SUMMIT, NJ - If you came looking for political fireworks or verbal haymakers being thrown, you would likely have left a bit disappointed. More important than histrionics, however, is substance, and the Summit Common Council Candidates Forum -- presented by The Summit League of Women Voters and Speak Up Summit -- gave attendees the opportunity to ask the participants questions about key topics facing the City, and learn more about the candidates' platforms, and what each would do to serve Summit, if elected.
On the dais were Mike McTernan (R), Michael Vernotico (D), Sandra Lizza (R) and Gregory Drummond (R). Two of the participants are now running unopposed. McTernan in Ward 1, who did not have an opponent step forward, and current At-Large Council Member Drummond, who sees his re-election assured by virtue of Daniel Meyers, his former opponent, exiting the race earlier this week due to personal considerations. This dynamic may have lowered the drama level of the debate segment of the Forum, but it did focus the spotlight on Lizza and Vernotico, the remaining two participants, who are facing-off against one another for the Ward 2 Common Council seat.
After each candidate read an opening, two-minute statement, questions submitted in writing from the audience comprised the heart of the forum. The issues that came up were predictable, but showcased the core opportunities and challenges facing Summit now and into the future. The topics raised also illustrated that, while there is much consensus on how the candidates would deal with them, there are some key differences.
Again, predictably, the differences in approach and philosophy fell to Lizza and Vernotico. One area where they differ on approach is downtown parking. Lizza said she uses the DeForest Lots "three-four times a week, and has never had a problem" and that during her campaign she has "met many of her potential constituents and that she has only heard from two or three people who are dissatisfied with the current parking system." She added that the system should continue to be analyzed, and can be tweaked to make for an even better experience for downtown shoppers by eventually offering standardized user technology across all lots, for example.
In contrast, Vernotico said, "I have knocked on nearly every door in Ward 2, and have not had one person say they like the system." Vernotico said the current system of un-manned entry and exit is destined to fail, and should be scrapped in favor of a manned system and that new technologies should be explored that, while perhaps not being the least expensive to implement, would offer the best user experience for downtown customers.
Another area of philosophical difference was regarding law enforcement resource allocation. Lizza said she has met with Summit Police Chief Robert Weck and that he believes things are operating well, despite working with two less officers due to budgetary constraints. The department, said Lizza, has adapted and flourished due to re-organization, and the use of automation and new technologies to drive efficiency. Vernotico stated that the two officer positions should be reinstated, and illustrated the need by pointing out incidents of crime in areas bordering Summit, including the home invasion this past summer in Millburn.
Zoning, specifically changing the zoning laws in select areas to allow mixed use, was also an topic where Lizza and Vernotico differed on approach. Lizza stated potential changes should be reviewed, but careful consideration and analysis must be given to the impact any zoning changes would bring with them. Vernotico advocated changing the zoning in select changes to attract more ratables into Summit, referencing the River Road corridor as an example.
The candidates were in general agreement on many topics, not necessarily offering a mirrored approach, but rather ratifying the importance of the issue. These areas included: Union County taxes, services provided and future approach; Leveraging Summit's recent designation as a Transit Village; Power Supply issues in the event of a natural disaster; Summit's flourishing status as an arts community; and Summit's approached to diversified housing, such as Habitat for Humanity.
The evening ended with closing statements and handshakes, as the march to the Nov. 5 Election Day nears its conclusion.