lanes.

His challenger on Election Day is Lorena Inestroza, an Independent with a rap sheet that includes jail time for offenses committed while she was addicted to heroin.

Inestroza says she has cleaned up her act, completing rehab and performing community service to satisfy probation terms imposed by a judge in 2015, after she pled guilty to conspiracy and drug possession/distribution within 500 feet of public housing.

The mother of four had been arrested in 2013 in a Morris County sweep that netted 21 other suspected drug dealers and gang members in a crackdown on violent crime.

“It was the darkest time of my life,” Inestroza, 60, told, comparing heroin addiction to a real-life zombie movie. “You’re alive, but you’re dead.”

Campaign Issues: See Candidates Q & A Below

Today, she said, she works in business development for the Seacrest Recovery Center in Eatontown.

Previously, she said, she worked at an outpatient facility in East Orange and a methadone clinic in Denville. She also helps organize annual International Overdose Awareness Day events on the Morristown Green.

Morris Prosecutor Fredric Knapp speaks at opioid awareness event in Morristown, Aug. 28, 2019. Event organizer Lorena Inestroza, left, and Sheriff James Gannon, right, listen. Photo by Hannah Rose Williams

Criminal convictions do not disqualify candidates for public office in New Jersey, according to Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Division of Elections.

Exceptions include convictions for sex crimes against children; those offenders lose their voting rights and thus cannot seek election. Candidates for state Legislature or Governor must publicly disclose any criminal convictions, D’Alessandro said.

Technicalities aside, should anyone trust a candidate whose resume includes shoplifting, records-tampering, driving without a license, probation violations, grand larceny, and multiple drug offenses, under an assortment of names?

“It really depends on one’s ability to turn your life around and to convince voters that you deserve their respect and their trust,” said Armington, 52. “I don’t have an opinion about whether she’s done that, because I don’t know her well enough.”

Inestroza acknowledged how some could question her candidacy.

“It’s unusual, yes,” she said. She contends her journey has forged perseverance, empathy, an awareness of things others might miss, and courage to speak out. She has called for a crackdown on drug dealing in seniors public housing–where she lives.

“I broke the law. Anybody that purchases illicit substances breaks the law. I got caught. I wasn’t really good at that. However, as disheartening as the whole situation was–where I didn’t feel that I was worthy of being a mother, or a sister, or a daughter–it has brought me such fortitude today that I believe I can make a difference.”

Inestroza said her troubles began in the 1990s, on a prescription to treat pain from domestic abuse. She got hooked. When the painkillers ran out, she said, she turned to heroin.

Records show a string of arrests, guilty pleas and county jail time, on charges ranging from shoplifting to records-tampering and heroin possession. In the early 2000s, Inestroza said she sought treatment in Florida, where things literally went south for her.

There were charges of grand larceny for theft under $5,000, a third-degree felony; probation violations and driving misdemeanors, and a stint in the Lowell State Correctional Institution in July 2007.

Eventually, Inestroza returned to Morris County, where she said her drug habit intensified following the death of a “significant other” from cancer in 2010.

While being held for her 2013 arrest, she asked for treatment. Six months in a 12-step program at the Crawford House, a women’s halfway house in Skillman, got her clean, she said.

She considered it a life-or-death move.

“I decided, enough is enough. This is not the life I was supposed to lead,” Inestroza recounted.

Superior Court Judge James DeMarzo gave her credit for 176 days of jail time served when he sentenced her in 2015 to five years of Drug Court Special Probation.

Inestroza was ordered to complete “intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment,” according to court documents, and provide a DNA sample and submit to random drug and alcohol testing. She also was required to attend a support group three times a week, and maintain employment or continuing education.

She said she has completed 270 hours of classroom instruction for substance abuse counseling, and more hours as an intern, satisfying her Drug Court stipulations, she said, in October 2017.

Inestroza lists a commendation from the late state Sen. Tony Bucco and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco among her prized possessions. She vowed to keep raising awareness about the many recovery resources available in Morris County, including “outside-the-box” programs initiated by Sheriff James Gannon.

