On New Year’s Day 2024, Morristown’s Third Ward will have a new councilman for the first time in a dozen years.
Steve Pylypchuk and Robert “RJ” Bell each think they have the right stuff to succeed their fellow Democrat, Stefan Armington, who says it’s time to pass the baton.
The contenders share some similarities as they head into the June 6, 2023, Democratic primary. Whoever wins is all but assured of victory in November, as no Republican has filed to run in the Third Ward. The governing body now consists of six Democrats and one Independent.
Pylypchuk and Bell say their stints as volunteers on municipal boards have forged positive working relationships with town officials and attuned them to public concerns, preparing them for the council.
The 36-year-old Pylypchuk, a civil engineer who lives in the Alexander Hamilton neighborhood with his wife Sieglinde and their two young daughters, served on the town Environmental Commission before the council appointed him to the Zoning Board, which he has chaired for the last three years.
Bell, 30, markets oncology drugs for Merck & Co. and resides in Cutler Park with his husband, Joe Hauswirth, and their rescue mutt, Harvey. Bell is a 2020 mayoral appointment to the Shade Tree Commission, where he is vice chairman.
Both candidates commend each other’s desire to serve. Both praise Armington — who has a Bell sign on his lawn but says either man would do a good job if elected. (Pylypchuk challenged Armington in the 2019 primary.)
Both candidates say they won’t be rubber stamps for four-term Democratic Mayor Tim Dougherty, who is endorsing Bell.
And both express love for Morristown and the diverse experiences it offers.
Where they differ is on programs and priorities.
‘OTHER TOWNS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FIGURE IT OUT’
Pylypchuk is calling for greater government transparency via an improved town website, and hybrid meetings for all boards. He advocates fostering civic pride by promoting neighborhoods and celebrating their histories and identities; he joined neighbors fighting a proposed Dunkin’ Donuts in 2013, and helped them them organize a mask-making drive early in the pandemic.
By listening carefully to residents and tweaking town zoning codes accordingly, Pylypchuk says it’s possible to preserve Morristown’s charm while accommodating enough development to ensure prosperity.
He thinks wireless, coordinated smart signals can unsnarl traffic–a growing complaint for many in town–and he suggests an analytical approach can find solutions to parking problems that have vexed residents near Morristown High School for years.
The Stevens Institute of Technology graduate says he is eager to work with the administration on a more informative town website that’s simpler to navigate.
“Just getting information more easily and readily available makes everything work better. It’s the easiest thing town government can do to help,” says Pylypchuk, who moved to Morristown 14 years ago and cannot envision ever leaving.
“A website shouldn’t be an afterthought anymore. It needs to be good, and not just adequate.”
He says the pandemic has demonstrated the power of virtual meetings. Going forward, he insists, residents should have the option of following all town boards and commissions — not just the council — online.
“Every meeting should be hybrid. And they should work,” Pylypchuk says, referring to glitches that have plagued council livestreams.
Streaming of meetings should be automated–“like in modern conference rooms”–and video recordings should be posted afterward, just like they are for council meetings.
“Other towns have been able to figure it out,” he says. “We should be able to figure it out.”
Pylypchuk stops short of pointing any fingers. He ascribes perceived town hall shortcomings to “the nature of local government, and the nature of the way we’ve always done things.
“It’s not something I think is being doing maliciously or anything shady. It’s just not top of mind for a lot of people. It just gets missed. We have a lot of smart people in town. Give them information, and they will come up with lots of good ideas.”
The zoning board is tough duty. Meetings are crammed with arcane details and run for hours. Every decision makes someone unhappy. Pylypchuk says he’s honed his listening skills and his critical thinking, learning to ask intelligent questions.
“Understanding the minutiae I think is the key to being a good councilman,” he says.
“One of my skills is being able to decipher heavily technical material…and translate it to something the average person can understand. I think that’s what is required of the council—to understand issues so deeply you can turn it around and explain to constituents why it’s good or why it’s bad.”
‘I SEE A LOT OF GOVERNING BY REACTION’
Hybrids of a different sort drive Bell’s agenda.
Like Armington, he was perturbed when the council recently approved the purchase of a gas-powered police car because the administration said there was a year-long waiting list for hybrids.
Bell says he wants town government to be more forward-looking, especially when it comes to the environment.
“I see a lot of governing by reaction. I’d like to get to a place where we’re thinking more pro-actively,” says Bell.
That would include planning ahead to create a municipal fleet of hybrid vehicles–he says all but one are gasoline models–along with a carbon-neutrality policy and public charging stations for electric vehicles, similar to what Madison is doing.
“At the Shade Tree Commission, we receive requests from people to chop down trees to make room in their driveways for car-charging ports,” Bell says.
He would like some of Morristown’s parking lots equipped for overnight vehicle-charging for residents who don’t have driveways.
He says the Shade Tree Commission has been pro-active in dealing with threats from the emerald ash borer and the spotted lantern fly, invasive species that have wrought ecological havoc in other towns.
“We’re not just sitting around and planting once a year on streets. On a near-daily basis, we’re actively involved with town government,” he says.
Other concerns for Bell include protecting Latino businesses from getting priced out of their Speedwell Avenue digs as redevelopment rolls through that corridor.
“All of our neighbors should be able to afford a future here in Morristown,” he says.
Bell, who holds degrees from Monmouth and William Paterson universities, is a proud member of the LGBTQ community and believes his perspective would be a valuable addition to the council. He says he would like to be a role model for inclusion.
When he moved to Morristown seven years ago, the town impressed him as a progressive and welcoming place.
Yet all around him he sees reminders that more work remains to be done. He’s disturbed by last weekend’s vandalism at the Church of the Redeemer, which had just erected Gay Pride flags.
Occasionally, he says, motorists scream profanities when he and his husband stroll on South Street as a couple.
A legal battle is brewing in Hanover over officials’ attempts to require schools to “out” gay children to their parents. Next door in Morris Township–where he was married at the Morris Museum in 2021–far-right candidates who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection and who support book bans mounted campaigns for local office last year.
“That sentiment is everywhere,” Bell says. “You’ve got to stand up and push back.”
That goes for bucking the administration, too, if it’s in the public’s best interests. On that, Bell and Pylypchuk agree.
“Nobody is going to see-to-eye always,” says Bell, who is endorsed by the local Democratic organization. “If I have an idea, I’m going to push it. I have always fought for what I believe in. And I also am one to admit when I’m wrong.”
Pylypchuk, who questions the need for partisan politics at the local level, says he will side with the majority when it makes sense.
“I’m always going to have the best interest of my constituents in mind, versus just voting for the sake of voting the same as the mayor,” he says.