By Amy Batista, Special Writer
HIGHTSTOWN – Exchanges among the four candidates running for borough council at a public forum Oct. 22 became so contentious at times that the League of Women Voters moderator expressed discomfort with the proceedings.
Throughout the forum, the candidates – Democrat Susan Bluth, incumbent Democrat Seth Kurs, former Republican councilwoman Lynne Woods and Republican Douglas Mair – were asked by the moderator to not talk about or “attack” other candidates directly during their responses.
At times, candidates were stopped during their comments when they started talking about the other candidates during the LVW-sponsored event.
“I have never had a forum where this has happened,” said Karen Siracusa, a LWV-trained moderator from West Windsor Township, who asked questions from the League as well as questions that were submitted from the audience. “This has become somewhat uncivil. I’m not sure how to properly end it.”
Deborah Macmillan, local board member of the League of Women Voters of East Windsor-Hightstown, said that one of the things that the League strives for is civil discourse.
Candidates began with a one-minute opening statement about their background and experience. And right away, there were issues. Parts of opening statements were not recorded during the taping of the event.
“Part of the tape was damaged from last night’s forum,” Ms. Macmillan said later. “I’m working with the four candidates and the high school to figure out how we’ll handle it, but at this point the Hightstown forum won’t run until Tuesday and will probably be missing some of the material.”
The event was recorded by the Hightstown TV Production class and is being rebroadcast on Comcast Channel 27 and Verizon Channel 38 at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. after the forums and continuing every Saturday, Sunday through Election Day, Nov. 3.
The opening statement and Ms. Wood’s rebuttal is the part of the tape that is damaged.
“We now have a decision that a statement will be place at the beginning of the tape that due to technical difficulties the opening statements were lost and where my interruption and rebuttal should be, it states that due to further difficulties, Ms. Woods’ rebuttal was lost,” said Ms. Macmillan.
Ms. Macmillan added that she will be working with Mr. (Andrew) Koontz to make sure this happens before Election Day and that the broadcast goes forward.
Councilwoman Bluth started the opening statements.
“I have been serving on our council for four years,” she said, adding she is currently liaison to the Parks and Rec commission.
She said she also serves on the New Jersey League of Municipalities Legislative Committee.
“I have a BA in Education and for the past 30 years I’ve been a practicing certified paralegal,” she said.
She said she moved to Hightstown 11 years ago. “I served on the board of directors (for her condo association) for eight years and I’m currently the treasurer,” she added.
“I know how to get things done,” she said. “I have a long list of accomplishments. Hightstown needs leaders to believe in a brighter future who are dedicated to fighting for the best interests of Hightstown’s residents.”
Councilman Kurs said he was appointed onto council, then elected last year to fill an unexpired term.
“I’m currently serving as a Police Commissioner and liaison to the court,” he said.
He said he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Thomas Edison State College and Juris Doctorate from Brooklyn Law School.
“I’m a former municipal prosecutor and partner of the law firm,” he said, adding that he is also a voluntary attorney for Womanspace.
He said he has served 28 years as an emergency medical technician (EMT).
“I developed emergency operation plans for municipalities,” he said.
Mr. Mair said that he is an owner of a global logistics company.
“I’ve known the importance of people, hard work and determination by asking the tough questions, by thoroughly researching all matters before council and providing alternatives in the absence of solutions so we can move forward,” he said.
He said he is running for council because he believes citizens are paying too much receiving too little.
“We are promised things by the same people at every election, yet nothing changes,” he said. “Tonight ,you’re in for a treat. It’s the only time you’ll hear my opponents answering questions.”
He said residents and elected officials should all be working toward what is best for the community.
“We need motivators, innovators, movers and shakers,” he said. “Instead of hoping for change, Nov. 3 we can vote for it.”
Ms. Woods said she served on council from 2011-2013. “I provided a clear direction for the rebuilding of Hightstown,” she said.
She believes she is proactive in solving problems.
“I have given presentations, written resolutions, and even authored a letter to the governor asking for assistance with our tax exempt property,” she said.
She added she believes in open public discussion of borough matters and believes in the value of community input.
“I consider the information offered by our professionals as advice, not for the sole source for decision-making,” she said.
The first question of the evening the candidates were asked what are the two most important issues being raised by the residents of Hightstown?
Councilwoman Bluth said that one of the most important issues that she has discovered while knocking on doors is development.
“For that, we’ve got great things going on right now,” she said. “The Rug Mill has been sold. There is a developer working with the council subcommittee.”
Councilman Kurs said some of the biggest issues he hear on his door-to-door travels is the housing ordinance and code enforcement.
“It is something that this council has addressed,” he said, adding it has amended the previous ordinance to update it to have a full-time code enforcer.
He said a total of $37,864 worth in summonses have been issued.
