Candidates for Local Office Square Off On Issues For First Time
Part I in a series looking at how the candidates running for local office in November stand on the various issues
The United Homeowners of Fort Lee’s debate-style “candidates night” at Lewis F. Cole Middle School Tuesday evening provided a first chance for local voters to learn where the six candidates for municipal office—two running for mayor and four running for the two open seats on the Borough Council—stand on the major issues facing the borough.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Sokolich and fellow Democrats, incumbent Council members Armand Pohan and Michael J. Sargenti, squared off against Republican challengers Judith Fisher, who’s running against Sokolich in November, and Council candidates Martha Cohen and Alfred V. Norton.
The Democratic incumbents made it clear from the outset that they’re running on their record, emphasizing successes during their terms in office, and chided their opponents for being short on specifics when it comes to solving the borough’s problems and dealing with its various challenges. The Republicans hammered home a message of change, fiscal responsibility, reduced spending and bond debt and the need to move away from what Norton referred to as a “legacy administration” and what Cohen called an “entrenched machine.”
Moderator Alex Floratos of the United Homeowners gave candidates three minutes to make their opening remarks followed by two minutes each to respond. The candidates were then given two minutes apiece to field questions submitted by United Homeowners members and another two minutes to answer audience questions directed either at a specific candidate or candidates or all six. The forum culminated with a three-minute final statement from each candidate.
Today Patch takes a look at what the candidates chose to say about themselves and highlight in their prepared remarks. We’ll take a closer look at how they tackled specific questions in a subsequent article or series of articles.
Sokolich, who said that “it feels like only yesterday” that he became mayor, although it was, in fact, nearly four years ago. He said he pledged then that he would “work as hard at this job as I possibly could.”
“And I will tell you that we have,” Sokolich said.
Sokolich went on to enumerate some of his administration’s accomplishments, including implementing a hiring freeze and reducing the borough’s workforce by 15 percent through attrition; cutting bond debt “by more than $20 million;” introducing “innovative, income-producing programs such as the ambulance co-pay program, which has “generated upwards of $1 million;” continuing to maintain “amongst the best emergency services” in Bergen County during tough economic times; and increasing the municipal tax rate by less than one percent, “0.89 to be exact—the lowest in over 21 years.”
“It could have been easy, and the approach four years ago simply could have been to cut all programs at the community center, reduce the fire department, reduce the police department, and then deplete the quality of life that’s offered here in Fort Lee,” Sokolich said. “Instead, we found a way to be fiscally prudent and continued to provide a way of life that Fort Lee residents have grown accustomed to—whether that’s the senior center, whether that’s the community center, whether that’s dialing 9-1-1 and having emergency services at your door within seconds with state-of-the-art equipment. Whatever the pros and cons may be, this all has culminated in Money Magazine ranking Fort Lee among the top five communities in the country to retire to for communities our size, and we’re very, very proud of that.”
Fisher touted her experience “running a state agency that earned over $11 million this year,” the DMV in Lodi.
“When I took this agency over from my Democratic predecessor, it was infamous for inefficiency and bad customer service,” Fisher said. “And while we’re still making improvements, we’ve been able to increase productivity, cut way back on customer complaints and boost revenue using the exact same resources and without cost increases--tackling and succeeding at what was widely believed to be one of the most difficult management positions in the state.”
She said that in Fort Lee she sees three significant problems: declining quality of life, in which “Fort Lee has gone from a stately suburban town to an over-developed one with ever-increasing overcrowding, traffic and crime;” schools “that fail to meet the educational needs of our children;” and “inefficient and opaque government that charges us more and more for fewer and fewer services.”
“These were the problems the last time I ran, and they are still our problems today,” Fisher said. “Time passes; nothing changes. Last time I sat down to debate for the mayoral election, the big issue was the then Centuria project. Now it’s Redevelopment Area 5, and it remains an issue. While the current administration has spent your tax dollars to study, litigate and promise changes, still the property remains fallow. Despite significant investment of our resources, they have been unable to bring the changes they promised to champion. The mayor then promised that if the property was underdeveloped in 2011, he would not run for re-election, yet here he sits. Their party touts the importance of social services, and at the same time, their spending habits drive hard-working people onto the rolls of public assistance. Instead of paving the way for local business to expand and create jobs, this administration has driven business out of our borough. It continues to increase taxes, fees and spending. My focus as your mayor will be to increase private employment locally, reduce public spending and taxes and improve the quality of life for all the residents of our Borough of Fort Lee.”
Pohan said that in spite of “the worst economic conditions in the country since the Great Depression, the Democratic Mayor and Council here in Fort Lee have stayed the course, tightly controlling municipal costs with no real decrease in municipal services.”
Pohan also highlighted the borough’s hiring freeze.
“Today there are 44 fewer employees in the borough than there were in 2007, a 15 percent reduction.”
He also touted the governing body’s successful negotiations of collective bargaining agreements with “our blue and white collar employees, providing for net cost increases of less than two percent per year.”
