SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Candidates for Township Committee were forced away from local issues at an Oct. 22 candidates’ forum, answering questions on national matters instead of the more usual local topics of budgets and taxes.
Republican incumbent Maria Vassallo and running mate Jerry Fernandez faced off against Democratic challengers Chris Weber and Alex Keiser, each with three minutes to introduce themselves before a moderator asked questions from the audience. Each candidate had one minute to answer or rebut.
One of the first questions dealt with whether the Township Committee election should become nonpartisan, a suggestion rejected by Weber, who endorsed the party labels.
“I think that they do help identify us,” Weber stated.
Fernandez, who is vying for his third term on the committee, strongly disagreed.
“We are living in a political climate that is much different than I remember ever,” he stated in his rebuttal. “I think that when we bring it to this level, we are just dividing ourselves.”
Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on council with both Republican seats up for grabs this year.
The debate, sponsored by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, later delved into U.S. immigration policy and the separation of Mexican children from their parents at the border.
Fernandez responded by questioning the relevance of the issue in a debate about local government.
“On a local level, I don’t think we need the parties,” he responded. “We’re being chosen to represent Springfield and the concerns in this town. … We have to fix a lot of things and we have to work together to do it. Democrats, Republicans, independents and everyone else — we all need to work together or we go nowhere.”
In his rebuttal, Keiser mentioned that Fernandez is the chairman of the local Republican party.
“You’re right, it’s a national issue. But your voice does matter as an elected official. And if you stand idly by and support what your national party is doing, well that’s a disgrace,” he said.
Keiser went on to call Fernandez a hypocrite. “What bothered me there is that he questioned my leadership,” Fernandez stated in a phone interview on Friday, Oct. 26. “I have helped lead Springfield out of Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene and when I went and helped those people, no one asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican.”
Vassallo, who’s running with Fernandez on a platform that focuses on redevelopment, said that some important issues weren’t address at the forum.
“It was unfortunate that we couldn’t touch upon more issues that I know the township of Springfield is facing, Vassallo said in a phone interview on Friday, Oct. 26. “We didn’t touch upon flooding, taxes or much redevelopment and I think those are important issues.”
Weber, who is running with Keiser on a platform that focuses on communication, echoed his challenger’s feelings.
“I believe that the forum could’ve had a few more questions, and it seemed to be cut a little short,” he said in a phone interview on Friday, Oct. 26. “I would’ve liked to talk more about recreation programs and shared services.”
Of the 14 questions asked, one touched upon whether a township committee made up of solely one party would be detrimental to Springfield.
“We’re all individual thinkers. My life experiences are way different than Alex’s,” Weber said. “I’m not afraid to agree with a Republican and I’m not afraid to disagree with a Democrat. I just want what is being done to be the best for what my town needs.”
“I wouldn’t want to see a 5-0 majority in any party,” he said. “Unfortunately, an independent is very difficult to win. So, until we change the form of government, you have to run in a party.”
Fernandez and Vassallo, who have both been involved with the township’s business improvement district, believe that downtown redevelopment is where the town should be headed.
“I find that it’s a major thorn in residents’ sides … they always ask what’s going on with the downtown,” Vassallo told LocalSource. “Jerry and I bring experience to the town in regards to redevelopment.”
Fernandez said that becomes when dealing with the township’s budget.
“Another part of our platform is being fiscally responsible,” Fernandez told LocalSource. “We need to develop our town by doing more with less so we don’t increase the budget.”
Weber, a retired police officer who now works in real estate, and Keiser, a lifelong Springfield resident who works for the New Jersey State Legislature, believe that communication between township officials and the public needs major improvement.
“Communication is probably one of the biggest things for us because you can go on the township’s website right now and not be able to get updated minutes to meetings,” Keiser said in an Oct. 25 phone interview. “There are different things that we can do to reach a broader audience by using social media and a print newsletter for our seniors.”
Weber agreed that the township has struggled to reach all residents.
“We need communication and we need to reach everybody,” he told LocalSource. “Like I mentioned in the debate, I think it’s important for the town to have a public information officer.”