The show must go on: Morristown council hopefuls debate for handful of voters

Morristown Council candidates 2019: (L-R) Tawanna Cotten (Dem., Ward 2), Robert Iannaccone (Incumbent, Ind., Ward 1), Alison Deeb (Incumbent, GOP, Ward 4), Stefan Armington (Incumbent, Dem., Ward 3), Lorena Inestroza (Ind., Ward 3), Oliver Starnes II (Dem., Ward 1). Absent: Sandi Mayer (Dem, Ward 4). Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


By Marion Filler

Candidates for Morristown Council–the body that authorizes big redevelopment projects like M Station, regulates liquor licenses, and approves town budgets that affect local taxes–traded views on Wednesday in a mostly empty auditorium at the Alfred Vail School.

They addressed taxes, the opioid crisis, a bar battle, and M Station, the office complex that will replace popular eateries in a strip mall at Spring and Morris streets.

Louise Davis of the League of Women Voters introduced the slate for each of the four wards. Three contests pit an incumbent against a newcomer.

  • The First Ward has Oliver Starnes II (Democrat) challenging Councilman Robert Iannaccone (Independent).
  • In the Second Ward, Tawanna Cotten,  a Democrat, is running unopposed. She defeated Councilwoman Hiliari Davis in the June primary.
  • Lorena Inestroza, an Independent, is up against two-term Councilman Stefan Armington, a Democrat, in the Third Ward.
  • Sandi Mayer, a Democrat who serves on the Shade Tree Commission, is challenging Councilwoman Alison Deeb, a Republican, who seeks a fourth term in the Fourth Ward. Mayer is out of the country and did not attend.
‘NO HITTING BELOW THE BELT’: League of Women Voters Moderator Louise Davis briefs Morristown council candidates on forum rules, Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


Opening statements were relaxed and set the tone for the rest of the forum, held on a soggy night with competition from game seven of the World Series.

Robert Iannaccone, who is CEO of St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, described engagement with the community as greatest pleasure of his first term. He cited his outreach to residents, via informal meetings and frequent e-mail blasts, as helping orchestrate a common voice for the First Ward that included united opposition to a storage facility proposed for Morris Street.

LONESOME VIGIL: Sparse audience for Morristown Council debate, Alfred Vail School, Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

First Ward challenger Oliver Starnes II, born in Morristown and raised in Roxbury, received a scholarship from The Seeing Eye and attended Trinity College. He worked for Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and admired the lawmaker’s “strong, independent voice,” and ability to connect with both sides of the aisle. Starnes, 31, volunteers with the Morris County Young Democrats.

Video: Opening Remarks:

Tawanna Cotten works in the Morristown School District as an assistant behavioral specialist, and is president of the Morristown Housing Authority’s Residents Advisory Board. She pledged to “value each voice” in the Second Ward.

After describing the many grants and programs he has overseen, Stefan Armington was proud to assert he answers each and every query from constituents. He even attends to those who cannot vote:

“I even call in every dead deer that gets hit on Speedwell Avenue before it rots on the sidewalk,” the Third Ward councilman said.

His opponent, Lorena Inestroza, spoke of family roots in Morristown that date to the late 1800s, when her great-great grandfather was a constable. Running as an Independent, she asserted: “Party politics has no place in local politics.”

Video: Autonomy of school/town governments?

Alison Deeb described her turf — which includes the Historic District — as the “hottest Ward in Morristown.”  Serving the Fourth Ward, she said, makes her feel like a “kid in a candy store.” Although she is human and makes mistakes, Deeb said, she enjoys her position, “or I wouldn’t be here.”

Via a statement read by the moderator, Sandi Mayer emphasized her work ethic, and said she would strive to “affect positive change.”  She is active in her Parsons Village neighborhood, and helped the Shade Tree Commission plant trees in Lidgerwod Park, according to her prepared remarks.


Questions from the small audience ran the gamut.

How would you solve the opioid problem, which even reaches into Seniors Housing, across from Morristown High School?

