Democrats maintain stronghold on Freeholder board; late tally of absentee ballots changes outcome in several local elections

By Cheryl Hehl, Staff Writer

UNION COUNTY — Although the Democrat incumbents easily managed to maintain the stronghold that the party has had on the freeholder board for the last 16 years, there were upsets at the local level that could result in political power shifts, while a referendum proved just where taxpayers stand on the issue of secession.

It was an easy sweep for Democrat incumbent freeholders Linda Carter, Bette Jean Kowalski and Sergio Granados who soared ahead of their Republican challengers Marc Krauss, Mark Martini and Ira Geiger by literally thousands of votes. This put to rest the theory that Republican candidates on the local level would ride in on Gov. Chris Christie’s coat tails.

It was a rough night politically for Hillside Mayor Joe Menza who hoped voters would re-elect him easily, but that did not happen. In fact, while there initially was a tightly contested three-way race between Menza, Angela Garretson and Jorge Batista on election night, it ended when the absentee ballots were counted Wednesday by the Union County Board of Elections.

According to the official tally from Board of Elections Administrator Dennis Kobitz, Garretson’s final tally was 1,654 votes and Menza 1,436. Bastista, who had 1,396 votes, is out because he was the lowest vote getter. Throwing a wrench in the election process is Hillside has a rule that a mayoral candidate must win a minimum of 50 percent of the vote in order to be declared a winner.

Because of this rule, a special runoff election has been scheduled on Dec. 3 to resolve whether Menza or Garretson will win the mayors seat.

Menza was not daunted by the likelihood of a run-off election, pointing out this was just a repeat of four years ago when he went through the same thing in order to be declared mayor.

In Cranford, where political power can shift back and forth every year, newcomer Republican candidates Mary O’Connor, who received 4,008 votes and Robert D’Ambola, with 3,799 votes, pushed out Democrat incumbent Kevin Campbell, with 3,562 and newcomer Kelly Howard, who received 3,447 votes.

Although political power shifts in Cranford is par for the course, the change left Democrat Tom Hannen political odd man out on the governing body. Hannen, who is mayor this year, faces new challenges in January when political balance radically shifts to the Republicans 4 to 1.

When the two new Republican candidates are sworn in January they will join fellow party members Andy Kalnins and Lisa Adubato, making the governing body a four to one majority in their favor. According to one source, the Republican majority already decided Kalnins will be mayor.

How this fares for the township could bring significant changes in 2014, especially when it comes to changing the form of government, an issue that resurfaced this year and was nixed by Hannen.

In Springfield things were up in the air as to which way political control would shift, and while it appeared the Republican’s would take back control from the Democrats, when the absentee ballots were counted, that did not happen.

On election night it appeared that since Republican Jerry Fernandez was the top vote getter with 2,287 votes and his running mate Republican challenger Diane Stampoulos had 2,035 votes, the two would join fellow Republican Ziad Shehady on the Township Committee and take back control from the Democrats.

But when the absentee votes were tabulated, Huber’s official vote went up to 2,180, while Stampoulos came in third with a final tally of 2,144, or a 36 vote difference. This kept power on the governing body with the Democrats, who have maintained political control on the governing body for the last few years.

David Amlen, who is mayor this year, only received 1,954 votes, which means he is off the Township Committee as of Jan. 1.

Huber joins fellow Democrat governing body members David Barnett and Margaret Bandrowski while Fernandez will join fellow Republican Shehady.

Meanwhile in Berkeley Heights voters gave their approval 2,451 to 1,098 to secede from Union County to Morris County. While that is just one of the first steps in the long process involved with secession, it was a clear sign that residents are in favor of the move.

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