Updated 9:10 a.m., Oct. 8

ROXBURY, NJ – None of the Roxbury councilmen seeking re-election in November attended a debate held Wednesday, a situation that gave their challengers free reign to criticize them and say they can better represent the township’s residents.

The 7 p.m. event was sponsored by the Roxbury Taxpayer Education Association Member (TEAM) group and held at the Roxbury Public Library. About 30 people were in the audience.

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What they got, instead of a debate, was a two hour question-and-answer session featuring Democratic candidates Dan Kline, Aaron Markworth and Heather Champagne. It was moderated by Bergen Record editorial writer and Roxbury resident Fred Snowflak.

There are four seats on the council up for election this year, all held by Republicans. The incumbents, Martin Schmidt, Fred Hall, Richard Zoschak and Gary Behrens were invited in early august by TEAM President Virginia Mushinski, according to the group.

“Every candidate got a letter inviting them to an Evening With the Candidates as well as a debate,” said Mushinski. She said all seven people had until Sept. 29 to RSVP, but only the Democrats did so.

“The Republicans did not call me,” said Mushinski. “We made attempts, after the RSVP date, to contact them.” Mushinski said the councilmen said they had busy schedules and contended the event “wasn’t planned properly” so they would not be attending.

As the session was about to begin, TAP into Roxbury emailed the councilmen and asked why they weren't there. “We understand that TEAM and our opponents worked together to set this up,” replied Schmidt, who represents Ward 4 and is being challenged by Kline. “We were not asked for our input on debate time or specifics. We could not commit to tonight's time frame.”

Behrens, replying Thursday morning, said, "I am out of State the entire week. Will return next Monday. This is a trip that was scheduled several months ago."

The Republicans’ absence doesn’t mean they won’t get another chance to face their opponents, said Mushinski. “If those candidates who could not attend tonight’s debate would like to propose a future date, Roxbury TEAM would be more than happy to host a second event,” said the group in a statement released several hours prior to the session.

Of the three incumbents up for re-election, Behrens is the only one not facing a challenger. Markworth is opposing Hall in Ward 3 and Champagne is challenging Zoschak in Ward 1.

As one might have expected, Kline, Markworth and Champagne cited the Fenimore Landfill problem as a major campaign issue, asserting the incumbents do not deserve re-election given the strife caused by the reactivation of the dump – and the subsequent spewing of noxious gas over much of the town – during their tenure.

But they also brought up other issues. Markworth, a biomedical engineer who moved to Roxbury in 2012, said he believes Hall is weary, tired from three years of dealing with Fenimore and other matters.

Kline, a 27-year-old Roxbury High School graduate studying law at Rutgers University, said Schmidt and the other incumbents seem to vote as an indivisible bloc on issues instead of engaging in resident-focused debate.

Champagne, a paralegal and Parent Teacher Association president, said Zoschak needs to be taken to task for his attendance record at council meetings. She said Zoschak missed nearly a third of the council meetings held since he was elected almost 11 years ago.