By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – It’s been nearly a decade since a Democrat was elected to the Middletown Township Committee but that is not stopping a pair of first-year candidates who are looking to buck the trend as they face off against two GOP incumbents in the Nov. 7 election.
Running for their third and fourth terms, respectively, on the township committee are Deputy Mayor Stephanie Murray and Committeeman Tony Fiore, both Republicans. Challenging them are two Democrats new to having their names on a November ballot – Will Hutton, endorsed by the local Democrat organization, and Tricia Maguire, a Democratic Party write-in candidate. All candidates are vying for two open seats on the five-person committee, which comes with a three-year term.
Republicans say the crux of their campaign is to continue the fight on a number of local issues important not only to Middletown, but also regionally specific to Monmouth County.
Fiore, 40, a senior vice president at Prudential Investments who oversees a national retirement sales division, said one of his key platforms is to limit the amount of affordable housing which could make its way to Middletown in the future.
According to a presentation by township officials this summer, there are 492 affordable housing units across Middletown’s 41 square miles. Nearly 57 percent of the affordable housing is represented by two senior housing complexes: Conifer Senior Housing and Bayshore Village. Both are located on “the wet side” of Route 36.
Fiore said he’d fight if quotas became exorbitant.
“Some court may say that we are well under the quota on where we should be and that could have a tremendous impact on development, taxes, and services in Middletown,” he said.
Running with Fiore for a third consecutive term is Stephanie Murray, 42, who works for the Borough of West Long Branch as the borough administrator, a position she took this past summer.
Murray pointed to the opioid crisis threatening New Jersey, and said she’s been part of a number of township initiatives to lessen the threat locally. The Middletown Municipal Alliance, a drug and alcohol prevention program, is free to residents who use the service. Murray said the program is made available to middle school students with parental consent.
“I think it’s a tremendous asset because it really teaches the kids from a young age to be aware of this,” she said, referring to opioid addiction.
Regarding more pressing issues concerning residents – the Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP) and the Village 35 development – both Republicans commented on the former, yet declined to comment on the latter.
Fiore and Murray were part of the Middletown administration which authorized a shared defense agreement among other towns which would be affected by the MCRP, a 230-kV transmission line along 10 miles of NJ Transit commuter rail line from Aberdeen to Red Bank. Over $100,000 has been spent in that fight.
“I think we’re going to be successful because at the end of the day, after our due diligence, I don’t believe that the project is warranted,” Fiore said.
Both Republicans said they couldn’t comment on the Village 35 application, a 52-acre commercial complex planned along Route 35 North. Its fate is currently pending before the township’s planning board.
Murray did offer a general statement about her views on applications submitted in town.
“We’ve entrusted residents to those boards,” she said. “I trust they will make the right decision and I trust the residents when they go to those meetings to make themselves heard.”
Democrats running this year share a similar platform – underrepresentation of political diversity on the governing body – which they feel has become a detriment to the township.
Maguire, a 47-year-old small business owner, was added to the ballot after she said she received 153 write-ins from residents. It is her first run at elected office.
“When you hold up a mirror, the committee is not really reflective of what our township looks like,” Maguire said, alluding to the all-Republican governing body.
One of Maguire’s primary goals, in an effort for transparency, would be to create a “community coalition,” where leaders of advocacy groups from different sections of Middletown can meet regularly to discuss different issues affecting different parts of town.
The idea stems from her other platform issue this election: overdevelopment.
Maguire pointed to the Village 35 application and the impact it would have on surrounding residents. She believes the process has become overwhelming for many.
“No one is negating an individual’s right to develop property if they own it,” Maguire said. “I think the concern is the pace at which it happens and residents feel the developer’s wants are being more elevated than their needs.”
The other Democrat running this election season is also focusing on giving residents more of a say in what goes on in town. Hutton, 47, is retired and owns Love and Laughter Productions, a film and broadcasting company. For 26 years, he worked for Middletown as a senior traffic maintenance worker.
As a township employee, Hutton said he was in the Bayshore in the wake of Super Storm Sandy, helping repair traffic signals and street signs. That experience has motivated him to look for more funding for homeowners in the Bayshore section of town, so they don’t think about leaving.
Still vacant and forlorn properties from the 2012 storm affect everyone, said Hutton. “(Residents) all say they’re from different sections, but if the tax revenue brings more people into the Bayshore, that will bring those home values up.”
Regarding Village 35, Hutton said he is “not against any development.” Like his Democrat counterpart, he just wants “responsible development. More input form the community, have their voices heard, and find a response,” he said.
Both Hutton and Maguire were critical of the MCRP, doubting its need in a time of renewable energy, and worried about the effect it would have on Middletown residents.
Maguire described herself as a “Rager,” a term given to members of the group Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE) who are fighting the proposal. When asked about the project, Hutton said, “I would say, ‘No. Hell no.’ ”
This article was first published in the Oct. 12-19, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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