The United Homeowners of Fort Lee sponsored a debate Wednesday evening at Lewis F. Cole Middle School, during which the four candidates running for three seats on the Fort Lee Board of Education discussed their motivation for running and took questions from United Homeowners members and members of the dozens of people in the audience.
Incumbent John Bang, and challengers Holly Morell, Esther Han Silver and David Sarnoff squared off on the school budget, overcrowding in Fort Lee schools, the spending of Fort Lee taxpayers’ money and the way the school board awards contracts, among other issues.
But it was Sarnoff who came out swinging, questioning Bang’s record on the board seemingly every chance he got and calling the only incumbent running for reelection out for trying to get him disqualified from running on a what he later referred to as a “technicality.”
Bang however—like Sarnoff, an attorney—said he was just doing what any lawyer would do: trying to dismiss a motion.
Sarnoff saved the bombshell for his closing remarks, when he used more than half of his allotted time to explain how over the summer, he received a letter from the Bergen County Clerk saying his petition to run for the board had been challenged based on some of the signatures he had gathered.
“There was the potential that I would be disqualified from the ballot, and this challenge was filed by Mr. John Bang,” Sarnoff said, adding that by chance, he had bumped into Bang the day before the debate and said his opponent told him it was a common occurrence and that it was “nothing personal.”
“I don’t take it personally,” Sarnoff said, addressing his comments to Bang. “I’ll put my experience, character and integrity up against yours and let the voters decide any day of the week. No matter how much I would ever disagree with you, I would never go to the lengths to try to disqualify you from the ballot.”
Sarnoff contended, in fact, that it wasn’t a common occurrence, as Bang had suggested during their conversation.
“Of the candidates here tonight, I was the only one who was challenged,” Sarnoff said. “I asked the clerk supervisor of elections in Hackensack how many petitions in Bergen County were challenged.”
The answer he got, he said, was “zero.”
He added, “So it’s not about me; it’s about the people who signed my petition and them having a democratic, constitutional right to nominate who they want to run for the Board of Education.”
Sarnoff went on to enumerate, by name, the people whose signatures Bang had challenged, saying a few personal words about the integrity of each of them.
According to Sarnoff, Bang even challenged Sarnoff’s wife’s signature, something he took particular issue with.
“Mr. Bang challenged her signature as to whether or not she can vote for her husband to put him on the Board of Education ballot,” he said. “I believe you owe them a public apology, and I would appreciate that, Mr. Bang.”
Bang, who happened to be up next for closing remarks, did not apologize, telling Sarnoff only, “When you told me you didn’t take it personally yesterday, your were kind of exaggerating,” and going on to say all four of the candidates were running with the same motivation and passion: to serve the children in the school system—Bang and Sarnoff both have kids in the Fort Lee school system, as do Morell and Silver—and that they all have similar positions on the issues.
Speaking to reporters and some members of the public after the debate, Bang tried to explain his motivation for attempting to get Sarnoff disqualified from the ballot, saying, “Maybe it’s just my mind frame from being an attorney.”
“Being an attorney, my first job is if somebody files a motion, I move to dismiss,” he said. “It’s just an automatic reaction.”
He couldn’t say if there was something specific about Sarnoff’s application that compelled him to file the challenge, but he did say, “It is a competition.”
“I’m not saying this is absolutely wrong; I’m just saying there’s a question here,” Bang said. “And if there’s a question, I would like the [election authorities] to look at it.”
Bang added, “One of my running mates dropped out at the last minute; maybe it was a mistake.”
Bang was referring to Steve Byoun, who , whose petition he admitted he also challenged.
Bang also said it was certainly not the first time there’s been a challenge for someone’s petition for the school board, but that perhaps it was the first time the Bergen County Clerk had seen one, since school board elections were moved to November.
“It might have been a technical thing, like it wasn’t notarized right,” Bang said. “To tell you the truth, for me, it was just one of the procedural things that you do.”
He added, “I assumed people were challenging me as well.”
Asked if he was simply trying to eliminate some of his competition, Bang said, “It’s not about that, but if they make it easy for you why shouldn’t you take it?”
“And if [it doesn’t work], you go on,” he added. “It really wasn’t personal.”
On the morning after the debate, Sarnoff said Bang challenged seven signatures on one of his petitions, but that he actually filed two petitions, something he wasn’t sure Bang knew.
“In order to be on the ballot, you need 10 valid signatures of Fort Lee residents who are registered voters,” Sarnoff said. “And when I announced that I was initially running in the beginning of the year, I filed a petition with the Fort Lee Board of Education.”
When the election was moved to November, Sarnoff said he was told that his petition would be forwarded to the county. But he was also “advised” to “play it safe since the county was relatively new to handling Board of Ed. elections” and file a second petition.
“You’re allowed to do [that], so I had over 20 signatures,” Sarnoff said. “So Mr. Bang went to the county on the last day that you can challenge and apparently pulled one petition and saw 12 names and presumably thought if he knocked off three, he would get me off the ballot.”
Sarnoff called the move a “complete waste of the county's resources.”
Wednesday’s debate also featured substantive dialogue on a number of issues, and although the four candidates often expressed similar opinions, as Bang pointed out, some specific suggestions were offered by each of them.
Patch will therefore take a closer look at the debate, breaking down some of these issues, in a subsequent article.
The debate will be televised on cable television, although United Homeowners president Diane Sicheri couldn’t provide a specific airdate Wednesday.
Editor's note: In a previous version of this story, David Sarnoff was misquoted and at no time accused John Bang of any wrongdoing.
The Fort Lee Council candidates’ debate, which was also sponsored by the United Homeowners, will air Thursday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Cable channel 81 and on FiOS channel 34.