“And we have staunchly resisted the demands of the police union to exceed those levels,” Pohan said. “We have reduced the authorized debt of the borough over the past four years by $20 million. This year, we have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to re-finance $15 million of existing bond debt.”
He also said, “The annual increases in the municipal portion of the borough’s tax levy has been less than two-and-a-half percent per year over the past three years, and less than one percent in the current year.”
Despite increased state pension costs and county costs, “over which we have no control,” Pohan said the Mayor and Council have maintained existing services and taken “numerous steps to improve the quality of life here in town.”
“We have implemented a state-of-the-art communications system for all of our emergency services,” Pohan said. “Our parks are in immaculate condition. Our cultural and recreation programs are growing and are the most extensive in Bergen County. We have created the Sign and Façade Review Committee, which is slowly transforming the commercial face of this town. We continue to support green initiatives to reduce energy costs and protect the environment.”
Pohan concluded with Redevelopment Area 5, which he said remains on track, with the governing body having “conducted arduous negotiations to create a downtown area of which we all can be proud. We have accomplished this as a team—a team with a great leader and which deliberates but does not engage in partisan bickering.”
Cohen pointed out that when she ran for Borough Council last year, she received 44 percent of the vote in spite of being outspent by her opponents “at least 12-1.”
“I thought that this competitive race by an unknown would make the council more responsive to our needs and lead to a re-birth of our town,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In fact, since last year, things have gotten even worse.”
She said there are more empty stores, higher taxes and fees, increased bonding and that Redevelopment Area 5 “remains in limbo.”
“Our council is asleep at the wheel while Fort Lee is dying,” she said. “It hurts me, and I know it hurts you.”
Cohen said she wasn’t going to run again, given the time, energy and “fortitude” it takes to do so, and especially “when you’re up against an entrenched machine where my opponents are running for their fourth term, and I’m a working mom.”
She also criticized the Mayor and Council for increasing their salaries by a total of $17,000 without explanation, and questioned whether they could have “seriously vetted an almost $68 million budget.”
“They bonded millions and had an ‘emergency appropriation’ to pay for almost $2 million in compensate absence liability, which would have raised the budget considerably,” Cohen said. “In addition, there was almost $2 million in salary savings coming from police retirements, and still your taxes went up. Not only can’t the current council members solve our borough’s problems, they also lack the motivation, the vision and drive to do so. Last year I suggested many things, including a free shuttle from the George Washington Bridge to the A Train for our residents, and they snickered. But it’s even more important now that we’re dealing with these outrageous tolls. Ask yourself: where was the council months before the Port Authority was considering a hike? It wasn’t a secret that they were considering it. Why didn’t they demand an audit then instead of joining the parade after the fact?”
Sargenti took a more personal approach initially; focusing on his family and involvement in the community over the 31 years he’s been a resident of the borough—especially as a coach of various youth sports.
“I have watched the children of Fort Lee grow and become active in our community,” Sargenti said. “Some now serve as coaches. Others have become business owners and police officers. I can’t express how proud I am to see the transformation in these people.”
He pointed out that he’s served as council liaison to the police, fire and recreation departments and to the school board, and echoed Sokolich and Pohan in highlighting the governing body’s accomplishments, including reducing bond debt and maintaining “superior services for the residents,” such as construction of the community center, which he said, “offers numerous daily programs for all our residents.”
“Our police department is second to none,” Sargenti said. “Our first responders are in a class of their own. We recently recognized them all at the 9/11memorial dedication. And now we are in the process of developing Redevelopment Area 5. I take great pride in the accomplishments of our governing body. It has always been my nature to be part of the community in which I reside. Now having served on the council, I proudly state that the community is part of me. I serve on the council as your friend and neighbor. And many will attest, if someone has a need, I am, and we are, always available to lend a helping hand to the community.”
Norton took a softer approach than his running mates when it came to being critical of the incumbents, first thanking the Mayor and Council for “all the hard work” they’ve done.
The 15-year resident of the borough said he’s running primarily for three reasons.
“By stating these reasons, I’m not casting blame or laying blame at anyone’s doorstep,” Norton said.
But, he said, there are “issues within Fort Lee that need to be examined.”
“Since 1995, I have not seen a betterment in either the business, visual or aesthetic footprint of Fort Lee,” Norton said. “Walking down the streets, we continue to see excess traffic, lack of pedestrian traffic, storefronts out of business and the highly-touted Redevelopment zone five, which is nowhere.”
He said the second reason he’s running is “property taxes,” which he said have increased by an annual average of 6.2 percent over the past 10 years and called “unacceptable.”
Norton said his third reason for running is “the Port Authority.”
“And I will leave it at that since it is the 800-pound gorilla in Fort Lee,” he said. “I commend the council and the mayor for opposing the toll hikes. I support a bipartisan committee and wish the audit that is supposed to take place in 90 days to be distributed and reviewed in a timely fashion—not distributed at five o’clock on New Year’s Eve.”
Stay tuned to Patch for continued coverage of the Mayor and Council race and for more from Tuesday’s debate.
The complete debate will be broadcast on Time Warner Cable channel 81 on Oct. 27 and 29 at 8 p.m.