WESTFIELD, NJ — Filling vacancies in the downtown, upgrading aging recreational fields and taxes were key among the topics the candidates discussed at the forum attended by over 200 people Monday.

The one topic all the candidates appeared to agree on was the importance of the now-closed Westfield Rialto Theatre in the downtown.

“I don’t accept that question,” said Third Ward Democratic candidate Jennifer Gilman when asked what the Rialto should be if it could not resume showing films. “Because to me, The Rialto not existing in this town is not an option.”

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Gilman said litigation in which the theater has found itself embroiled must first be resolved. “It’s an important landmark in our town, and we need to protect it,” she added.

Gilman’s opponent, incumbent Republican Mark LoGrippo, said he would like to see the Rialto as an arts center or become a combination of residential and commercial development.

“I do understand how difficult it is for the Rialto to maintain business,” LoGrippo said.

Scott Katz, the Fourth Ward Democratic candidate, described change at the theater as an chance to improve the experience it offers.

“It’s such a great opportunity to bring the community together, for us to have the potential for live music, to have some better food there, for us to have a performing arts center for some of the performers in town, it would really be incredible,” Katz said.

Katz’s opponent, incumbent Republican Doug Stokes, noted that no matter what the local government desires, the theater’s owners have the right to do what they wish with their property.

“To save the Rialto as it is, we need to find out a way to do that. That means talking with the owners — as the mayor has done — but we need to understand the owners can make their own decision,” Stokes said.

Robert Benacchio, the First Ward Republican candidate, said he sees a theater in Clinton that was turned into a performing arts center as a model for what The Rialto could become.

“I say let’s do it all. Let’s get the arts in,” Benacchio said. “Let’s get the kids in. Let’s keep the screens.”

Jim Boyes, who faces Benacchio in the First Ward race, said he hopes the owners have seen by the public’s reaction to The Rialto’s sudden closure what an important part of the downtown the theater is. He also pointed to the benefit of theaters offering more luxury.

“People do tend to like a more kind of plushier experience,” Boyes said.

Democratic candidate Mark Parmelee noted the candidates’ agreement on the topic of saving the Rialto and pointed to the mayor’s anticipated establishment of an investment advisory board to work with the owners and the town to identify a path forward.

Parking is also key to any downtown venture, Parmelee said. “It’s a three-fold issue,” he said. “Parking involves commuters, employees and shoppers.”

Parmelee’s opponent in the Second Ward — Republican Richard Bodmer — has made the closure of the Rialto a central point of his campaign, establishing the Facebook page Save the Rialto.

Bodmer did not attend the debate due to a prior work commitment, a spokeswoman for his party had said. And although the Westfield Leader, which organized the forum, offered to allow a statement be read on his behalf, Bodmer’s party declined to read one.

While Parmelee did not address his opponent’s attendance at the forum directly, he did note that he himself has been present campaigning in his ward.

“Showing up is definitely not all of life, but it certainly counts for a lot and I’ve been showing up at a lot of doorsteps in Ward 2,” Parmelee said.

In talk of taxes, candidates discussed getting more return from Union County while tightening up internal fiscal practices. The owner of a Westfield home assessed at the average home value is anticipated to pay $17,087.96 in property taxes, marking an increase of $173.96 over last year.

With a significant portion of those taxes going to Union County, both Republican and Democratic candidates discussed getting more from Union County, including through grant applications.

LoGrippo paused his discussion of taxes to address what he perceived as a reaction from Mayor Shelley Brindle in the audience.

“Excuse me mayor. Are you making a face at me? … That’s kind of rude, honestly,” LoGrippo said. From the audience, it was not immediately clear what prompted LoGrippo’s response.

The brief interaction, however, contrasted with the calm nature of the forum at the outset of which the moderator had asked candidates to refrain from personal attacks. In only one instance did the timekeeper have to cut off a candidate; that occurred during Stokes’ discussion of public finance.

Later, when responding to a question about recreational field space, Katz suggested alternatives for finding more field space, pointing to North Bergen, in Hudson County, as a model.

“They’re putting fields on top of buildings,” Katz said, then added: “Maybe there are other ways we can go about finding field time.”

Gilman, who is the only woman running in this year’s race for council, noted the gender imbalance.

“You only need to look around this panel to see that I bring a different perspective,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “… And when Mayor Brindle first asked me to run, I paused because I realized what a huge commitment being on Town Council is, but I realized the most worthwhile things are the hardest things.”

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh

See the full forum here:

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh

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