“Addiction is not a moral failing,” she said. “Addiction is a substance use disorder, when a substance is ingested into your body. It alters your brain chemistry. Nobody is immune to it. We just had a municipal judge in North Carolina die from a heroin-fentanyl overdose. I don’t think there’s not a family that has not been affected in some way, either knowing somebody or having somebody in their family with a substance use disorder.”

While her story is known within the recovery community, Inestroza said it was “unfortunate” Armington shared a newspaper mention of it with residents, asserting it “goes against the grain” of the Stigma-Free resolution he introduced.

There is nothing wrong with sharing information with voters, Armington responded.

“I can say I’ve never gone negative,” the councilman said.

Inestroza could have asked authorities to expunge her 2013 criminal record–removing it from public files–upon completion of her probation, she said.

“I chose not to. I hope it doesn’t come back to bite me. But let the chips fall where they may.”

CAMPAIGN ISSUES: submitted questions to all the council candidates. Here are the responses from Third Ward Councilman Stefan Armington and challenger Lorena Inestroza. Morristown Council candidates are scheduled to participate in a League of Women Voters forum tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at 7 pm in the Alfred Vail School.

Morristown Green: Please tell us about yourself?

Stefan Armington: I have lived in Morristown since 1996, and am married with two children, aged 19 and 21. Both boys graduated from Morristown High School. I am a licensed professional planner and a Senior Environmental Planner for AECOM Engineering. I have served on the Environmental Commission for three years, the Planning Board for 10 years, and the Town Council for eight years — two years of which, as the Council President, and two years as Vice President.

Lorena Inestroza: My name is Lorena Keating-Inestroza and I live at 39 Early St. I am the fifth of seven generations here and have lived in Morristown my whole adult life. My family has lived in Morristown for almost a 140 years, and our family roots date all the way back to the late 1800s with my great-great-grandfather Cornelius Holly.

I am a graduate of Morristown High School and currently have two grandchildren in the Morris School District– one in high school and the other in pre-K. I am blessed to have two beautiful daughters and two handsome sons which have provided me with six grandchildren.

I’m currently a Business Development Specialist with Seacrest Recovery Center. I am actively involved with the Morris County Opiate Task Force, the Community Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Morris, and am an activist with the FedUp organization and Facing Addiction.Org. I am also the organizer of the annual Overdose Awareness Day on the Morristown Green.
My past history with a substance use disorder puts me in a unique position to easily identify and help others navigate through the challenges of recovery. I am very proud of how far I’ve come in my own recovery and grateful every day that I can be a positive role model for my children, grandchildren and peers

MG: Why are you the best person for this council seat?

Stefan Armington: The effectiveness of a Council person to represent his/her district is based on the public’s trust of him and his ability to work with the other council members and the Administration to support investments in his district.

Council President Stefan Armington listens to public testimony, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Council President Stefan Armington listens to public testimony, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Over the last eight years, I believe that I have done a great job listening and responding to neighborhood concerns about parking, cut-through traffic, speeding, overcrowding zoning issues, property maintenance, pedestrian and bicycle safety, noise and other quality of life concerns.

I have further convinced the Administration and my Council colleagues that these initiatives should be an investment priority and they have been implemented. Through these accomplishments, I believe that I have earned the respect and trust of the residents of the Third Ward to represent their interests and the betterment of the Town as a whole.

I believe I am the best person at this time for the Council seat because I have a long history of civic and community activism and engagement, a thorough understanding of the technical elements in Community Development and a solid record of initiatives and meaningful improvements to the Third Ward and Town-wide.

Lorena Inestroza: I am the best person to hold the seat of the Third Ward council because I am an independent voice that has the well-being of each unique neighborhood’s best interest at heart. I will be an accessible, pragmatic and effective leader on every level from large-scale redevelopment to small neighborhood issues.