Lorena Inestroza, Independent candidate in Morristown’s Third Ward, makes a point at forum, Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Inestroza, who works in the field of substance abuse recovery, and lives in the seniors public housing, said she has pushed for increased police patrols. Two residents have had fatal overdoses there over the last year, she said.

All the candidates agreed law enforcement is essential, and some said education and outreach also are needed.


Video: Opioids in Seniors Housing?

Cotten believes it’s likely there are “other issues going on,” such as depression and anxiety among the elderly. In addition to a police presence, she suggested bringing in social workers to help seniors deal with their problems.

Starnes saw opioid addiction as a disease and “we need to treat it like one.” Iannaccone felt the biggest problem is the fragmentation of information about programs and agencies. He believes it would be best to “go to one place to help navigate the road to recovery.”

Are you in favor of the M Station redevelopment?

Iannaccone and Deeb said they supported it after asking questions and getting concessions they wanted for the town.

Cotten is concerned for seniors who live behind the proposed project. “We don’t know how it will impact them,” she said, encouraging residents to continue attending town meetings.

Video: M Station, good or bad?

Starnes who lives across the street from the site, was “cautiously optimistic about the possibilities, but also very wary.” Inestroza saw both positive and negative aspects as well.

Noting the town’s zoning Master Plan supports this project, Armington said the council cannot prevent property owners from exercising their constitutional rights to develop their land. But the governing body and the planning board are committed to ensuring M Station conforms with zoning laws and benefits the town to the greatest extent possible, he said.

If elected, could the candidates get a few more Colonial Coaches to run during the week?

Cotten felt seniors in the Second Ward are concerned about the timeliness of the free bus and thought it would be good to get more.

Starnes agreed it would be “hard to understate their importance to seniors.”

WAITING FOR THE NEXT TRAIN? Marie Fornaro of the League of Women Voters of the Morristown area at council candidates forum, Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Armington said the new Colonial Coach cost about $100,000, plus another $100,000 to run it each year. Adding another bus would increase taxes by about 1 percent, he said.

Deeb thought the town should explore sharing Morris County’s Paratransit system. Inestroza said she would want to determine the need, then see what is fiscally manageable.

“There are other ways to move people around town,”  said Iannacone, suggesting a public/private partnership for a jitney service to include buses operated by hotels and Morristown Medical Center.

Where do you stand on banning plastic bags?

There was little disagreement here.

Deeb felt plastic bags should be reduced or eliminated. Inestroza was surprised the measure has not been adopted already. Starnes related how other towns are taking the lead, and said “bags are a good place to start.”

On a recent trip to California, Iannaccone observed the absence of disposable plastic, and how towns have adapted with no apparent difficulty. He also said he liked his stainless steel straw, a gift from Unity Charter School students in Morris Township.


The candidates also talked about sharing more services with neighboring towns and Morris County to save money. Deeb cited Chatham Borough and Chatham Township, which merged their recreation departments. Iannaccone suggested partnering with Morristown High School’s broadcasting department to webcast more town meetings.

Video: Anyone know how to cut taxes?

Though generally praising Mayor Tim Dougherty’s administration, Iannaccone, who has switched from Republican to Independent for this race, expressed frustration on a couple of fronts.

Video replays of town council meetings no longer air on cable television, and the councilman said he cannot get an explanation.

And responding to a question about the council’s unsuccessful efforts to impose curfews on the Revolution bar–a battle that has spawned a federal lawsuit by the bar owner–Iannaccone, a lawyer himself, said town attorneys seldom update council members on the status of litigation.

Video: Bar Wars, 2019:


Video: Closing Remarks:

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  1. We all listened to the response by Armington and Iannaccone, relative to the federal lawsuit, they seemed shocked and uninformed yet they are the decision makers who continually made the decisions which resulted in the suit, of course they took their orders from mayor Dougherty. What a pathetic group. They want you to swallow their lies, yet they know full well the decisions they made brought this to the forefront. Their attorneys along with revolutions attorneys informed them at every council meeting that they were discriminating against our business. These are people who on the outside try to portray they are public servants but on the inside they are mean spirited power hungry phony s who should resign in shame. As far as legal fees they simply think the town should pay for their actions, I disagree, these actions are theirs to defend and pay for.