Republicans John Tyler, upper left, and Grace Cangemi draw lots from forum moderator Amy Goldsmith to see who will speak first as Democrats Ed Zipprich, Kathy Horgan and Sharon Lee, all in foreground, look on.
They came, they saw, they spoke in generalities.
Five of the six candidates for Red Bank Borough Council turned out for last night’s candidates forum put together by the West Side Community Group at River Street Commons.
“Overdevelopment” was a concern for several, including Democrat Kathleen Horgan, a member of the Zoning Board who’s seeking her first elective office.
“Educating our children” was high on Republican John Tyler’s agenda.
“Quality of life” was mentioned by most, as were pleas for residents to “get involved” in their neighborhoods and in local issues.
Once in a while, the candidates hinted at what they might actually do if elected push for police foot patrols, for example, a goal voiced by the sole incumbent among the candidates, Republican Grace Cangemi, who’s running for the remaining year of the unexpired term she was appointed to earlier this year when Kaye Ernst quit and moved away.
For the most part though, while they clearly brought distinct perspectives, the contenders offered little in the way of specific plans of action. Rather, the event proved more an opportunity for voters to size up the candidates as in-the-flesh beings.
Rounding out the Republican slate is James Coolahan, who was not present. Moderator Amy Goldsmith announced to the full-house crowd of about 100 residents that Coolahan called prior to the start of the event to say that he was delayed by a work emergency and would arrive when he could, but his seat remained empty.
Less a debate than town hall forum, the annual event, now in its 11th year, allows the candidates to make brief opening and closing statements bracketing a hourlong Q&A by residents.
Issues raised by residents included property taxes, crime, speeding on Bridge Avenue, the desirability of “zero-based budgeting,” healthcare insurance for elected officials, water quality, and the state of the Parks & Rec Committee.
It turns out the committee has met just twice this year, according to a concerned member. Instead of appointing people who repeatedly fail to appear for the meetings, he told he candidates, “put people in there who can actually do something.”
Cangemi, who is vice chair of the committee, said she was not empowered to call a meeting, but added, “I agree it is a problem.”
Regarding healthcare coverage, Lee disclosed that she has withdrawn from the borough plan after using it for just nine months as stopgap coverage until a plan at her new job, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, kicked in.
That makes Lee the third of the six council members to forego the coverage, along with Cangemi and Republican John Curley. Mayor Pasquale Menna has pledged to withdraw from the plan as well.
The coverage costs the town $59,400 a year or $80,000 a year, depending on whose numbers you accept, Zipprich’s (the former) or Cangemi’s (the latter). But on the broader question of whether the borough should offer the coverage to elected officials, there were sharp differences.
“No one abuses it,” said Lee, who has previously defended the coverage. “Everyone on the council uses it accordingly.” But Cangemi said she found the coverage “offensive. I would vote to get rid of it.”
Unmentioned were two topics that were hot ones at last year’s candidate’s night: overcrowding of rental housing on the West Side and $38 parking tickets. But zero-based budgeting, in which every cost to be incurred by an organization must be justified anew each year, appears to have won some converts after Curley’s long advocacy for it.
In addition to Tyler (“If it can work in the schools and it can work in your home, it can work for Red Bank”) and Cangemi (“an absolute necessity”), who support the concept, two of the Democrats said they’d give it a shot. Horgan said she’d be “willing to explore” its use and Zipprich said the council “should look at what zero-based budgeting can do.”
Lee, though, said that while it might be useful on a department-by-department basis, it wasn’t as easy to apply to the municipal budget as a whole.
Lee also signaled her opposition to a plan to convert a borough-owned building at the corner of Drs. Parker Boulevard and Bridge Avenue to a community center.
“When that place was a bar, it was not a safe place for drunks to fall out of,” she said. “It’s a terrible corner.” She said she liked the idea, however, of converting the historic Fortune House property, which is privately owned, into a community center, and cited a similar project in Parsippany that was fully paid for with federal money.
Here’s what each of the candidates said, in response to a question, was the most important improvement they’d like to see in Red Bank:
Lee: “We need to do some serious work on the parking issue, particularly in the downtown.”
Horgan: “Development. We have to control it but not stop it.”
Zipprich: “We have to take a look at the master plan. It hasn’t been revised since 1995.”
Cangemi: “I’d like to see the quality of life on the West Side grow to be equal with that of the West Side.”
Tyler: “We have to educate our children a little bit more.”