Morristown council candidates Lorena Inestroza (Third Ward), Tawanna Cotten Second Ward) and James Sullivan Jr. (Fourth Ward), primary night 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown council candidates Lorena Inestroza (Third Ward), Tawanna Cotten (Second Ward) and James Sullivan Jr. (Fourth Ward), primary night 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

My knowledge in all aspects of the Third Ward will allow me to immediately take on all issues while offering effective communication to residents as well as execute the implementation of any plan.

I have a unique understanding of the Third Ward because my family for many years lived on Cutler Street, Mill Street, Ralph Place, Grant Street, Speedwell Avenue and Speedwell Place. I will advocate for all residents of the ward and ensure that all are represented equally and fairly.

MG: What are your priorities for the Third Ward?

Stefan Armington: While I continue to work with residents to improve parking congestion and slow down cut-through traffic, the biggest challenge for theThird Ward over the next four years will be the final phase of the Speedwell Development Project.

The Project, which is supported by the Town’s Master Plan and Zoning ordinances, must be defined so that it preserves the cultural hub of the Latino community and that it provides opportunities and incentives for local businesses to be re-established in the district after construction so that the project results in an overall enhancement for Speedwell Avenue’s multicultural community, rather than allowing simple gentrification.

As a professional city planner, with over 20 years of experience in public municipal and state projects, I have been one of the core participants in the Town’s redevelopment processes, listening to the public’s concerns, meeting with citizen and business stakeholders and using the power of the Council to refine redevelopment projects so they better serve the community.

Lorena Inestroza: My priorities are to ensure that the proper implementation of all current and future plans and development do not hinder the quality of life throughout the Third Ward. Growth is a positive, but it should not only benefit the developer. All residents deserve to benefit from the growth and I will work tirelessly to hold any and all who do business in our town accountable to maintain a strong and positive corporate partnership with the wards.

I will address the drug-dealing currently taking place at the senior buildings on Early Street. This is a high-priority since it not only affects the vulnerable seniors living in these buildings but also it is directly across from Morristown High School and down the road from Alexander Hamilton. Our children and seniors deserve to be safe and protected at their homes and school.
I will address cut-through streets that are being abused by out-of-towners as a way of avoiding town traffic, addressing streets that require additional speed humps or stop signs that are paramount to calming the speed in our neighborhood streets where all our children and grandchildren play.
I will work with Morristown Police to enhance the communication throughout the wards, and promote stronger and more efficient public safety.
I will be an honest subjective voice on the council so that the public does not feel the projects currently being rubber-stamped are being ushered in without their input.
I will promote diversity throughout the ward by coordinating efforts between multiple civic organizations and neighborhood groups. I will address long-standing neglect of the senior housing on Early Street by working with the new Housing Authority director to ensure that all seniors are treated with respect and the quality of life they deserve.

MG: Should Morristown bring back rent controls? Why / why not?

Stefan Armington: Morristown’s Rent Control ordinance covers most rental properties built before 1981. Rent control limits annual increases in rents to a percentage of the Consumer Price Index.

Vacancy Decontrol, which was added to the ordinance in 2005, allows property owners to negotiate a market rate rent with a new tenant after the original tenant voluntarily leaves the apartment or is forced to vacate by the courts. I believe the combination of the two policies, coupled with eviction protections, provides housing protections to tenants while also incentivizing landlords to continue to invest in the housing stock.

Nevertheless, the ordinance can be improved. I understand a Council Committee has recently been created to take a closer look at the existing Rent Control ordinance to make recommendations to the Council. While I am not on that committee, I will listen to their recommendations, get public input and consider supporting the proposed improvements.

Lorena Inestroza: On rent control I feel that this is a very complex and intricate issue that needs to be revisited regardless of whether people are for or against it. It is Paramount that the conversation be had to ensure Morristown remains affordable for current and future residents.

MG: For several years, the Council has attempted, unsuccessfully, to impose alcohol curfews—early shutdown of alcohol sales—as conditions of the Iron Bar’s liquor license expansion on South Street.

