SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – Often a municipality’s reorganization meeting is something of a kumbaya event, but not in Scotch Plains Township this year. In fact, the township may have seen the first salvos fired in the 2020 mayoral campaign as Mayor Al Smith, a Republican, openly clashed with Josh Losardo, a Democrat, who has named Deputy Mayor for the second year in a row.
The January 7th meeting started harmlessly enough with New Year’s greetings and light-hearted political banter from State Senator and Union County Democratic Chair Nick Scutari, who told Smith to have Township Manager (and new Freeholder Chairman) Al Mirabella call his office if the township needed anything.
The fireworks flew later when the Democrats on the Council (Losardo, Elizabeth Stamler and Roc White) sought to replace township engineer Mott McDonald with Maser Engineering and Consulting Design, and township land use attorney Jeffrey Lehrer with Mike Baker of New Brunswick-based Hoagland, Longo.
Whichever attorney is chosen, Scotch Plains should be in good hands. Hoagland Longo has been in business nearly 50 years, and Baker is an expert at redevelopment law and has been recognized as a “Super Lawyer” and “Real Estate Lawyer of the Year.” On the other hand, Lehrer was honored by the New Jersey Institute of Local Government Attorneys with the William M. Cox Award, in recognition of excellence in land use law and exemplary service to the legal profession and to local government in 2011.
Mayor Smith, joined by Councilman Ted Spera, also a Republican, objected to cutting Lehrer loose since the attorney has been involved in downtown redevelopment efforts that the mayor believes would slow down if a new firm is brought on at this time.
During the heated discussion, Losardo said that Lehrer had served the town well but that in the fall, Losardo learned of a matter that he said was being kept from the governing body and speculated about what else may be being kept from him and the other Council members. During the meeting, Losardo referred to the contract of Scotch Plains developer, Advance Reality, but did not go into great depth discussing the issue.
In a post-meeting interview with TAPinto SPF, Losardo said that during his first year on the Council he was impressed with Lehrer’s intellect and experience, but that he believes it is time for a change.
“As I thought it through, I concluded that the best way to ensure the redevelopment of our town, and an open and transparent government, was by finding a new redevelopment attorney, which members Stamler and White agreed with,” Losardo told TAPintoSPF. “I am not a fan of publicly criticizing anyone. Let’s focus on the fact that I wanted to make a change for the benefit of the township, and that is all this was.”
“We believe the transition will be seamless and that our new lawyers, who are experts at redevelopment law, will make the redevelopment of downtown Scotch Plains more likely than ever,” Losardo added.
The visibly agitated Mayor Smith argued during the meeting that getting the new attorney up to speed will take valuable time away from redevelopment progress.
“An expert in the area of municipal land use and particularly redevelopment, Jeff Lehrer has been a key part of the affordable housing and redevelopment teams for the last three years and has performed outstandingly,” Mayor Smith told TAPintoSPF. “His qualifications were more noteworthy because of his great knowledge of Scotch Plains (as a former resident).”
“I hope the Democrats are not playing politics with the two most significant issues before the council, downtown redevelopment and affordable housing implementation, by changing the redevelopment attorney,” Mayor Smith added. “If we do not get these two items right, either the courts or competition will crush our town.”
The mayor explained that in the next 60 to 90 days, a “comprehensive, exciting downtown redevelopment plan that has eluded us for 35 years will be revealed for our public properties.”
“Jeff Lehrer was part of the team that got us to this point, and now with everything else, I have to deal with a new attorney,” the mayor said.
One thing that both the Democrats and Republicans on the governing body agreed upon was Mr. Lehrer’s knowledge and qualifications.
“Mr. Lehrer is an expert and a very good lawyer, just as our new attorneys will be,” Losardo told TAPintoSPF. “A change in our professional staff does not and should not reflect that someone wasn’t doing their job or doing their job well. Even so, I am not afraid of change – it keeps us moving forward with new ideas and new energy. I was not elected to maintain the status quo.”
“I hope the Democrats are not playing politics with the two most significant issues before the council, downtown redevelopment and affordable housing implementation, by changing the redevelopment attorney,” Mayor Smith told TAPintoSPF.
“Clearly the Union County Democrat machine flexed its muscles and replaced Jeff Lehrer, considered a Republican, with someone more aligned with them,” Mayor Smith insists. “Mr. Losardo, however, tried to position the need for the change as necessary to ensure responsibility and transparency in the redevelopment process.”
The mayor added that he is proud of his work with Mr. Lehrer and their “significant contributions to Scotch Plains in the critical areas of affordable housing and downtown redevelopment over the past three years, all done very transparently and very responsibly.”
"Mayor Smith and Councilman Spera know that our new attorneys are excellent and will serve the town well. There was no reason for grand standing at the reorganization meeting," Losardo said. "The people do not want to see that, and I hope this does not become the new norm at our monthly meetings."
Did we just see the first salvos fired in the 2020 Mayoral campaign?
“I was elected to do a job, and that’s all I am trying to do,” Losardo replied. “There are some people that love politics for the sport it sometimes is. But that’s not why I ran for office or why I love my job. I am trying to do what is right for the town. And, ultimately, if I conclude that I would be a better mayor, then I may want to talk with the people who shared that with you.”
"I’ll continue to do my best for the people and let the Democrats decide whom to run against me," Mayor Smith responded. "As a part-time mayor, I work full time for benefit of all residents of the township and do not take the $6,000 a year stipend allowed for council members."
Monday, Apr. 1 at 4:00 p.m. is the petition filing deadline for the June Primary Election, according to the Union County Clerk's website.
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