Morristown council candidates clashed over affordable housing, redevelopment, flooding and police salaries Wednesday, in a virtual debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Morristown chapter of the Sigma Delta Theta sorority.
“Right now Morristown looks fantastic if you look at South Street. The rest of it is all smoke and mirrors,” said Independent challenger Kristi Dimogerodakis, the most outspoken candidate during an hour-long session that featured questions submitted by the public.
Three four-year, at-large council seats are being contested in November.
Incumbent Democrats Toshiba Foster and David Silva and newcomer Nathan Umbriac are running on a ticket with Mayor Tim Dougherty, who is unopposed in his bid for a fourth term.
In addition to Dimogerodakis, Michelle Dupree Harris and John Thomas Jr. are waging Independent campaigns. They did not present themselves as a slate, and Thomas was absent from the debate.
Harris, a former Democrat, had expressed plans to retire to North Carolina after stepping down from the council in 2017, after 19 years and an unsuccessful mayoral primary race.
Insisting “I’m not going anywhere,” Harris on Wednesday asserted “party does not matter.”
“It’s the lives of each one of us that do. I am not a seat-warmer. I’m a doer. Google me,” she said.
The retired schoolteacher is mourning her 35-year-old son, Matthew King, who died last month in Baltimore. Harris thanked the community for “sending much love” to her family.
NO MORE ‘WORKING MAN’S TOWN’
Foster, who has served nine years, and Silva, seeking a second term, emphasized their votes for developments that have yielded affordable- and special needs housing units. They also took some credit for stable taxes and budget surpluses that enabled the town to weather the pandemic without layoffs or service disruptions.
“I worked hard and contributed to the growth and success that has occurred over the years, and I look forward to Morristown’s continued success,” said Foster, a lifelong town resident who works in corporate human resources and co-founded the nonprofit Our Youth Their Future inc.
Improving residents’ quality of life is Silva’s mission, said the Colombian immigrant, who is pastor of Centro Biblico Church.
“Whether it’s housing, environment, public safety, traffic–any issue that affects residents, is important to me,” Silva said.
Umbriac, who is employed by a pharmaceutical company, stressed his volunteer work with the Interfaith Food Pantry, the town environmental commission, and the Morristown Housing Authority.
“I believe in transparent government and serving Morristown with energy and purpose,” said the father of four. “I am not afraid to raise my hand and ask questions, and will do my homework.”
Dimogerodakis, owner of Verrilli’s Bakery, rapped the incumbents for transforming what had been a “working man’s town” to a place where “all we do is put in apartment after apartment after apartment.”
Morristown is great for childless 20- and 30-somethings who “want a place to walk their dog, and go to a bar and have a drink. But not for those of us who want this to be home, permanently,” said the 1988 Morristown High graduate .
When middle-class Americans like herself, “who makes a wonderful income,” no longer can afford to live here, “we have a big problem,” Dimogerodakis said.
She blasted the incumbents’ claims about new affordable housing, contending the waiting list is a mystery.
“We keep asking for a list and we can’t get one. So you can put yourself on a list in Morristown and you can wait 10, 12, 15 years before your number ever comes up,” she said. “But magically, other people appear within a year or two.”
CENTURY 21 AND NORTH PARK PLACE
One of the night’s most interesting questions was what to do with the former Century 21 department store, an enormous vacant building fronting the historic Morristown Green.
How about “something crazy and fun,” like a combination town hall/ recreation center, suggested Harris. She proposed funding it by selling the present town hall, and pursuing federal grants.
“It would be a perfect location, where everyone could walk to it,” Harris said. Umbriac was intrigued.
Dimogerodakis pointed out that all of North Park Place–the entire block–is vacant. She favors a teen center for the Century 21 space.
“We don’t have places where you can get mentored, tutored, college help, or just play a game of pool or watch a movie or take a class. We need to find something to get kids off the streets and give them a positive place to be,” she said.
Candidates had fewer ideas for solving floods that have plagued Morristown’s Second Ward for generations. The Whippany River deluged Martin Luther King Avenue this summer after tropical storms Henri and Ida.
Foster blamed upstream development. Fielding a related question about town construction equipment parked in the flood plain, she pledged to raise that matter with the mayor’s administration, “so we’re not contaminating the river.”
Flood mitigation is not easy, said Silva, noting Newark has spent millions attempting to tame flooding.
Umbriac contended it’s a regional problem. “This isn’t a Morristown issue,” he said.
Although the Army Corps of Engineers studied Second Ward flooding years ago, Harris said, “nothing has ever been done there” to improve the infrastructure.
“This has been 50 years in the making,” said Dimogerodakis. She has no solution, either. But she is tired of watching “tenants leaving in canoes” after every hard rain.
SHAVING THE BUDGET
Umbriac pitched merging recreation departments with neighboring towns to save money, an idea seconded by Dimogerodakis.
She also questioned the need for high-priced officials like town Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr.
“We have a public safety director who is in charge of what? Watching the chief of police? … So there’s two big paychecks right there–but not a lot of law enforcement officers to patrol our streets,” Dimogerodakis said.
Calling the public safety position “a waste of money,” Harris also questioned why council meetings are attended by two sets of lawyers. “We only need one,” she said.
The debate’s most pointed exchange followed a question about public outreach.
Promising “your voice will always be heard” at council meetings, Foster added: “My phone is always ringing.” Constituents approach her with issues wherever she goes. “We’re here for you,” the councilwoman said.
Dimogerodakis, who pledged an open-door policy at her bakery, interjected.
“With all due respect, Miss Foster,” she began, “I have watched you at council meetings while someone is speaking to you, and you dismiss them–”
Moderator Nicole Plett cut her off.
“No personal attacks, please,” said Plett.