Who is your candidate and what does he do?

Reporter’s Notebook

By Cheryl Hehl

As the election draws closer and voters throughout the county prepare to cast their ballots for candidates running for vacant seats, there is one burning question on my mind: Who are these guys anyway?

While I hate to reduce any election to the level it appears to be getting at, which is pretty low, here in Union County it not only appears no one knows who the challenging candidates are, but the candidates don’t seem to know who their running mates are either. I know, that seems hard to be believe. But sometimes the truth is hard to swallow.

I’m not sure exactly what is going on but   candidate apathy would be too mild a word to use when discussing the 2012 local and county elections. In fact, I would go as far as to say that to vote in an election where no one really knows who the candidates are would be a waste of time and energy.

Usually a presidential election brings voters out of the woodwork and it probably will again this year. People who never move off their couch will likely manage to drag themselves down to their local polling place and vote for their presidential hopeful. Along with that comes the local candidates running for both governing body and the board of education.

I’m not about to start analyzing who should be the next president. I’ll leave that to all those political analysts on television who have their work cut out for them trying to figure out what is going on at the national level.

But, when it comes to local and county  candidates, that is where I’m supposed  to shine, if I knew who the heck these guys were. Truthfully, I have never seen a year where there are so many unknown candidates. Not only are we not getting information from challengers, but it appears there are not even many flyers floating around out there letting voters know who these candidates are and where they stand on the issues.

Now granted, in most towns candidates do go door-to-door introducing themselves and asking residents what issues are on their mind. But this aspect was just a part of the scenario.

The way political season used to operate has become something of a dinosaur. In the old days, which was only a few years ago, candidates would get their name out there in September and by election day reporters knew more about these candidates and their platforms than they should. In fact, some candidates made such a pest of themselves, reporters have been known to run the opposite way when they saw them coming. But those were the old days.

Then, right when things were really heating up and political mailers were stuffed in every resident’s mailbox, the annual forum or debate would take place in most town halls. That is when it came time to fish or cut bait. Candidates sparred with one another over major and minor issues, and in the end voters had a pretty clear idea who would best serve their interests. Well, the few who showed up, anyway. Not this year.

The most troubling aspect of these local election is the lack of forums or debates that normally take place. For some towns, such as Cranford and Union, it was business as usual. Debates were scheduled and while the format sometimes does not allow for real arguments, it does provide a bird’s eye view of candidates and their platforms. But in other towns there was only silence when we inquired about a debate. No one seemed to know and actually, no one really seemed to care.

Couple this with the fact this is the first year voters will also be selecting board of education candidates and the entire voting process comes down to guessing. That, my friends, is not the way the election process was intended to be.

No doubt about it, something is very strange this year. Our phones should have started ringing right after labor day but except for a random call from an independent candidate, nothing. Nada. Zip.

I actually had a hard time finding out who the incumbents were, let alone their challengers.

What it amounts to is an exercise in frustration because no one, except Elizabeth, actually has a live person answering their main number. So, after listening to what has to be the slowest recorded voice in history in every town, I finally reached the township clerks, but was met with another recording in the majority of towns.

At that point I didn’t really care who was running, I just wanted someone, anyone, to pick up the phone and respond to me the way people are supposed to when you make a telephone call. No such luck.

After leaving a succession of messages, I did receive several calls back, except in one instance where I had to continue to call until I was told by one township clerk that she was unable to give me that  information  over the phone. Now get this, she told me, I had to put in a OPRA request, or Open Public Records request, for the information. Are you kidding me?

Since when does asking who is running in a municipal election require an OPRA request? Here is the answer: never. Not now, not ever.

Seems to me that if a township clerk is concerned about the information they are relaying to the public, they might want to bone up on how to do their job in a productive manner. The OPRA law is not a means to get around personal productivity. It is not a defense mechanism to protect the stereotypical lazy government employee. A municipal employee should be aware their job is to respond to the public when they are seeking information. After all, taxpayers do pay their salaries, right?

Regardless how many problems a municipality may have had with lawsuits, every township clerk should know who is running in their municipal election. Especially because they preside over local elections and are responsible for seeing everything goes smoothly.

So after two frustrating days of making calls, I found out the county posted actual sample election ballots online with all the information I needed. Finally, a break.

But that did nothing to help me figure out who the heck these candidates were or why they decided to run. Oh, I eventually found out who the incumbents were, but who the heck were the rest of these guys? That, my friends, is anyone’s guess. And I hope you take the time to find out anyway you can.

Meanwhile, I still have not received information from the majority of candidates running for a seat this year. I did have several interesting and thorough interviews with candidates in Clark and Cranford and those articles appeared in this newspaper within the last few weeks. As for the rest, well, you lost an opportunity to have your voice heard.

I did get to talk to longtime freeholder Al Mirabella last week, who is running for reelection this year. I asked why there was no freeholder debate this year and he was as perplexed as I was about the situation. Sadly, this is the first year residents will not get to see who the freeholder incumbents and challengers are, let alone discover who deserves their vote.

Mirabella also admitted he didn’t know anything about his challengers, which was very unusual. Add that to my dismay because I have not received one press release or information regarding the three freeholder Republican challengers. I have no idea who they are or what they stand for and that means voters out there are equally in the dark. Whoever was charged with handling that campaign must be asleep.

So where does that leave us, the voters? Do we just head to the polls, pull any lever and hope for the best, or not vote for anyone who failed to knock on our doors or get their information out?

The old adage “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t” may end up being the battle cry this year at the polls. If it is, then no challenger should complain because, personally, I wouldn’t vote for someone I don’t know about. Democrat, Republican or independent. Would you? I certainly hope not.