By JOHN T. WARD
Incumbent Democrat Ed Zipprich was out of town on a family medical issue, and fellow incumbent Democrat Juanita Lewis was “called away on business,” Westside Community Group president and event moderator Amy Goldsmith said the candidates told her.
That gave Republican challengers Sean Di Somma and Linda Schwabenbauer control of the floor at the 18th annual candidates’ night, held as always at the River Street Commons. Di Somma made frequent reference to the absences, and at one point gave away their chairs to audience members who had packed the former school gym.
“If someone wants Ed Zipprich’s chair, or Juanita’s, feel free,” he said, before carrying each into the center aisle.
Schwabenbauer, a 10-year borough resident who works as chief accountant an auto insurance company, emphasized a theme of “financial responsibility” and a need for more perspectives on the governing body, where every member but Republican Cindy Burnham is a Democrat.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a balanced budget?” she asked in her opening statement. “A balanced council, with a real balanced discussion?”
Di Somma, a three-year-resident who works in the shareholder services business, hammered the Menna administration for what he said was a lack of transparency and planning. He said the town needs “real true leadership” by “people who know how to execute a mission and get things done.”
“It’s unfortunate our neighbors we’re running against aren’t here tonight,” he said at another point. “Since they’ve been on the council, they’ve raised debt by 22 percent and spending by 28 percent. We spent $1 million on a firetruck we didn’t need.”
Di Somma, who came up short in his first council bid last year, said rising local school taxes were largely attributable to a soaring school population, which he blamed on overcrowded rentals and lax enforcement of housing laws.
“The council passed an ordinance that, if you’re a slumlord and we catch you overcrowding, we’re not going to prosecute,” he claimed, an assertion challenged by Carl Colmorgen, a resident who volunteers at the municipal court, where he said he sees landlords fined for overcrowding every week.
Audience members asked the candidates for their positions on “the character of the town;” a shortage of swings on the playground at Count Basie Field; street paving; the proposed Renaissance Village stores-and-homes project proposed for Harding Road; and infrastructure improvements.
Schwabenbauer returned several times to the topic of the municipal water utility, which she said needs to be examined for possible sale. Di Somma was pressed by Elm Place resident Tom Labetti on his apparent “scorched-earth” approach to problem solving.
“I live in this town. It works,” said Labetti. “Are you going to be here long enough to pick up the pieces as they fall?”
Di Somma replied that he’d been the target of a “whisper campaign” to the effect that he had a scorched-earth mindset, which he denied, and said he planned to stay in town. “You guys are going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time.”
Mayor Pasquale Menna, a Democrat who is seeking his third four-year term without opposition, arrived about halfway through the two-hour event, coming from a campaign fundraiser at the Oyster Point Hotel. He gave no opening or closing statement, and instead fielded a handful of questions from the crowd without having to share mic time with Di Somma and Schwabenbauer.