Garretson is not mentioned, yet looms over Hillside mayoral debate

Photo by Rebecca Panico
From left are Hillside mayoral candidates Jorge Batista, Salonia Saxton, Dahlia Vertreese and Sip Whitaker at a recent candidates forum.

HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson was not mentioned by name among those vying to replace her, yet she loomed large at the mayoral candidates debate at Abraham P. Morris Early Childhood Center on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

“We have to stop hiring people at top salaries, crony political appointments, hiring people who don’t deserve their jobs because they’re not doing it effectively,” Dahlia Vertreese, one of the four candidates for mayor, said at the forum. “And ending the culture of pulling the trigger on lawsuits just because you don’t get your way,” she added.

Vertreese has the backing of the Hillside Democratic Committee against Salonia Saxton, Jorge Batista and current Councilman At-Large Sip Whitaker. All four are each running with three town council candidates in the township’s non-partisan election. Garretson, the current mayor, is being backed by the Union County Democratic Committee for a seat on the Board of Chosen Freeholders. She recently appointed Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss as supervisor in the Hillside Public Works Department. He resigned about two weeks after his appointment in September.

Last year, Garretson appointed Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren as coordinator for the Hillside Urban Economic Zone. He resigned this year, too. Hillside has also faced a number of lawsuits from township employees during Garretson’s tenure as mayor. This year it paid a $60,000 settlement to former Public Works Director Tharien Arnold, who claimed his salary had been unlawfully changed. The Oct. 25 debate was organized by the League of Women Voters, which took handwritten questions from the audience for the candidates. When asked how each candidate would “boost” morale of town employees, Batista spoke of “respecting the civil service rules.” But he declined to comment when asked if he was referring to one of the lawsuits filed by Hillside Police Capt. Nicola Lomonte, who allegedly scored No. 1 on the civil service exam for police chief. Garretson appointed Vincent Ricciardi as top commanding officer, although he reportedly scored second on the exam.

“We have to start respecting the civil service rules,” said Batista, a former Hillside councilman who has previously made bids for mayor and state Assembly. “Just because you like someone doesn’t mean you can pass over a guy who’s in line for the job.”

Lomonte claims he was denied promotion because he had a contentious relationship with Garretson. Civil Service Commission rules state an appointing authority can make an appointment from the list of eligible candidates who have passed the test if there are fewer than three.
Other questioners asked how each candidate would maintain property taxes. The 2016 rate for a home assessed at $150,000 was about 7.56 percent for an annual bill of $11,340, according to county data. All the candidates said the tax base could be increased by bringing in more businesses. To do that, the town would need to redevelop property to become more attractive.

Among the properties discussed for redevelopment were the former Bristol-Myers Squibb property on Liberty Avenue. Saxton, a former councilwoman, said tests must be conducted at the property to determine whether there is any contamination at the site, adding that a “myth” of contamination is, “scaring the developers from purchasing that property.”

Whitaker said he has been trying to get a business to buy a property on Central Avenue that also has contamination issues, and said he has received pushback from council members about trying to attract the business to Hillside.

Batista said he hasn’t seen any environmental reports and didn’t want to discuss whether the property is “contaminated or not” at the Bristol-Myers site.

“We can find something to do with this place,” he said. “If it’s contaminated, let’s throw a slab of concrete on that thing and use it. Let’s build a school there. Let’s put apartments there. Let’s do something great.”

The likelihood of an election runoff is high with four candidates and one needing more than 50 percent to win. Garretson required a runoff in 2013 to defeat incumbent Joseph Menza, who needed a runoff in 2009 to win his seat.
There are currently 12 candidates running for three vacant at-large Hillside Municipal Council seats.

Saxton is running with at-large council candidates Diane Murray, George Tony Alston, Jr. and Marjorie Hargrave; Vertreese is running with at-large candidates George Cook III, Nancy Mondella and Craig Epps; and Whitaker is running with at-large candidates Arthur Kobitz, Tameka Burwell and Antoinette Tuddles.

Two of Batista’s at-large candidates on his ticket, Nagy Sileem and Joseph Brown did not attend the town council debates earlier in the evening on Oct. 25. Joshua Greenblatt, another at-large candidate on Batista’s ticket did attend.