PLAINFIELD, NJ - Nine candidates who are running for a Union County Freeholder seat in the June 4 Primary Election were invited to a forum at Plainfield's duCret School of Art on Wednesday, and the event was going to be moderated by a League of Women Voters representative. But only two Column B candidates participated.
Anthony Esposito of Roselle and Jack Molenaar of Fanwood answered questions in a more relaxed "meet & greet" format. Without a quorum, the League could not facilitate the session, so Laura Miranda-Browne, a board member at the art school, stepped in to ask the candidates questions that were submitted by members of the audience.
Esposito said in opening remarks, "We the people have the ultimate control of how our government runs, but you would not recognize that in Union County. I don't know if it's because of fear, or simply not caring, or something else. But the people need to stand up and need to fight for what's theirs." He noted that Union County ranks seventh in the country for the highest property taxes, and said he sees a lot of wasteful spending.
Molenaar, who said he was a three-term councilman in Fanwood, told the crowd he is running because he wants an open and honest government that answers to everyone in Union County, and not just the chairman of the party or his friends and family.
Referring to the incumbents, who he noted he had been looking forward to debating, Molenaar said, "I'm sure they may be very fine people, but they're not allowed to speak their minds. The last time that happened of a freeholder, they were dropped. If they say anything wrong or say anything out of line as a freeholder, they're not given the endorsement of the party boss anymore. So if you speak your mind, you're out."
He continued, "I'm running because I know that what we're seeing there is not good. There is corruption there." And he added, "We deserve freeholders that serve the people, not the bosses."
Wilma Campbell, who had intended to participate, sent her regrets as her first grandchild was born earlier in the day.
Miranda-Browne read a statement from Alex Lospinoso, saying if he was elected freeholder, he would do everything he could to fight for the middle class. Lospinoso is a lifelong Union County resident, a lifelong financial advisor, and is currently the Economic Development Director for the City of Linden.
He said in his statement, "I vow to lower our county taxes and put an end to the cronyism that is going on in the county. Just because there is a two percent cap in the county, doesn't mean every single year the taxes need to be raised towards that cap."
Here are the questions posed to the candidates, and their responses:
Do you or any family members have a relationship to county-related businesses?
Molenaar said, "I'm very qualified to run because I don't have any connections financially to the county, no one in my family has connections to the county, no one works for the county, I don't work for the county." He said he doesn't even have any distant cousins who work for the county.
"That's one of the reasons I'm running because that's what we're seeing most of the time, is we're seeing candidates who have those connections," he added. "I think the freeholders are very good at ribbon cuttings and doing selfies." But he doesn't see much else from them, and the connections are troubling.
Esposito said he has worked in private industry his entire life. He is a cosmetic chemist, and has worked for Colgate-Palmolive and Coty, Inc. He said his wife works for Merck, and his children are in no way connected to the county, either.
The only financial connection Union County, Esposito said, is the taxes he is required to pay.
How would you ensure that taxes are distributed equally among socio-economic strata?
Esposito said, "I think that happens naturally. If you look at the towns that are economically stressed, you will see that the home values of those properties in that town are not as high as the financially well off towns in Union County."
Molenaar said, "Coming from Fanwood, I know that right now we send more money to Union County than we do to Fanwood," adding that around sixty percent of property taxes go to schools. "We're funding it wrong," he noted, saying that it should be done through income taxes and not through property taxes, which should take care of local services like public works, police and recreation.
What's the number one issue facing the county, and what are your ideas to tackle it?
Molenaar said it is patronage and corruption, saying 80 percent of county business are patronage jobs. "They do about 20 percent of good policy on the side. I think we should at least flip that."
Esposito said it's wasteful spending because of the patronage and nepotism.
One of the county responsibilities is waste management and recycling. What is your plan to improve recycling?
Esposito said better research is needed. Molenaar said the county government should be taking the lead on what we do next, and said we need to reduce and reuse, "a true sustainable model."
The City of Elizabeth recently had a crisis that exposed systemic, institutionalized racism. What would you do? How would you respond to the discovery of racism in any county department?
Molenaar said, "Everything at the county, I think, from top to bottom, needs a municipal audit anyway." He acknowledged that it is a problem throughout the country, and said he doesn't understand why Union County is one of the last counties to have a police force. He would consider bringing in experts who have dealt with similar racial issues, and have internal review boards. "That gives you more transparency."
Esposito said racism is alive and well in the country, and is a real issue. He said if there is zero tolerance in corporate America, it should be the same in government, too. He said it would come down to educating people.
The candidates also addressed affordable housing.
Molenaar said his background is as a land use planner, specializing in transportation planning, and he has been on the planning board since 1995. "There are many communities that do exclusionary housing," done to keep people out. He said he has always pushed for more density in the right places, where people can walk to stores, and to buses and trains.
"Density is cheaper, it works, and if you build density, housing prices actually stabilize and come down."
Molenaar said he knows more affordable housing is needed. "We're losing choice, so when you lose choice, it drives rent up, and drives prices up, and then it pushes people out. So it is the opposite of what people have been thinking. Gentrification comes from not having enough housing. You need to have more density in order to push back gentrification, in order to have affordable housing."
He added that you need good housing where infrastructure is.
The candidates were also asked about their plans to enhance the infrastructure in Plainfield.
Molenaar said there is a need to invest in better roads, the electrical grid, and better Internet service, "to invest in those areas that will make it easier for people to stay here and to make it easier for businesses to grow." He said the county currently doesn't take responsibility for maintaining crosswalks on county roads.
Esposito said infrastructure is one of the most important functions of government.
Wrapping up, both candidates thanked the crowd for coming out, and encouraged them to vote for Column B.
The League of Women Voters provided a booklet with bios for the candidates who had been invited to participate, and their answers to the following questions:
- What are the most important issues facing Union County now and over the next four years?
- Thoughts on shared services (as a way to decrease the municipal tax burden)?
- Freeholders role in budget process or redevelopment?
If you missed the event, you can watch the Facebook Live video on Queen City Pride: