Freeholder candidates square off

Three incumbent Democrats and three Republican challengers take questions from the press

UNION COUNTY, NJ — In anticipation of the nearby November election, the Union County Freeholders candidate’s public debate offered an illuminating look at county politics on Wednesday, Sept. 30, when Republicans and Democrats made their case to voters, answered questions from the media and offered rebuttals to each other, largely on party lines.
The 90-minute debate, organized by the League of Women Voters and held at Cranford Town Hall, became divisive and heated as the night wore on, emphasizing the philosophical differences between the
“Column A” Republicans and “Column B” Democrats.

In their introductory statements, the three Republican challengers, including former attorney and Scotch Plains resident Richard Fortunato, delivered their platform plainly: Union County has suffered under a one-party, Democratic system for the past 20 years, and as a result, taxes are far too high.

Along with fellow first-time candidates Joseph Bonilla, a security professional from Union, and Rene Dierkes, a financial advisor living in Mountainside, Fortunato said that the Board of Chosen Freeholders needs more political diversity in its ranks.

“I’m not a politician, I’ve never run for public office before. But I stepped forward in this case, to run, because I think Union County could be a much better place, for my children and hopefully my grandchildren, to live in than it currently is,” said Fortunato. “There are a few things which concern me about the way the county is being run by the current Freeholder board. County taxes have increased dramatically since 2000, they’ve gone up by twice the rate of inflation in that period. Of the 3,100 counties in the United States, Union County is the seventh-most highly taxed county in the entire country.”

In their time campaigning door-to-door, the Republican candidates said, they’ve come face-to-face with a population that’s generally unhappy with county politics. All three Republicans honed in on Union County’s real estate taxes, which they believe are “out of control,” said Dierkes, forcing lower-income residents and senior citizens to move away.

Throughout the evening, Dierkes would hammer home the argument that “the Democratic machine has let spending get way out of control, and that spending has caused taxes to become astronomical,” bringing the issue up every time it was his turn to speak.

“They will tell you ‘look at all of the great things we’ve done for Union County,’ as you’ve so heard,” said Dierkes. “But I tell you, give me your credit card, and I’ll do great things also.”

Financially, the Freeholders don’t live within their means, according to the three challengers, and are racking up debt for the county. That would change with Republican representation, they said at the debate.

“We need to control county spending,” said Fortunato. “One-party rule is not good for the county, no matter what political party you belong to.”

On the other side of the aisle, though, a wildly different message was made by the Democratic incumbents, including current Chairman Mohamed Jalloh, a six-year member of the Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Elections have consistently swung in the favor of Democrats, said Jalloh, because that’s the party Union County residents identify with. And this year’s candidates, all of them veterans on the board, are poised to continue the good work that’s been done in recent years.

“This year, I’m proud to be part of a Freeholder team that has made key investments in education and economic developments all throughout the county,” said Jalloh, highlighting Rahway’s new Union County College campus, development of the College Readiness Now program, and county programs which have helped 500 residents find work. “When we work as a team, with our many different partners, there is strength. And great things can be achieved in Union County with that.”

Freeholder Vice Chairman Bruce Bergen, an attorney from Springfield in his third year of public office, and Alexander Mirabella, a Fanwood resident first elected in 1997, echoed Jalloh’s sentiments, saying the Board of Chosen Freeholders has made great strides in the programs and services that are offered to county residents.

The nine-member Board of Chosen Freeholders, according to Bergen, has helped improve the quality of life locally, is family and working class-oriented, and — in addition to education and economic development — has paid special attention to “rebuilding our infrastructure.” A good example of that, added Bergen, is the Infrastructure Grant Program, which granted $1.5 million to every municipality in the county for repairing roads.

Other projects the Democrats highlighted include initiatives to help seniors, such as the Senior Scholars program, countywide EMS and dispatch programs that save taxpayers’ money, prioritizing efforts to end flooding on Rahway River, and completing their shared goals while maintaining fiscal responsibility, as they have been doing for years now.

“Republicans are sure to criticize, but lack a plan,” said Mirabella. “And the ‘Column B’ Democratic Team has a plan, can put that plan into action and gets results.”

After each side introduced their platforms, the debate began in earnest as two members of the media, Patrick Bober of Localsource and Michael Shapiro of Tapinto.net, posed a variety of questions throughout the night.

The first question asked candidates if they supported the polarizing Rahway River Park proposal, a powder keg of an issue, and if not, asked what would they tell opposition of the project.

Bonilla had already denounced the proposal in his introduction, saying that its opponents had been “escorted out of meetings,” which is “the wrong way to do government.” When asked, specifically, about the unpopular proposal, Bonilla’s running-mates took the opportunity to roundly criticize the planned upgrade at Rahway River Park, which would cost county taxpayers $2.5 million if approved.

“What seems quite apparent to me is the Freeholder Board, while having good intentions – and maybe the park’s a good idea – but we have, as I understand it, 6,000 people who signed a petition against this project,” said Fortunato. “I don’t understand the rush, unless there’s a rush to spend money for some reason. So I would not go forward with the park at this point. I would wait and try to build some support with the residents in the area.”

The online petition, in fact, has nearly 5,000 signatures, not 6,000.
Each of the Republican candidates told the audience that they’d spent a lot of time in Rahway, and that every person they met “had concerns” with the Rahway River Park proposal, said Dierkes. On Tuesday, Sept. 15, hundreds of local residents showed their discontent at a public Department of Environmental Protection hearing at Rahway Public Library.

But the Democrats reaffirmed their belief in the stadium upgrade, and rejected the notion that they’d ever escorted opponents of the proposal out of meetings.

“We have not escorted anyone out of a meeting, that just isn’t true,” said Bergen. “I am for the Rahway River Park. I’ve been out there, I’ve looked at the site, this is an existing track and an existing football field which is being refurbished. It’s not going to increase the footprint into the Open Space of that park at all. I believe there have been some misstatements of fact that have become accepted as true, but they are not. If I believe for a moment that refurbishing this field and track would ruin that park, I would never support it.”

Those were sentiments shared by the two other Democrats, including Jalloh, who said that park refurbishments make Union County a desirable place for people looking to move there.

Stadium upgrades are also “not something brand new” to the county, according to Jalloh, as the Board of Chosen Freeholders has been upgrading other county parks, and “I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it in Rahway.” The proposal will improve the existing recreational space at Rahway River Park, said the Democrats, without violating the spirit of the park.

Bonilla criticized the Democrats’ response, though, arguing that they weren’t taking public opinion into consideration.
“From all of the comments here just now, I did not hear, at all, ‘we spoke to residents and took their concerns, or their issues, with this park,’” said Bonilla. “I love football, but I’m against the park because it’s just more spending, and more spending means increases in taxes.”

The following question was just as divisive as the first. Because the Board of Chosen Freeholders has been run by one-party rule for the past 20 years, a member of the media asked, should the county consider adopting the ward system of government, in which candidates are elected based on districts.

The challengers, representing a party which often has sizable support but never a majority in elections, agreed that there needs to be a Republican voice on the board, and that the ward system would accomplish that. Dierkes, in particular, called out the county’s one-party rule, comparing Union County to the capital of The People’s Republic of China.

“My wife was born in Beijing, China, which is a one-party rule country. And she came to this country when she was 26-years-old, and guess what, she’s back in a one-party county. Now, there’s some great things about having one party. You get things done very quickly. So when I’m in Beijing, it’s amazing to see how fast things go up,” said Dierkes. “But if you’re in Beijing and you want a breath of fresh air, you better be ready to drive 500 miles.”

The ward system, Republicans argued, would improve accurate representation in the county, while forcing the majority party to be held accountable for their actions. Fortunato said that one-party rule promotes partisanship, and Bonilla believes it leads to “closed-door meetings.”

But the Beijing comparison, and the accusation of closed-door meetings, drew the ire of the Democratic candidates, who were very familiar with the question. Changing systems would be like “taking the vote away from the people,” said Mirabella, while Jalloh added that we “can’t silent the urban areas in this county,” which are typically Democratic.

“Every time I get asked that question, I can’t help but feel a little offended,” said Jalloh. “If residents believe Democrats are consistent with their ideals, then they should be able to vote all Democrats.”

Adopting a new system of electing the board, said the Democrats, would not be in the interest of the voters. Bergen, for his part, pointed out the existing diversity among the elected Democrats, and offered a clear rebuttal to both Dierkes and Bonilla.
“The reason we don’t have districts is because that’s not how the law is set up. And in fact, if I’m correct, only two counties in New Jersey have districts as opposed to an elected authority. Clearly Mr. Bonilla has no idea how this government runs, because there are no decisions made in closed-door sessions. That’s illegal,” said Bergen. “I also would point out the Freeholder Board that sits up there now is diverse as to location of where they come from in the county, as to gender, as to religion, as to ethnicity, and we have a very diverse board that discusses issues and makes decisions based on what’s best for this county. To equate us to a communist government that is not elected, I find that very insulting.”

After the dust settled on the question of one-party rule, the candidates were asked if they are in favor of the one-seat ride to New York City. If so, the question went, what would they do to re-ignite the project?

All six of the candidates endorsed the one-seat ride, including the Democrats, who are “continuing to have conversations,” to make the dream a reality, said Jalloh. Union County is already a hub of transportation, and more convenient access to New York City would be great for regular commuters, added the candidates, which makes economic sense.

“Of course I would be in support of the one-seat ride,” said Dierkes. “Anything that makes life for the residents of Union County easier is a great idea.”

But while the candidates agreed they would apply pressure to make the one-seat ride a reality, “we have not had the leadership at the state level,” said Bergen. The cancellation of the rail tunnel project under the Hudson River, along with a lack of cooperation from the state and the governor, has diminished the likelihood of the one-seat ride, according to Bergen.