Stefan, why do you support this condition, even though courts and the state regulators keep overturning it? What is at stake here?

Lorena, what is your position on this? How will you vote if / when this condition comes up again?

Stefan Armington: The Iron Bar’s liquor license expansion into Revolution was originally approved by the Council with the condition to stop the sale of alcohol at 11:30 based on the over-concentration of liquor licensed establishments in this area, and the nuisances that result from that concentration that lets out thousands of intoxicated patrons between 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning.

While the State ABC granted Revolution a stay of the conditions, the Town Council believed, as did our attorneys, that the courts, on appeal, would ultimately decide in the Town’s favor. The Appeals process has taken about four years and every year, the Council has been consistent in its position.

Last Spring, the Appeals court sided with the ABC and the Town Council agreed not to seek further legal decisions. What was ultimately at stake was the Town’s ability to consider land use conditions and the need for compromise between conflicting land uses in its ABC decision-making process.

Lorena Inestroza: On the bar issue in the business district, I would address these issues pragmatically and objectively as written in state law. We are spending too much taxpayer money defending lawsuits that stem from poor leadership, misguided intentions and personal feelings.

MG: How much more development can Morristown accommodate?

Stefan Armington: For the past 20 years, the Town’s Master Plans and Zoning codes have all supported and encouraged the six redevelopment sites at Speedwell Avenue, Spring Street, Epstein’s, the Train Station, the Elm Street Lumber Yard, and lower Morris that were designated between 2002 and 2008.

During the extensive public process for the 2014 Master Plan, there was no significant opposition to these development projects. But now, as projects appear more definitive, there is concern about the increase in traffic and the loss of the small town feel.

Given that two-thirds of all of Morristown’s traffic comes from outside of Morristown, and the surrounding towns are moving forward with expansive development projects of their own, much of that traffic will come through Morristown.

For me, the answer to the question is that once the six projects are completed, there will be no more Town sponsored redevelopment projects. Discouraging all private property development would require substantial changes to the Master Plan and Zoning Codes.

Lorena Inestroza: Development is healthy and needs to be considered wherever applicable. At no point should we be held hostage by developers seeking only profit. We should never treat our master plan as anything other than a living document. Ensuring sustainable and responsible development is paramount to the future of Morristown.

MG: What impact will the M Station project have?

Stefan Armington: I would similarly pose the question, what were the impacts of the Epstein’s Redevelopment Project, which all told, is of similar size?

If the M-Station project moves forward and passed the significant hurdles of the Planning Board’s site plan approval and obtains approval from Morris County’s Engineers, the project, once opened, will result in reduced travel times for residents of the Third Ward traveling to the Train Station and I-287.

The quality of the public spaces on the north side of Morris Avenue will be improved. The quality of the walking experience from Bishop Nazery Way to the Train Station will be improved, and businesses in Morristown will attract upwards of 1,000 additional daytime shoppers, which will help sustain the business districts. Finally, the significant increase in tax ratables will reduce Morristown residents’ tax burden.

Lorena Inestroza: M station is another very complex issue that cannot be summed up in a paragraph. With that being said, I see both sides of this issue and understand the positive and negative attributes this will have on the community.

I will be a voice to hold the developers accountable to the promises made to the residents of this town. We must be very diligent that what is being proposed will be inclusive to all and respectful to the neighborhood that this project will be built in.

MG: What, realistically, can be done to improve traffic in town?

Stefan Armington: It is unfortunate that implementing traffic improvements costs huge amounts of money and takes a long time to obtain the required state and county permits. I have supported the Town’s efforts to evaluate town-wide traffic and create construction-ready improvements.

While NJ Department of Transportation involvement slows the process, there have been significant improvements in coordinating signal timing improvements. The intersection of Speedwell and Spring has also been redesigned and is construction ready, pending NJ DOT approval.

