Q FOR GOP: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

candidatesWestside Community Group president Amy Goldsmith, right, discusses the debate format with candidates Juanita Lewis, Joe Mizzi, Grace Cangemi and Ed Zipprich. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

election_2011_wdebatesRed Bank’s Republican contenders for borough council were on the defensive Wednesday night as their opponents, and some voters, pressed them on their perceived sudden re-emergence as election day looms.

Resident David Prown asked GOP candidates Grace Cangemi and Joe Mizzi how confident taxpayers should feel in their representation, given what he characterized as their low profile between last spring’s candidacy announcement and now. Several questioners pressed them on the point of view that the pair say is missing from the current all-Democrat council.

In the evening’s most heated moment, incumbent Ed Zipprich called his opponent’s criticisms of the current council “absolutely ridiculous,” and said Cangemi, a former council member, hadn’t appeared at a session of the governing body since she lost a re-election bid in 2008, though she had pledged to serve as a watchdog.

“What have you done for the town in the three years since you walked out the door?” he asked.

audienceAbout 75 residents turned out for the event, held at the River Street Commons senior citizens’ complex. (Click to enlarge)

In response to Zipprich, Cangemi said she had been working, and didn’t question his dedication to the borough.

“It’s not about campaign strategy,” Cangemi replied to Prown. “Really, its a matter of your accessibility when you’re serving. That’s when it’s important.”

Mizzi, who came up short in his bid for council last year, told Prown that the local GOP doesn’t have the resources to mail campaign literature to residents and put up signs.

Cangemi and Mizzi hope to unseat Zipprich and Juanita Lewis, both first-term council members.

The clash between Zipprich and Cangemi came amid an otherwise low-key and wide-ranging event: the Westside Community Group’s 15th annual candidate’s night at the River Street Commons.

Residents asked the candidates about issues that included perceived neglect of streets and other quality of life issues on the West Side; whether the town should sell its water utility; and, in the words of Marybeth Maida, “what voices are not being heard” that Cangemi would speak for.

“Joe and I bring a little something different to the table,” Cangemi said in her closing remarks. “It’s not dedication, it’s not hard work. But I think it’s really important that we bring greater transparency to the process” of managing the town.

Cangemi frequently struck a collegial tone. She said that although taxes had gone up, she would not “lay that at [Lewis and Zipprich’s] doorstep, because taxes have gone up everywhere.” In response to a question about what Red Bank RiverCenter had done for West Side businesses, Cangemi said the special improvement district agency “has done a very good job of attracting a few new businesses, but the vast majority of those businesses have gone to the East Side.”

Mizzi took issue with RiverCenter’s spending on salaries and administrative costs, and said the town’s rent control ordinance needs amending to tame rent increases that outpace income growth.

Lewis stuck to a theme of Red Bank “making progress” in terms of keeping taxes in check, developing business and upgrading parks in a tough economy. Zipprich sounded a similar note.

“I think Red Bank has prospered under Democratic leadership and will continue to prosper under Democratic leadership,” he said.

Except for Councilman Mike DuPont, none of the town’s elected officials other than Lewis and Zipprich appeared at the event.