As Election Draws Near, a Look at the Chatham Borough Mayoral Race

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Bruce Harris
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Incumbent mayor Nelson Vaughan (D)
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CHATHAM, NJ – Chatham voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide if incumbent mayor Nelson Vaughan (D) will continue on to a second term or if sitting council member Bruce Harris (R) will lead the borough into 2012.

Elected in 2007, Vaughan is a lifelong resident of the borough. He currently serves on the Planning Board, Library Board, Municipal Alliance Committee and Public Arts Committee. He also adopted the Mayor’s Wellness Campaign, which empowers the citizens of Chatham to make their health and wellness a priority.

Harris, a 30-year borough resident, has served on the Chatham Borough Council since 2005. He serves on the Planning Board and the Land and Historic Conservancy Committee and is head of the Council Finance Committee. He has also been involved in the Environmental Commission and Open Space Committee.

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Harris was endorsed by the Borough Council, who, in a Letter to the Editor, cite his leadership capabilities and ability to see ‘big picture goals.’

Council member Jim Lonergan reiterates his support of Harris: “It’s clear that between the town administrator and the Council, that’s where things get done. We tend to make decisions and move things forward.”

Vaughan received an official endorsement from Republican council member and former council president Ellen Dickson, a mayoral candidate in Summit. In a Letter to the Editor Dickson says she has been impressed with Vaughan’s work ethic and has enjoyed working with him to create shared services between the two towns. “The fact that we belong to different political parties has been irrelevant,” she wrote.

But party does matter in this election, Vaughan insists. Not in governing day-to-day functions and working with other municipal leaders, he says, but in providing balance in Borough Hall. “For over 100 years Republicans controlled the town. I really am an endangered species. I don’t want to see a return to club house politics,” he said.

He also questions Harris's claims to credit for certain initiatives. “We’re in silly season now and people are taking credit for things individually that we did collectively,” he said.

Vaughan views the Green Initiatives Committee, Mayor’s Wellness Campaign and Sustainable Jersey certification as some of his greatest accomplishments. “There are certain items that my opponent and I agreed on, like curbside recycling, that he is taking credit for. I think the credit really goes to the leader for those things.”

He also cites their differing opinions on the creation of the Green Initiatives Committee. “My opponent said he didn’t think we needed another committee—that it should be part of the environmental commission. But the two are distinct. Green Initiatives is about saving the borough money,” he said.

What sets him apart, Vaughan believes, is his status as a retired, full-time mayor who adopted a new expense reimbursement policy. “I couldn’t see my money as a taxpayer being used for my mayor’s expenses,” he said. “So I decided to follow the Boy Scouts Volunteer Policy and pay my own way for everything. I spend about $4,000 of my own money each year attending conferences and meetings.”

“Bruce will never be able to be a full-time mayor. He works as a lawyer and has no pension,” he said. “I attend events and make calls and do a lot of other mayoral work during the 9-5 day. I don’t see how he would be able to do that.”

Vaughan spent his first year as mayor working full-time for Citibank. “I did my best to keep a balance, but it was horrible. Citibank encourages volunteerism, but the mayorship is a full-time job. I chose the mayorship. The last two mayors have also been full-time.”

Harris believes the mayor is not responsible for day-to-day activities. “I have been a full-time councilman and am available to do the work,” he said. “I don’t think we want to limit the mayor to someone who is retired or independently wealthy.”

On the issue of successful initiatives, Harris also feels the credit has been misplaced. “I get concerned when Nelson takes credit for things that happened within the public safety community,” he said. “The transition of 9-1-1 services to the county was the work of the Borough Administrator and the Chief of Police. It was moved forwarded and implemented by the council.”

Harris cites as one of his accomplishments keeping taxes under control and saving $400,000 to the borough through joint services. As one example, he says the “time was right” to create a joint court with Madison, Chatham Township and Harding. “Revenues are up in the court and we saved just over $100,000,” he reports. “Nelson wasn’t in those meetings.”

“Nelson takes credit for shared DPW services, but that has been going on for a long time,” Harris said. “It was formalized last year, but it was certainly not just his doing as mayor.”

One area where the two candidates have clashed is the borough’s open space policies. “Vaughan abolished a community referendum to expand the borough’s ability to use funds for maintenance, development and historic preservation of our open space,” Harris said. He mentions his efforts to update the open space inventory as an important step in maintaining accessible space in Chatham.

“I think a lot of money was being spent for not a lot of value. I cut the tax because there was nothing more to buy,” Vaughan responded. “I’m in favor of open space, no question about it. But I thought the money should be used to develop Memorial Park. I think I was showing leadership.”

Harris says he is concerned about the environment and open space and gives credit to the town’s volunteers for recent “green” changes to the borough. “Nelson takes credit for the Bronze Certification from Sustainable Jersey and the Green Initiatives Committee. I think that takes the credit away from volunteers like Cindy Steffens,” he said. “I also contributed directly to making it happen. A lot of good things have happened while Nelson has been mayor, but is it because of him, or the council and volunteers?”

Despite their differences, both candidates name low taxes, collaboration and downtown development as goals for the mayor’s next term.

“I want to get our money back from the state,” Vaughan said. “And I don’t want to lose bipartisanship. I work very well with Republicans and Democrats. I enjoy working with the council. They are dedicated, hard-working individuals.”

Vaughan proposes conducting a businesses improvement study to see what residents would like to see on Main Street. “We need to do more downtown management,” he said.

Harris also believes he has the skills to make these changes to Chatham. “I know how the pieces work. I have 13 years experience volunteering for the community,” Harris said. “I understand the finances of the borough and I know how to work with the administrators, volunteers and council to move ahead.”

Harris believes the borough can continue to find ways to remain economically viable and enjoy high quality municipal services. “Chatham is special and we want to be able to maintain that and afford it.”

As mayor, Harris says he would examine the borough’s zoning ordinances to make sure it accurately reflected the town’s goals. He would also hire a consultant for the business district and to improve parking downtown.

“We’ve improved infrastructure and completed the Streetscape Project. It is time to sit down with merchants and talk about fixing up facades,” he said. “I’d also like to create guide to doing business with Chatham to make it easier for business owners to operate here.”

Vaughan says he wants to make the borough a better place for future generations. “I have been a lifelong resident of the borough and want to improve it for my children and grandchildren,” he said. “It’s a unique town and it would be a privilege to continue to serve as mayor.”

Harris looks forward to collaborating with the council. “It’s really a great team. We have the right people with great skill sets. We have a council that really works and my respect for them is equal.”

Polls open in the borough on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

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