Candidates for Middletown’s Township Committee clashed over what form of government best serves residents, and whether town meetings should be televised in an attempt to encourage openness during a candidates night held Tuesday.
The candidates—minus Republican Kevin Settembrino who did not attend—spoke about issues including local government and taxes during the nearly two hour Lincroft Village Green Association-sponsored event moderated by the League of Women Voters at Lincroft School.
Democratic challengers Linda Baum and Patricia Olsen both said that they favor a Mayor-Council form of government with televised meetings, rather than the current Committee model used in Middletown.
But Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger, a Republican, said that the township’s current government operates “really well,” and that broadcasting meetings is too costly.
“There’s no way on God’s green earth” that Scharfenberger would spend $100,000 on broadcasting meetings, he said, a fee officials received when they investigated putting meetings on television.
Meetings are accessible to the public already, Scharfenberger said, and if residents don’t attend they are welcome to get a recording from the township.
Baum called the Committee system “outdated.” She also said that the governing body’s activity should be more visible to the public, which is why she favors televised meetings.
“It’s only through public participation, involvement and awareness that we’re going to have an efficient, effective, responsive government,” Baum said. “One that’s going to be accountable.”
Olsen, too, said that she wants more open government, which includes televising town meetings.
“It’s a way to make our township officials more honest in what they’re doing. It gives us more ownership of our government and how it’s run,” she said.
The three-year Township Committee terms of Scharfenberger and Settembrino expire in 2013. Polls open on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Monmouth County Freeholder candidates Brian Froelich (D), Larry Luttrell (D) and Thomas A. Arnone (R) were also asked questions at the forum. Candidate Serena DiMaso (R) was unable to attend.
Candidates also spoke about what they see as the most pressing issues confronting the township.
For Baum, the tax base needs to be widened, which can be done by bringing in more businesses and helping property owners recover from Superstorm Sandy.
Olsen pledged that she would “actively” seek out businesses to come into town, making proposals to highlight Middletown’s appeal.
Scharfenberger said that health benefits are an issue, but Middletown is paying $700,000 less than it would had it gone with the state’s plan. Employee contributions are up, now to 25 percent, he said.
The township’s vacant Chief Financial Officer position and the part-time temporary arrangement with the former head Nicola "Nick" Trasente, who left for another government position, came into question.
Scharfenberger said that Trasente is working up to 10 hours a week through January as needed until a replacement can be found. Interviews are ongoing, he said. Trasente will be paid $80 per hour, officials have said.
"He left everything in very very good order. He had a good staff there," Scharfenberger said.
But Baum, an insurance analyst, pointed out that the township has been through “a number” of CFOs in the past few years, and indicated she’d like to create a citizen’s finance board made up of qualified, interested volunteers.
Olsen, who taught a college finance course, said that a student once tried to examine Middletown’s budget for a project but couldn’t because it was “so poor,” she said. Like Baum, she favors the creation of a citizen’s board.
The CFO turnover in Middletown was defended by Scharfenberger, who said it is normal for employees to seek out new opportunities.
“That’s not a reflection on the town,” he said. “Each time, things have run very well, the transitions have been very smooth."
The mayor also invited residents to examine the township budget at any time, and said that the New Jersey League of Municipalities holds Middletown’s finances “in high regard.”
All candidates agreed that Middletown road safety, especially for pedestrians, can be improved.