With five weeks left until voters head to the polls, Clark residents have to decide whether they want to keep the mayor they have had since 2001, or opt for a change.
For Republican Mayor Sal Bonaccorso being the mayor of Clark is a full-time job. Since 2000 when he first threw his hat in the ring for mayor after serving four years as a councilman, he was well aware he had his work cut out for him if he won. When he did, Bonaccorso hit the ground running because the township was mired in financial problems that required immediate attention.
“We were on the brink of financial bankruptcy,” the mayor recalled, adding that after Robert Ellenport’s tenure as mayor, no debt had been paid down and the township was basically “in trouble.”
Twelve years later, the picture has turned around entirely, he said.
“We were named one of the top 25 suburban communities to live, work and play in the state,” the mayor said Monday, adding that his goals every year have always been focused on making Clark a better place to live for residents.
“I believe it not only took my strength on council but also citizens in town to accomplish that goal,” Bonaccorso said, thanking his challenger for mayor, Democrat Third Ward Councilman Richard Kazanowski, for “endorsing his plan.”
The fact Kazanowski decided to make a run for the mayor’s seat this year actually came as a surprise to Bonaccorso, especially because of the councilman’s voting history on the governing body.
“I would say 99 percent of the time Rich votes in favor of what I propose,” the mayor explained, and that Kazanowski “even voted in favor of my budgets this year.”
“What I can’t understand is if he votes for 99 percent of what I propose, why does he think we need a new mayor,” Bonaccorso said. Kazanowski, though, believes four terms as mayor is two too many.
“I think three terms for Sal is enough,” the councilman said Monday, adding if he is elected he will propose a referendum be put on the ballot limiting a mayor to just two terms, or eight years in office.
“Anything after eight years is a kingdom,” the councilman added.
Kazanowski also believes the reason Bonaccorso managed to stay in office so long has a lot to do with the inexperienced candidates that ran against him in the past.
“You throw a newbie against Sal and its like throwing meat to the lions,” he said. “With me running he has to get out there and knock on doors.”
But he also confessed he has nothing against the mayor. And Bonaccorso feels the same way.
“Rich is a nice guy and I have nothing personally against him. He has every right to run,” the mayor said, but hopes the campaign keeps the focus on the issues and not personal attacks.
“I want to keep Clark moving forward in a positive direction,” the mayor added, admitting that residents should hear what both he and the councilman can do for the township.
The mayor suggested that when Kazanowski was on council previously in early 2000, he made some decisions that were not exactly good for the township.
“He voted against a measure that would have provided a half-million in grant money from the state,” the mayor said.
“Actually Rich has worked cooperatively with me on council,” Bonaccorso said, but despite this, the mayor would like to debate Kazanowski so the issues they might differ on can be brought to light.
The councilman, however, turned down several public appeals by the mayor for a debate in a public venue, claiming he preferred going door to door.
“Clark isn’t a large town, I would prefer going door-to-door so I can hear from residents what issues concern them,” said Kazanowski who hit the streets in early July and has not stopped since.
“I’m finding that people want change,” Kazanowski said, but while Bonaccorso respects the fact his challenger wants only to go door-to-door, he has a problem with the two not publicly debating issues they may disagree on.
“You know, as candidates we all go door-to-door to personally speak with residents, but a debate would clarify where we each stand on issues that we deal with as governing body members,” the mayor said.
“I’m very proud to tell people in the community of my track record, but when he is out going door-to-door, I can’t refute what he is saying if its not true and without a debate, he can say what he wants,” Bonaccorso explained.
When pressed about the fact he voted 99 percent of the time with the mayor on issues before the governing body in the last six years, Kazanowski confessed that these particular issues did not concern things such as providing health benefits for people who only work part time.
“Sal’s father, Joe Bonaccorso, is a good example of what I believe needs to stop. He is the head of public works, makes $15,000 a year but receives $22,000 in health benefits a year,” the councilman pointed out.
Kazanowski also mentioned that the mayor earns a salary of $12,000 a year but the township pays $22,000 for full family health benefits, something the councilman said he turned down back in 2006 when he was re-elected.
Bonaccorso disagrees. Specifically because the township has a state health benefits plan.
“When I came into office 12 years ago we have saved $4.2 million in health benefit costs,” the mayor said. Bonaccorso also pointed out that in 2005 the state told towns that if they were using the state health benefits plan, elected officials could opt into the plan.
“That’s the only battle cry he has against me,” the mayor said.
On the other hand, Kazanowski feels that it just is not right for elected officials to receive health benefits.
“I refused it, didn’t think it was right then, still don’t think it’s right,” he added.
Some members of council do receive health benefit coverage at a cost of $22,000 annually, but others, like 4th Ward councilman Brian Toal only receive benefits for themselves, or in one instance, such as at-large Councilman Alvin Barr, only receives the township’s prescription plan, according to Kazanowski.
Despite the mayor believing the two candidates agree on most issues, Kazanowski feels that under Bonaccorso the current administration “is deaf to issues that concern many residents of Clark.”
“It is taking Clark along a path that in the long run will change forever the nature of the community that people have come to treasure,” he said, adding that since he is retired, he can work with others to keep the township a “strong, safe and affordable community.”
The mayor, though, feels that in the six years Kazanowski has been on council, if he had a better way of doing things, he should have brought them to the table.
“Not once in the last six years has Rich put up a piece of legislation,” Bonaccorso explained.
“You can bet that it’s been our program that has been a winner for 12 years,” the mayor added, “or why else would Rich have voted for it,” the mayor questioned.
As the sole Democrat on council, Kazanowski said, it was fruitless to do so.
“For me to introduce any motion, resolution or proposal when it needs to be seconded by another council members and the Republican majority won’t work,” the councilman said. But he did refer back to when he was on council in in 1999 with members of both parties.
“We all worked in having upgrades to the community pool, keeping the town budget in line with low or no tax increases and worked to bring in the Hyatt Gold Course,” Kazanowski said.
“The job of the mayor isn’t a one person job,” the councilman said, adding that it requires everyone to communicate effectively with a group of people as a common enterprise to get the job done.
“I have done that and I know I can do that a lot better than what the current mayor is doing,” he said.
Kazanowski does, however, disagree with the mayor in one regard. He feels the mayor and his administration have gone too far in allowing multi-family housing to be built.
“Over development puts a strain on our educational system, police and volunteer fire department, and eventually, our taxes,” the councilman said. Bonaccorso, however, does not feel the township is being overbuilt by any means.
“The township has approved property development that only enhanced Clark,” he said, adding that, for example, when the Miele former farm acreage is developed it will not only provide needed housing but be an asset to the community.
Bonaccorso also explained that a proactive approach towards development and much needed change is why Clark was put on the list of best places to live in New Jersey.