BRIDGEWATER, NJ - After gathering in-person votes and a more-than-normal number of mail-in ballots, the results are in from the Feb. 15 fire district elections.
Fire district three was different than the others in that not all those running on the ballot itself were elected to the two open seats on the commission.
Winning the two seats were Scott Hobbs with 290 votes, and write-in candidate Teresa Avin with 142 votes.
The budget passed by a slim margin, with 334 votes in favor and 238 votes against. Commissioner Jeffrey Holtz said it was the highest percentage of votes against a budget than he can ever remember seeing for the district.
Holtz said the two new candidates for the commission were put forward on the Thursday before the election as write-in candidates. He said a mailing was sent out to residents about the two candidates, Avin and David Stempien.
Stempien earned 131 votes.
The other four candidates who had been originally on the ballot were Theodore Bell, who earned 132 votes, Rand Milton who earned 126 votes, Mark Colantoni, who earned 95 votes and Ryan P. Sullivan, who earned 103 votes.
Holtz said the two newer candidates did not submit signed petitions to get on the ballot, but were simply write-in candidates that were introduced through a mailing just days before the election.
“Everyone is entitled to be on the commission,” he said. “But what is their motivation?”
“We know there was an active write-in campaign within two days of the election,” he added.
At this point, Holtz said, there is a request from one of the candidates for a recount of the votes, and the mail-in ones. The district is speaking with their attorney about how to move forward with that.
Holtz said there is a lot of speculation about the motivation behind the write-in candidates and the high voter turnout, which was unlike any other year. He said they will be examining the ballots, and if any voter fraud is discovered, the district will take the case immediately to the prosecutor’s office to be handled.
Holtz said Avin was present at the Wednesday district meeting, following the election, and she was asked why she decided to run for commissioner, and why she didn’t submit a petition by the January deadline, like the other candidates.
“She didn’t break any rules, but it’s all perception,” he said. “Everyone in the room feels like you came in to disrupt the process, even if you don’t and you work with us.”
Holtz said there was also an endorsement email sent out by Mayor Matthew Moench, in support of the two write-in candidates.
Moench said Avin and Stempien had approached him and asked for his support in the election.
“I think that they are both very talented, community-oriented individuals, who would bring a different perspective to the fire commission board,” Moench said. “They look at it from the perspective of residents who don’t know all the lingo. Avin’s ability to communicate with the residents on behalf of the fire district will give her a different perspective.”
Moench said his support of the write-in candidates was not a commentary on any of the other candidates for the commission this year.
“I think that first and foremost the job of the board is to manage the budget that is attached to the fire commission,” he said. “I think what you need there is people who can balance the important public safety part of the budget and make sure firefighters have the tools to protect the community, while at the same time balancing the impact on taxes.”
“She will make sure the viewpoint is communicated to the board and back to the residents,” he added.
In terms of the information about the candidates coming out just days before the election, Moench said he believes their names were out for longer than two days, but that word just spread right before the election itself.
“It makes sense because these are elections that have very low voter turnout,” he said. “I think the idea that you now have to convince people to vote for you and to do it on a Saturday over President’s Weekend presents enormous challenges and hurdles.”
Holtz said anyone, regardless of whether they are a member of the fire department or not, has the right to run for the commission.
“You have to give her the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “She is entitled to run for this office just as everyone else is. Everyone is just a little upset about the way it came out.”
“She assured everyone there was nothing underhanded, but this is the way they decided to run their campaign,” he added, citing that she explained to the commission that people had been asking questions about the fire district, and this was her way of getting answers.
Avin did not return a request for comment on her decision to run for the commission, and her win.
In district one, which is the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Company, incumbents Doris Zampella and James Kalafsky won their three-year seats back with 82 and 49 votes, respectively. They defeated newcomer Bryan J. Bradley, who received 47 votes.
Incumbent Jim Crowley won a one-year term on the commission with 136 votes to 116 for newcomer Steve Niederle.
In addition, the $650,508 budget passed by a vote of 201 to 59.
Commissioner Bill Rose said the turnout was over 300, which was a record for the district.
“Part of that was driven by the mail-in ballot now,” he said. “We had over 100 votes cast by mail in.”
For district two, which is the Bradley Gardens Volunteer Fire Company, incumbents Chris Ireland and John Marsigliano were elected for their third terms on the commission, earning 127 and 86 votes, respectively.
Their opponents, Kevin Kurzweil and Ronald Hazen earned 48 and 31 votes, respectively.
The $595,683 budget passed as well with a vote of 91 to 44.
In district four, which is the Finderne Fire Department, township councilman Allen Kurdyla, a current commissioner, was re-elected to his seat with 115 votes.
The $656,247 budget passed by a vote of 103 to 16. In addition, the request to replace a 30-year-old heavy rescue truck was approved with a vote of 114 to 5.