MONTCLAIR, NJ - With a mix of members of the public and public officials, the League of Woman Voters held a candidates forum at Hillside Elementary School on Thursday.
Emphasizing the "core concerns of the League of Woman Voters" and the 96-year history of the non-partisan organization, Elizabeth Milner introduced Third Ward Council candidates Maureen Edelson and Sean Spiller.
With Michelle Bobrow as moderator, the candidates covered various issues affecting Montclair. The issues were broken down into opening statements, forum questions, questions from the public and closing statements.
The Third Ward Council seat is the only contested seat in the 2016 municipal race, with the mayor, deputy mayor and all other council candidates running unopposed.
Both candidates were given two minutes for an opening statement with two questions prepared by the LWV. These questions were given to the candidates in advance of the forum and each candidate had 1½ minutes to respond to the question. The other candidate then had 30 seconds for a response or rebuttal.
Edelson opened by discussing how she entered the race on April 8 because she did not believe it was fair for Spiller to run unopposed. She also wanted to discuss the Montclair Center Development, changes in her position on Unions, and changes to her position on having an elected district school board.
In contrast, Spiller opened with his wish to preserve Montclair. He raised his talking points of getting Montclair's "financial house in order" and investing in (i.e. raising taxes for) infrastructure, education and senior services.
When asked for ideas for drawing small business to the community and filling vacant store fronts the candidates agreed that there is a need for small business, but took very differing approaches. Spiller who described Montclair as a "great destination" for businesses, relied on infrastructure, citing the town's investment in safety measures as one of the main reasons Montclair attracts businesses.
Edelson compares Montclair's small business community to a club which needs to maintain their current roster of businesses while bringing in new small businesses. Edelson cited the "tremendous benefits" Montclair has to offer if only the town could "reduce friction" in order to streamline and assist businesses. This was coupled with her reference to her own experience as the Office Manager/ Business Developer of Montclair Physical Therapy, which she and her husband started 20 years ago.
When the candidates were asked what kinds of transportation services do they see in Montclair's future and what is the timeline for same, Edelson chose a quicker solution while Spiller focused on the long term. Edelson suggested using existing organizations to capitalize on organizing ride shares through volunteerism for shopping and medical appointments, especially for senior citizens. This leaves out a large population of those who rely on public transportation and do not have access to the benefits of ride share for non-shopping or medical transport such as work commutes or bringing children to/from daycare.
Spiller took this as an opportunity to refresh the public's memory of all that he and his colleagues have accomplished with the funds already allotted for an additional Senior Services bus. He also referenced his work with various committees regarding the assessment and gap in transportation opportunities in the Third and Fourth Ward, as well as the work being done through community engagement. Spiller said he is "excited" to see what the future holds.
Spiller without hesitation responded to the question of affordable senior housing with "we always need more". He expressed his search for housing opportunities for everyone and emphasized that "there need to be options." Edelson, while not agreeing or denying the need, chose to focus on what Montclair already has. "Dignity is an important component of affordability," said Edelson, who used the Montclair Inn as a model of private inspiration.
Later in the forum, Candidates were pressed for ideas on how to keep Montclair affordable and easier for senior citizens to remain in town. Edelson blamed the tax unaffordability for seniors. Spiller recited the history of the most recent tax increase and the town's sustained tax structure while calling for a more comprehensive solution.
Earned Sick Leave
This has been a topic which Montclair put into effect on March 4, 2015, and has been an issue on the local, state, and national platforms. Despite the town's position and passing an ordinance for Earned Sick Leave, Edelson said she is, "in favor of employers having humane policies."
She went on to say that Earned Sick leave is not favorable for Montclair and has caused an exitus. Spiller in sharp contrast and in line with his consistent advocacy for same, said firmly and proudly, "Yes. I support it wholeheartedly."
Raising the Minimum Wage to $15 per hour
Spiller said he is in support of the rise of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. He went on to say, " I would raise the minimum wage everywhere to take care of families and reinvest in the community".
Edelson took on the issue as a small business owner, believing that raising the minimum wage is something small businesses can not afford to do.
When the candidates were questioned on the prospect of having the public parking lots sold to the Wellmont theater for development they agreed it is a bad idea. Edelson was not in favor to transferring a public asset to a private organization. Spiller believes there is a better way to form partnerships to manage parking while being fiscally responsible.
The audience was given the opportunity to participate in the forum. They were encouraged to write down questions for the candidates that were collected and randomly chosen by the moderator to read. The candidates then had one minute to respond to each question.
Later in the forum, an audience question arose on the candidates position of an overnight resident parking permit. Edelson was not in favor of any type of permit citing same as a quality of life issue while Spiller hopes to find the delicate balance of the need. Spiller also said he has been working with Town's parking consultant on this matter.
Another subset of parking which was questioned by the public was how the candidates would increase parking in commercial areas. Spiller discussed the full assessment being done by the Town's parking consultant and compared future increases to what had occurred with the Crescent parking deck. He stated that he hopes with the town's professional services in conjunction with the community's input and a determined location this increase will happen. Edelson added her agreement to Spiller's remarks as a small business owner.
Edelson is not aware of any transparency issues and expressed concern for the legal aspect of transparency with OPRA requests and other measures but did express she was in favor of transparency.
Spiller discussed the importance of transparency but cited communication of issues as the culprit, not a need for transparency. He went on to cite how the Town has tried to improve and increase communications now more than ever with the website and community engagement events.
Spiller described Eminent Domain as "a last resort". He went on to say, "Eminent Domain has a very limited role" and expressed caution in its use.
Edelson agreed and described it as "a complex and nuanced issue" which needs to be seen through the lens of those who will benefit and with that was not keen to put the private property into public hands.
Edelson said, "Normally I am a proponent for choice but I am hesitant with regard to the school without knowing more about management, mission, and program."
Spiller, who is a science teacher and Secretary of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), saw the charter school as a "further siphoning of funds" and expressed his support of the District's Board of Education and the Superintendent.
When asked by a member of the audience if the redevelopment of the Social Security Administration would be business friendly (specifically the auto store behind the building) Spiller referred to it as a conversation between the business owner and developer.
Edelson said, "We are a community that put a man on the moon is there anything we can't do? I would say the answer must be yes, but do we have the will and the flexibility to do that?"
As for a vision for the Lackawanna Plaza they both wish to see a supermarket incorporated.
While Edelson tried to paint a picture of Pathmark's bankruptcy leaving a proverbial "food dessert," Spiller rebuked with the reminder that this was not something the community chose and no one was pleased to see Pathmark leave and be left with shuttle buses to the nearby ShopRite.
Edelson believes the answer is a partnership with private organizations, while Spiller believes this is up to the retailers who have an opportunity to fill the space.
Art District Proposal
Spiller adamantly answered, "Love the idea!" while Edelson believes that the arts community which currently exists in Montclair is great as is.
For more information on voting in the May 10 election, check out the township website