I plan to condition the approval of any further Speedwell Redevelopment projects on completion of the intersection improvements prior to commencement of construction. I have worked diligently on the M-Station Project to ensure the Planning Board has full authority to require that traffic circulation and pedestrian safety are improved over the existing condition.

I have also supported the Town’s efforts to win a substantial grant to rebuild the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Spring Street to improve traffic.

Lorena Inestroza: Traffic has been studied ad nauseum in Morristown. In 2017, the Town Council approved a $350,000 traffic study. I haven’t been able to to retain a copy of it, and even if this study was used as a point of interest in the M Station proposal. Until redevelopment is completed, I don’t see any relief in the traffic.

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  1. Unfortunately, an individual can have all the expertise and experience needed, but if that representative doesn’t speak up and remains silent, against an administration that is only concerned for the developer class than it is all for naught.

    We have TOO many rubber stamp votes on the council currently and we deserve to have a representative that represent all residents not only the mayor.

    Change is healthy and warranted in the third ward. Mr. Armington has done a nice job for cutler park, but the ward is more than just a few blocks.

    The current state of Early st. is unacceptable on many levels and the future development needs to be managed correctly and implemented efficiently.

    The voters in the third ward should ask themselves, how much expertise or experience is needed to negotiate a 30year “PILOT” tax abatement to CVS on speedwell when they did 20 Billion dollars last year in revenue.

    We all appreciate Mr. Armington’s hard work over the last eight years, but the time for change is now and we must not miss this opportunity for an independent voice that speaks for all Of the residents in the 3rd Ward.

  2. There are times when experience and involvement in your community for many years is important when key decisions need to be made.

  3. Armington has no idea what is available from the state and developers looking to build in town. I sat on the north jersey transportation planning authority when I served as Vice President of the Essex County Freeholder board. Applications for funding are granted by that authority. Developers pay their share if conditioned by the board. This town with its inexperienced Mayor and council don’t have a clue how to govern. It’s all about favorites. And vengeance.

  4. To survive in politics you need thick skin so not to let the criticism of your opponents bother you. New comer Lorena Inestroza’s willingness to discuss in great detail her “checkered” past is a perfect example of transparency, something she believes the town council is lacking. There are a number of issues affecting the quality of life for the residents of the third ward who deserve a strong representative to stand with them, not the administration. A candidate who has a new perspective and approach to tackling the issues; one whose courage armors her impenetrable thick-skin.

  5. It take tremendous courage to change ones life and it takes even more courage to put it out there in the public view, all because you want to see your neighborhood and town run more efficient and the major issues affecting the residents addressed.

    The 3rd Ward residents are currently dealing with an unprecedented number of properties being redeveloped, which has major impacts to all of the neighborhoods within its borders.
    The utter disregard for transparency has left the majority of “completed” projects incomplete with no explanation to the public. (Ie. The park that was supposed to be completed behind the new buildings on early st., which currently resembles a rock quarry.)

    Great planning is very important, but it doesn’t out weigh the importance of strong implementation, which is clearly lacking.

    There is no doubt that Mr. Armington is qualified for the position and we appreciate his hard work, dedication and input, but for too long, he has sat idle while the administration has unethically taken advantage of the residents through “pilot abatements”.

    This mismanagement has not only forced the portion of our school tax to explode upward, but it artificially suppressed the municipal portion of our taxes. This will only put further pressure and strain on the future affordability of the town.

    I wholeheartedly support change as a healthy vehicle to increase awareness, transparency and accountability. And based on the issues that Ms. Inestroza is looking to address, she is the candidate who can bring this change to the 3rd Ward.

    Vote independent! Partisan politics have no business in our town!!

  6. Morristown’s very own Mayor Dougherty once suffered with substance abuse. He wears his recovery like a badge of honor. If he can do it so can she! Her openness and honesty is refreshing and a sign of transparency. Shame on Mr Armington for attempting to smear her campaign by highlighting her past misdealings in the Cutler Park Yahoo Group he belongs to. I wouldn’t consider that to be “stigma free“, more like a low blow from a “straight arrow”.