SCOTCH PLAINS—on Tuesday evening, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Tea Party sponsored and organized an open forum for Scotch Plains and Fanwood town council candidates to let residents get to know who they are, answer questions from residents, and debate each other.
From Scotch Plains, incumbent township council members Kevin Glover and Mary DePaola attended, both of whom are running for mayor in November. Also from Scotch Plains were political newcomers Colleen Gialanella, a Democrat, and Ed Saridaki, a Republican, whom are running for council.
On the Fanwood side were incumbent Republican council members Bob Manduca and Mike Szuch, along with their Democratic challengers Dan Levine and Jack Molenaar. Mr. Molenaar had previously served on the borough council from 2004 to 2006, running alongside Mayor Colleen Mahr. “We started our first terms together,” Mr. Molenaar added.
The most discussed topic at the meeting was the sharing of services between the two municipalities, specifically the police force. All four candidates on the Scotch Plains side were in favor of sharing services with Fanwood.
Kevin Glover described shared services as “when you get to dance with your partner before you marry them.”
“Let’s not go too quickly into the dark,” Mr. Glover explained, “[we] better make sure we have safety on the street, let’s have verified auditable savings, and if for whatever reason if we’re not to work, let’s have the ability to opt out.”
“The problem is, Kevin and I actually agree on a lot of this stuff,” Mary DePaola added.
On the Fanwood side however, the attitude towards shared services was different. While most of the candidates favored the idea in general, they were more cautious. Councilman Bob Manduca in particular stood out as being very opposed to the merger and he expressed a lot of skepticism that sharing services with Scotch Plains would in fact save any money at all.
“Look at the people who are pushing shared services: ‘stop, don’t think, just do a shared service,’” Mr. Manduca warned, “it’s the Democratic headed legislature, it’s the head of our county, it’s people who look at us the same way Colonel Sanders looked at the chickens.”
Mr. Manduca stressed that since Scotch Plains uses the “civil service” rules for its police force while Fanwood doesn’t, and for these two police departments to be successfully merged and save any money at all would require use of the special laws in Governor Christie’s “tool-kit” which was passed last year.
“One of the key things that causes caution where I’m concerned,” Mr. Manduca explained, “You can talk to the people at the Eagleton School at Rutgers University School of Government, they say that what is called the ‘tool-kit’ is going to be litigated. It will take years.”
“Let’s assume theoretically that we merged our police departments,” Mr. Manduca continued, “8 years from now, an unelected judge can say ‘wait a second, that tool-kit wasn’t legal.’ And [Fanwood] could wind up with all the responsibilities and all the back-salaries [of Scotch Plains]… it could wind up costing [Fanwood] millions.”
Frank Festa, a member of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Tea Party, asked the candidates whether they prefer their town to be managed by a hired manager, or by the council and a “strong mayor.”
Fanwood is incorporated as a borough and thus is governed under the borough form of government in accordance with the Borough Acts of 1878, 1897 and 1987. Fanwood is managed only by its council and mayor. Scotch Plains, however, is governed under the “Council-Manager Form” in accordance with the Faulkner Act and therefore most of Scotch Plains’ decisions are made by an independent manager hired by the council, not an elected official.
Each candidate, regardless of whether they were from Scotch Plains or Fanwood, defended their own town’s form of governance.
“I think for the most part the average citizen doesn’t really care what form of government we are as long as we do a good job and save money,” answered Mr. Molenaar, who then added: “I’ve always been in favor of the benevolent dictator form of government. Napoleon did a good job when he redeveloped Paris… I don’t know if that’s an option in New Jersey, but maybe it’s something we could look into.”
“We’ve got no problem with people stepping up and being very active in the management of the community,” Mr. Manduca answered, “I wouldn’t perceive changing it. You don’t get any lower than zero, either, in administrative costs.”
Mr. Sardacki, on the Scotch Plains side, supported having a manager: “I’m a firm believer of using expertise. If you have community members that have the expertise to manage an entity the size of Scotch Plains, then by all means come forward and do it for nothing.”
“It’s the council’s responsibility to make sure [the hired manager] does a good job of running [the township],” Mr. Sardacki added, “in the same way, it keeps the council from micro-managing… The council, unless they are a certified municipal manager, don’t know how to do it, but they do know what needs to be done and what the taxpayers want to have done.”