CRANFORD— With just one seat up for grabs and the political balance on the Township Committee hanging in the balance, the two candidates in the running are entering the final campaigning stretch before the election.
However, Democrat Tom Hannen, who ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat on the township committee and Republican Scott Mease, who previously served on the governing body from 2003 to 2005, are actually on the same page when it comes to some of the issues facing the township.
Mease believes he could have the edge in the upcoming election because of his previous tenure as a township governing body member. In fact, he admitted he was hard pressed to turn down yet another request this year from the GOP to throw his hat in the ring.
“I swore I would never run again,” Mease admitted Monday, but said after his Central Avenue home took on two-feet of water during Tropical Storm Irene a year ago, that was enough to change his mind.
As a mechanical engineer, Mease said he has “the time and talent” to take on the job of township commissioner again and said it would be wrong if he did not.
During the six months he and his family had to rent a house because theirs was uninhabitable, Mease said he became even more aware of how wonderful and generous people were in the township.
“We had more than 40 people come to help us haul mud out of our first floor,” the candidate said, adding there was so much damage, all the walls and flooring had to be torn out.
Paramount on his mind, though, in addition to the flooding issue that has hounded the township for decades, is the Birchwood development project.
“This is a forced development,” he explained, but said he knew where to place blame.
“I lay a lot of the blame on the former governing body for this,” he added.
“Had we moved ahead and certified with COAH, the Council On Affordable Housing, we would not be in the situation we are now,” Mease said flatly, adding it was the Democrat’s, led by Mayor Dan Aschenbach in 2005, who decided not move ahead with certification.
“Maybe it was because of the time and money it would have taken, but just because it’s hard work does not mean it shouldn’t be done,” Mease said, mentioning that at that time he was the only one in favor of going for certification.
“Birchwood is an abomination,” the former governing body member said, adding as an engineer he is aware that raising Birchwood Avenue a foot could bring more flooding to the area.
“If they raise the street and put a culvert under there, I believe, from my experience as an engineer, that it will cause flooding problems on Wadesworth and Casino Brook,” the candidate said.
Mease said if elected he would like to be the commissioner of engineering and department of public works. That was his charge previously, he said, and with his expertise, he will be able to stay on top of things.
“Both parties have acknowledged I have the expertise on flooding issues,” Mease added, pointing out that if elected, he will not take the salary committee members receive as Cranford elected officials.
But while Mease believes his three years on the governing body will allow him to hit the ground running, he also admitted things could be different on the inside.
“I can’t make a judgement from the outside,” he said, but noted that in order for the governing body to continue as they did in the past under Democrat control, is not acceptable.
“It’s like having one leg on the dock and one in the boat,” Mease said, adding “and that isn’t the way to do things.”
Specifically the Republican candidate mentioned the governing body seriously needed “to control our destiny more.”
Mease said after walking door-to-door he found residents were concerned about taxes, Birchwood, flood control and over development in the township.
The candidate said he is needed back on the township committee because he “tells it like it is, and doesn’t play favorites.”
He thinks all commissioners have the duty to listen respectfully to citizens, respect their opinions and make decisions based on all the input, not just a portion. Mease also believes the governing body needs to do a better job explaining their decisions to citizens.
Democrat Hannen also comes with experience under his belt, having served for 12 years on the Winfield Park governing body, three terms as mayor.
He believes his experience as an elected official, along with the fact he manages a staff of 30 as a successful co-owner of a manufacturing company in Linden and volunteer firefighter in Cranford since 1996, make him the best choice for township committee on election day.
Hannen also has served on the Flood Advisory Committee, Citizens Budget Advisory Committee and Finance Committee.
With a degree in political science from Rutgers, Hannen said he garnered considerable experience by working for the state speaker of the house, which prepared him for all facets of serving the public.
“I’m steeped in the political workings of local government, steeped in the business background required to do the job and do it the most efficient way,” Hannen said.
Hannen, who believes you can find humor in just about anything, discovered recently that going door-to-door talking to residents is not for the faint of heart.
Explaining a pit bull came running around the side of a house he was approaching, the candidate laughed at the luck he had even in the face of danger.
“It’s a good thing I had on my heavy boots, because that pit bull latched onto my foot and then after I pushed him off, he went for my back pocket. Thankfully all my campaign literature was there so I never felt a thing,” he said laughing jovially.
But Hannen quickly gets serious when the discussion turns to why he decided to run again this year, even though he lost his bid for a seat last year.
“I think my attitude is ‘give me the ball coach, put me in the game.’ I get pumped just thinking about what can be accomplished,” Hannen said.
The Democrat candidate, while stressing he is also very concerned about flooding issues in Cranford, is on board with Mease when it comes to the Birchwood project.
“There is no doubt the developer believes they will have an easier time going through a judge than getting a waiver from the DEP,” he said, adding that by by-passing the DEP, the developer avoids being turned down for the DEP waiver.
“I sat through five days of the Birchwood hearings in Elizabeth and could not believe what I heard,” Hannen said, pointing out that it did hold considerable weight that over 500 letters were sent by residents opposing the 380 apartments and parking garage.
But while Hannen and his opponent agree Birchwood is not right for Cranford, the Democratic candidate believes under a continuing Republican controlled leadership, the township is in for more of the same. For example, he said, the township did not have the proper legal representation for fighting this project and that is something he attributes directly to the Republican-controlled governing body, who made the decision.
Hannen also said he thinks the cost of building school infrastructure to support the children from Birchwood that will be attending school “is worth the fight” the township is going through right now.
When it comes to the other issues affecting the township, such as budget concerns and taxes, Hannen does not mince words.
“I’d like to take municipal government, turn it upside down and shake it,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like Scott, but his approach of taking the budget and going line item by line item is not what I would do,” said the candidate.
“What we need to do is what the township committee did two years ago when the Democrats were in control. They brought in each department head and talked about their budget, saw where cuts were needed and made them,” Hannen said, adding “that’s what you have to do in order to reduce expenditures.”
“I want to get back to the way things use to be. I’m familiar with the inner workings of the township,” he said, mentioning there is the old saying “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what your priorities are.”
“The problem with the township committee is they are reactionary, they do things after the fact,” Hannen said, adding he believes there are three main issues facing the township right now that have to be addressed.
These include the police chief position, administrator and Chief Financial Officer positions which have remained in flux for too long.
“For instance, at a recent meeting Mayor David Robinson was asked if the township made any decision when it came to the police chief and administrator positions and he said he was tired of people asking about it,” said an astonished Hannen.
“Well he may be tired of hearing about it, but we’re getting tired of asking about it and not getting an answer,” he shot back.
Hannen said the three issues should have been settled by now and the fact they have not is of concern.
“Just make the decision and let’s get on with all the other important issues that have to be addressed,” the candidate said.
Tonight Hannen and Mease will go head to head in a debate at 8 p.m.in town hall.