By Chris Rotolo |
MIDDLETOWN – Three Democratic Party candidates running for Middletown’s Township Committee say they will bring in more transparency and community input to local government.
Their opponents, Republican incumbents, say the governing body listens to residents, and has proven fiscal responsibility.
If Middletown’s Democratic candidates, Tricia Maguire, Danielle Walsh and Sean Byrnes, who are making a run at the township’s three open committee seats, pull off an Election Day victory, it would swing the balance of power on the committee from Republican to Democrat for the first time in four decades, an opportunity Byrnes wasn’t sure would ever come back around.
“It’s something I didn’t think would be possible; to have three solid people in a position on a five-person committee. It’s an opportunity to do things that haven’t been done in 40 years,” Byrnes said in an Oct. 19 interview with The Two River Times.
“It’s been one party in control and, in most instances over the last eight years, they’ve never voted differently from one another. You’re talking a couple thousand votes, and they’ve all agreed on everything. You’re not really thinking about things, and voting your heart if everyone agrees on everything all the time,” said Byrnes, who was elected to the committee in 2007 and served one term, before being defeated in 2010 by current Middletown Mayor Kevin Settembrino.
On the heels of the heavily debated 150-acre redevelopment plan for the Circus Liquors property along Route 35 that gained approval in August, members of the Shady Oaks adult community off West Front Street have accused the committee – including the GOP ticket of Tony Perry, Rick Hibell and Patricia Snell – of lacking interest in community input concerning a recreational development project at the township’s Stevenson Park.
But during an Oct. 22 interview with The Two River Times, Hibell defended the governing body’s action and called the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan a success for those who oppose overdevelopment, adding the outcome was a direct result of open public discourse.
“People need to remember, we don’t own that property, and we can’t tell someone what they can do with property they own. But we can control the zoning, which is what we did because we’re opponents of overdevelopment,” he said, noting the committee’s unanimous vote to limit the proposed 600,000 square feet of commercial space to just 400,000 square feet, including the 150,000 square feet that already exists on the site.
Perry said healthy conversation between the committee and residents is a theme that continues with the Stevenson Park proposal, a concept plan that suggests the potential development of nine soccer fields in three phases of construction at the township-owned parcel at an estimated cost of up to $1.5 million.
“The most important thing we can do is listen to the people and understand their needs and concerns, and we may not always agree, but that’s healthy. We heard from the soccer community. Then we heard from the Shady Oaks community. And we’ve heard both groups loud and clear,” added Perry, who previously served as chief of staff to former state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos Jr.
But Walsh believes the committee’s overwhelming consensus voting has affected its ability to communicate and work with other municipal entities like the Board of Education, an organization of which she is currently a sitting member. Her term ends in December.
“Right now, there is no cooperation between the committee and the Board of Education (BOE). That does not happen in our town. Period,” said Walsh, a lifelong resident of Middletown.
“It’s not easy to have two bodies come together and work together in a way that sometimes the board loses, sometimes committee loses, but the taxpayer always wins,” Walsh added. “There are partnerships that can be explored if the willingness to work together is there. But I haven’t seen it.”
Since conversations with concerned residents about the Stevenson Park proposal, the committee has identified a new potential site for field improvements and repurposing at Bayview Elementary school in Belford, a plan Perry said he has received preliminary approval by the Board of Education.
Perry said he is also working on a shared service agreement with Brookdale Community College for use of their various fields. These two agreements could potentially house multiple sports and service approximately 8,000 youth athletes in Middletown.
Maguire said there’s a disconnect between the governing body and its residents.
“The committee may say it’s listening to the community, but after three hours of listening at a meeting, they take an immediate vote that usually seems to go the way they were going to vote anyway,” Maguire said. “That’s not real community involvement, or allowing lifelong residents to help direct the future of our town.”
And Maguire said, with Middletown’s Master Plan currently out for reexamination, the need for public input is integral.
“As soon as we’re on the committee we’re going to make sure the site plan process includes stakeholders, whether that be emergency services, definitely the immediate residents, the Board of Education and anyone other committees that can be impacted by major municipal developments,” Maguire said.
Resident privacy is also a loose end Maguire said she hopes to tie up if elected, following an email controversy earlier this month, where the addresses of residents who had registered to receive municipal alerts and newsletters were collected by an outside political group via an Open Public Records Act request. Those addresses were then served with negative political messaging about Byrnes.
The Asbury Park Press reported that the mass email was issued by a group called “Residents Against Over Development,” which is not registered as a political organization with the state of New Jersey; the email linked back to Perry’s Twitter account, the paper reported. Perry declined to comment to The Two River Times on the matter.
But Maguire wants to know why resident privacy was violated, regardless of who may have requested the mailing list.
Privacy issues and charges of lack of communication and transparency aren’t the only criticisms the incumbent trio has had to endure during the campaign season.
All three have had the legitimacy of their offices called into question by political opponents, who view their status as appointees – rather than elected officials – as a point of weakness, and an opportunity to swing the balance of power in Middletown to the left.
Perry said it was disingenuous to hold the appointment process against him and his running mates, and delivered a message to anyone who views it as a negative.
“I’m running now,” Perry said. “If I wasn’t confident in my own abilities and the abilities of those running with me, then I wouldn’t be doing this. We’re not placeholders. I’m confident that our platform speaks to the needs and concerns of the residents.”
He added that the Township Committee has kept Middletown’s fiscal house in order. “Fiscal responsibility is what it’s all about, and we’ve actually had a reduction in our tax levy the past two years. That’s really unheard of around the state, and we’ve done it while passing a new police contract, and continuing to offer impactful services and programs.”
Perry was appointed in November 2017 to replace Stephen Massell, who now sits on the Monmouth County Tax Board. In February, Rick Hibell replaced Gerry Scharfenberger, who is now a sitting county freeholder and running to hold on to his seat in the current election. Snell was selected to fill the July vacancy left by former Township Mayor Stephanie Murray, who stepped down after citing job responsibilities after her part-time business administrator position in West Long Branch became full-time.
This article was first published in the Nov. 1-7, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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