SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – The six candidates (three Democrats and three Republicans) for the three seats up for election in 2018 squared off in their first and only debate of the campaign season on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Scotch Plains Municipal Building.
During the quick moving debate hosted by Fred Rossi of the Scotch Plains Times, candidates were given specific questions to answer, the chance to respond to opposing statements, and the opportunity to make a closing statement.
The debate at times had a "Kumbaya" feel as the candidates did not seem to disagree on much. Democrats Elizabeth Stamler, Rashon White, and Josh Losardo all said they were in favor of the downtown redevelopment plan that has been proposed by the Republican-controlled Council.
Andrew Bondarowicz, who was appointed to the Council by Mayor Al Smith when Llewellyn Jones moved out of Scotch Plains, was the only candidate who had actually voted on the plan. His Republican running mates, Sonali Dalvi and Jeff Kowalczyk, are first-time candidates.
Elizabeth Stamler said she is supportive of the downtown redevelopment plan as long as it were done “slowly and correctly.” She said she opposes 5-story and 6-story buildings downtown. However, Stamler agreed that real redevelopment has been "a long time coming, and we are happy to see progress.”
Rashon White said that he “totally supports redevelopment” as long as the Township does not overbuild. “This isn’t Hoboken, this is Scotch Plains,” he said. Additionally, he said that settling with the courts on the Township's affordable housing obligations “is a great idea.” He suggested that Scotch Plains should work with state officials -- Assemblywoman Linda Carter, Assemblyman Jim Kennedy, and Senator Nick Scutari -- on such matters.
Josh Losardo also supports redevelopment and said he understood why Mayor Smith decided to settle on the affordable housing number for downtown to avoid litigation. He noted that increasing our housing is “frightening” and that “our schools and streets are overcrowded and infrastructure is not up to par” when asked about adding more people.
Councilman Bondarowicz said that “the downtown density proposed in the plan creates vibrancy.” He noted that other towns have tried to fight the affordable housing requirements in court, and all of them have lost. He believes that Scotch Plains made the best deal possible.
Sonali Dalvi offered that the additional housing units and businesses that come into town will increase the tax base and said that the setbacks for building taller buildings would be good enough to maintain the town’s character.
Jeff Kowalczyk, who has owned a business downtown since 1991, supports the plan but noted that our population could increase 28 percent if the current number of affordable housing units is implemented. He called the affordable housing number “legalized extortion” and said that "forcing us to do it is a little ridiculous.”
All of the candidates agreed that the housing requirements will significantly impact schools (and taxes), roads, and the workload of the Township's first responders. They also endorsed the concept of expanded shared services with other towns, including Fanwood, in order to reduce costs.
When asked about the recent racist graffiti incident at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, each firmly believed that the town is not racist and that understanding of diversity is the only way that we can all come together.
Each candidate discussed how their previous work experience will help them as a Council member.
Elizabeth Stamler has worked mostly in the public sector (currently for Union County’s division of weights and measures). Having dealt with the public, she is “used to hearing various opinions from people of all walks of life.”
Andrew Bondarowicz is an attorney who also has worked as a legislative assistant.
Rashon White, a former Marine and a union leader, says he knows how to handle grievances and is a watchdog over his union’s pension fund to get the best value for (members’) money.
Sonali Dalvi said her experience as a trained architect and knowledge of the environment and energy is beneficial to downtown development efforts.
Josh Losardo highlighted his experience working as a community rep and as the chief of staff for two New York legislators before moving to Scotch Plains. He specializes in real estate laws. Josh added that as a husband, he knows how to make compromises.
Jeff Kowalczyk estimates he has worked 62,000 hours in downtown Scotch Plains. He is a board member or Resolve and is involved with group that brought Mallory’s Army (anti-bullying organization) to town. “Knowing the town, living as long as I have, I can bring a lot.”
Elizabeth Stamler said that as the youngest candidate she brings a fresh perspective to the job. Her family has a long history of public service, and she thinks she can bring a lot to the table. Stamler supports affordable housing and welcomes new residents but does not want to burden current residents. She would like to keep taxes flat, bring in new business, and pursue shared service opportunities.
Andrew Bondarowicz said that filling the unexpired seat of Llewellyn Jones has been one of the most enjoyable experiences professionally. He said that he brings common sense, balance and independence and is not looking to use the Council as a stepping stone to other government positions. “I think this is something I can do very well.” He knows that he will be effective, responsive and will do his best.
Rashon White described himself as “a man of few words” but has shown leadership skills in the United States Marine Corps, where he was an infantry squad leader because he “walked the walk and never asked anyone to do something he wouldn’t do.” White said that he led by being respectful and not by barking orders. He has used the tools he developed in the Marines today and plans to use these tools (courage, integrity and honor) on the Scotch Plains Council.
Sonali Dalvi recently became a citizen and has “a busy family and a husband who supports me.” She said she cherishes being in America and believes successfully implementing redevelopment is the most important challenge for the Scotch Plains Council. She wants to use her expertise to design a new downtown that will develop more jobs and women entrepreneurs. She believes in smart building, walkable parks, and bringing positive change.
Josh Losardo says he has met hundreds of people while campaigning, including older ones who have such immense pride in the town and with people with young families. He says his Democratic team wants to see that Scotch Plains is not overbuilt and will work tirelessly for the Township. He wants to bring new energy and would work with lawmakers to try to reduce affordable housing number.
Jeff Kowalczyk explained that he moved to Scotch Plains in 1985 from Houston and that it wasn’t an easy transition because he was a junior in high school at the time. He has been a business owner, a coach and a family man. "I’ve seen us do great things and then rip each other apart on social media," Kowalczyk said.
To watch the full debate, click here.