The following question, after being rephrased for clarity, asked candidates if they would support or encourage municipal ordinances which mandate paid sick leave, or similar social services, for both public and private employees. Nine cities in New Jersey have passed laws on mandatory paid sick leave, including Bloomfield of Essex County, and it’s been taken under consideration in Elizabeth.

Fortunata cautioned against forcing private businesses to act in certain ways. Most of the candidates, among them Bonilla and Bergen, were unsure if the county had the legal authority to effect such ordinances. Even if it did, they said, that was an issue best left to labor unions and other agencies.

“It’s an interesting intellectual question. From practical standpoints, I have my doubts as to whether that could be done. And I have to agree with Mr. Bonilla in so far as county employees, we have 23 labor unions representing our employees,” said Bergen. “The process by which we arrive at contracts is through contract negotiations, where those unions represent their employees, and we would have to go through that process to make a change.”

The candidates were then asked which services on the local level could be better done at the county level, and vice versa, a question which kindled a broad discussion about the services which Union County offers. Many of the county’s hundreds of services, according to Mirabella, are more efficient when run at the county level, including Union County’s successful EMS and dispatch programs.

“Our county has a vast array of shared services that we offer to our municipalities. Shared services, at one time, was thought to be between municipality and municipality. But I believe that the better way for shared services is for the county to offer a service to all of the municipalities,” said Bergen. “And in fact we have a booklet with hundreds of shared services that we offer to all of our municipalities, running the gamut.”

Republicans also said they would support county programs which save municipalities money, but that they’d try to lower the budget and cut costs, as well. There’s no reason that small, pocket parks can’t be operated at the local level, according to Fortunato, while Dierkes cited his experience in saving money at the Rahway Valley Sewer Authority board, where he helped lower the budget by $1 million while “still maintaining the same level of service,” he said.

For the penultimate question, candidates were asked about the history of unanimous votes made by the Board of Chosen Freeholders. In hindsight, the question posited, would Democrats change any votes that they’ve made? And do the Republicans strongly oppose any of the board’s uncontested votes?

As it turns out, the Republicans did have objections about the board’s history, among them the votes on the county budget and, once again, the Rahway River Park proposal.

“Taxes are high, spending is high, and we need to look at every angle of what the county is bringing in and also spending on. And with a budget of half a billion dollars, it’s ridiculous. I would have voted no for the Rahway Park. The Rahway citizens have spoken, they know their community better than any of us,” said Bonilla. “And the citizens are why we are here, we work for them.”

But the Democrats stood by their track records, saying that the board’s uncontested votes don’t represent a lack of discussion or dialogue.

“The fact that there’s a vote of 9-0 doesn’t mean there hasn’t been discussion. Every resolution that comes onto our agenda is discussed by the Freeholder board in an agenda-setting session,” said Bergen. “We have an opportunity to ask our department heads questions about each of those resolutions, and it’s certainly not unheard of for a resolution to be pulled from the agenda.”

For the final minutes of the debate, the candidates were asked why they should be elected, and then had a chance to make one last case for themselves in their closing statements. Both Republicans and Democrats reaffirmed the points they’d been making all night, and each argued that they represented the party with the people’s best interests at heart.

The Democrats, for example, pointed to their history of repairing local infrastructure, providing social services and sparking economic development, not just for segments of the population but for everyone in Union County.

“There’s a great difference between what Democrats and Republicans can believe. Just look at the rhetoric on the national level. We, as Democrats, believe investing in our infrastructure is a necessity. We believe that a quality education for our children is a priority, and we also believe that maintaining the safety net for our most vulnerable residents is a must,” said Jalloh. “We have a track record of success in those areas.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, voiced their grievances with the current set-up, one last time. There are problems in Union County, they argued, and in order to solve those, and to bring trust back to county government, there needs to be a Republican on the Board of Chosen Freeholders.

“There is room for improvement in Union County. Parts of the county have significantly higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state, we have an 11.1 percent poverty rate in this county, we have the seventh-highest real estate taxes in this country. On the other hand, we have a dynamic population. We have great, hard-working, family-oriented people,” said Fortunato. “We have a lot going for us. But we’re not taking advantage of that. For over 20 years, the Democratic county government has, seemingly, been more interested in politics and partisanship, and the political issues of campaign contributors, than what’s good for the county and the people of the county. That needs to end.”

y, and we also believe that maintaining the safety net for our most vulnerable residents is a must,” said Jalloh. “We have a track record of success in those areas.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, voiced their grievances with the current set-up, one last time. There are problems in Union County, they argued, and in order to solve those, and to bring trust back to county government, there needs to be a Republican on the Board of Chosen Freeholders.

“There is room for improvement in Union County. Parts of the county have significantly higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state, we have an 11.1 percent poverty rate in this county, we have the seventh-highest real estate taxes in this country. On the other hand, we have a dynamic population. We have great, hard-working, family-oriented people,” said Fortunato. “We have a lot going for us. But we’re not taking advantage of that. For over 20 years, the Democratic county government has, seemingly, been more interested in politics and partisanship, and the political issues of campaign contributors, than what’s good for the county and the people of the county. That needs to end.”

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