“We’ve heard the public,” he said. “We have taken swift, affirmative action and the landlords in the town know that we are serious that we are not going them allow to continue to put the lives and safety of residents within our homes in jeopardy.”
Mr. Mair said the lack of communication from council is an issue.
“You can have many ideas or plans in the works, but unless you inform the public in real-time, you created divide amongst the people,” he said.
Ms. Woods said high property taxes are an issue that concerns residents.
“We need to look at and acknowledge this is not a Hightstown problem alone,” she said. “According to New Jersey League of Municipalities, only action at the state level can help us move away from our over-reliance on excessive property tax.”
As of 2013, this state has been denying local tax relief in the amount of $3.4 billion, she said.
“We need to challenge the state and federal government on the tax exempt status imposes and fund a mandate that municipalities can no longer support,” she said. “Energy tax receipts and funds that were designed to specifically help relieve the property tax burden of New Jersey are no longer available.”
The council needs to hammer hard at the state, especially with 33 percent of the borough being tax-exempt, she added.
Another question the candidates were asked was how can they or council can lower the municipal taxes.
“As a matter of fact, this year we did see an overall reduction here at the borough,” Council member Kurs said. “This year’s rate was 4.060 which is .026 decrease in taxes from last year.”
He said that the council has been active and proactive in making sure that it keeps spending at a minimum.
Mr. Mair said he disagreed.
“In 2011, our municipal tax rate was $0.87 and in 2015 it’s a $1.16,” he said. “We’ve almost tripled our tax rate with East Windsor and we are above board on all of the taxes across the board than East Windsor.”
He said that by re-evaluating the $144 million worth of tax-exempt properties and putting those not deserving back on the tax roll and insisting that institutions like Peddie – which utilizes services – adhere to the same annual inspections and fees that is required of residents. Additionally, spending money on projects that are needed rather than what they want, treating employees with respect rather than contempt, focusing on ideas to revitalize projects today rather than 20 years from now and working with those developers instead of against them.
“By doing, this we can bring more revenue in, stop frivolous spending and avoidable lawsuits and pass those savings on to the residents,” he said.
Ms. Woods said that services have to be cut.
“We have done just about everything we can do, like many municipalities in New Jersey,” she said.
She said that 54 percent of the tax bill goes for the schools.
“I think that we need to go after state funding,” she said. “There were programs put into place so that municipalities wouldn’t have to carry the burden that they are carrying now.”
Councilwoman Bluth said she disagreed and said that they have not cut any municipal services.
“This year in fact we were able to add some items to the budget,” she said. “We provided an increase in funds for code enforcement, additional capital improvements, we hired a grant writer, and we instituted a new an emergency alert system. We are spending a lot less than we did in 2014,” she added.
Additional questions included what the candidates see as a main issue before the Planning Board; about what it means that Hightstown has been designated as a sanctuary city; should Hightstown go back to having a police chief; if elected or re-elected, what responsibilities or liaison board with another department would you like to take on; and opinions of the downtown redevelopment plan.
Another question the candidates were asked was should Hightstown consolidate with East Windsor and with the fire department.
“We will be outsourcing our dispatch,” Councilwoman Bluth said. “It will be beneficial to both municipalities.”
The candidates where also asked how should the town council should work toward improving the boards and commissions.
“Identify who has been repeatedly late or absent and remove them,” Mr. Mair said. “Establish a clear mission statement and follow through with it.”
He added that there should be alternate the leadership roles annually to allow for different leadership styles and ideas.
“We have too many improper effective majorities with voting liaisons, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, serving on the same commissions, committees and boards,” he said.
Ms. Woods said the decisions of letting these people serves on these boards and commissions are less politically motivated.
Ms. Bluth said she thinks they have great boards and commissions.
“They are made up of volunteers, you and me,” she said. “They are people who give of their time and they take their commitment very seriously.”
“I have gone to this mayor and I have gone to the previous mayor and asked to be on the redevelopment committee,” Mr. Mair said. “This mayor told me he would have to think about it and never got back to me and the other mayor just flat out said no.”
One can’t serve on these committees if the mayor sitting in office doesn’t make the appointment, he added.
“It’s not that I refuse to its that I’m not allowed to,” he said.
Councilman Kurs said that people who are community-minded, public service minded, civic service minded are often taught that by their families.
“It is a family tradition that happens in many families,” he said.
The forum ended with closing statements from the candidates, who were given two minutes to address the audience. Mr. Mair and Ms. Woods were able to give rebuttal statements. Ms. Woods rebuttal statement is also damaged and missing from the taped segment.
Ms. Woods said she would like to make an appeal to all the voters to make an extra special effort to come out and vote. “Your vote is extremely important,” she said. “It can make the difference when it comes to decision making and the progress of the borough.” Voting is an important first step in building a united, informed Hightstown, she said.
By Amy Batista, Special Writer