On Nov. 5, 80 percent of the township council will be up for grabs. Republican incumbents Ed Gore, Dave Kenny and Dennis Pone face Democrats Daniel Keelan, Nina Melker and Joe Santo for four-year terms. Republican incumbent Ileana Schirmer and Democrat Tennille McCoy are up for the remaining two years on Kelly Yaede’s unexpired term. Each candidate answered eight questions supplied by the Hamilton Post.
Ed Gore, 4-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, Saint Joseph’s University; Master’s, Rider Univervity; Law Degree, Rutgers University
Previous Elected Office: Township council since March 2010; Hamilton Township BOE (1994-97)
Party Affiliation: Republican
Daniel Keelan, 4-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, University of Dayton and University of Pittsburgh
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Dave Kenny, 4-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, Lafayette College; Juris Doctor, Villanova University School of Law
Previous Elected Office: Township Councilman since 2005
Party Affiliation: Republican
Tennille McCoy, 2-year term
Education: Master’s, Rutgers University; Bachelor’s, Virginia State University
Previous Elected Office: Committeewoman District 17
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Nina Mekler, 4-year term
Education: Attended William Patterson College
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Dennis Pone, 4-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, LaSalle College
Previous Elected Office: Township Councilman since 2006
Party Affiliation: Republican
Joe Santo, 4-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, Rider University; Master’s, Central Michigan University; Principal and Supervisor Certification
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Ileana Schirmer, 2-year term
Education: Bachelor’s, Richard Stockton College
Previous Elected Office: Appointed to Township Council December 2013
Party Affiliation: Republican
There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the former Patterson Chevrolet site on Route 33, particularly the potential development of a Wawa gas station there. Is a Wawa a good fit for that site? Why or why not?
Gore: State land use law provides that these type land use decisions be made solely by of the Planning or Zoning Board. As a Member of Council, it would be inappropriate for me to render an opinion on this specific project.
Keelan: The Patterson site should be a township jewel instead of a “junk” ratable that does nothing to improve quality of life along our busiest highway. We could make the site into a pedestrian-accessible destination complete with residential, commercial and retail with open areas for entertainment and dining.
Kenny: The Wawa Gas Station is a conditional use permitted under our Zoning Ordinances. It does not meet all the conditions and requires a use variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, an independent Board. The Council has no role in deciding an application.
Melker: Wawa is a good corporate partner throughout our Township. We need to push for smart growth with good clean ratables. My issue with this project is not Wawa. The neighboring residents were left in the dark as this project moved forward. It is about communication.
Pone: Government officials create an environment for economic development. We have done that with a stable tax rate and the removal of some outdated and indefensible ordinances. The public and the zoning board will decide if it’s a good fit.
Santo: I firmly support strategic economic development. The proposed location is surrounded by several gas stations, small delicatessens and a residential neighborhood. Each would be negatively impacted. There are several vacant strip malls in the township that would be a better fit.
McCoy: Under the current Council, the tax ratable base has declined by $37 million while the tax base in Mercer County as a whole grew 12 percent. Junk ratables that force the closure of existing locally-owned businesses are a no-win tax scenario.
Schirmer: The owners have planned more than just Wawa at that site. This application must go through the legal process. It is illegal for local officials to attempt to influence land use decisions before the Planning and Zoning Board.
Council recently debated changing township laws to remove an ordinance that prohibited a gas station within 1,500 feet of another gas station. Was that process handled properly? Why or why not?
Gore: This ordinance was antiquated and would likely have cost the Township a significant amount of money to defend in court with little chance of success. Taxpayers money should not be wasted on questionable court cases.
Keelan: Council’s tossing aside of longstanding township zoning law to allow the placement of an illegal business to benefit a single developer is unfair to local merchants and residents. And they hid behind a debunked legal opinion to do so.
Kenny: The process was fair and open. Numerous gas stations in Hamilton are within 1,500 feet of one another. The ordinance was properly adopted after two public hearings.
Melker: No, I do not believe the process was handled properly. Council should actively seek the input of residents and other business owners, giving great weight to their concerns, before abolishing an ordinance that may have a serious negative impact on them.
Pone: Yes. The ordinance has been shown to be indefensible. We are working toward eliminating all illegal, indefensible and outdated laws from the books. We are not willing to waste taxpayer dollars to defend an indefensible position.
Santo: No. The decision to change the ordinance was based on a legal opinion of an attorney for Wawa. The council selected an opinion which supported their position without considering all the legal information available. This has now opened up the possibility of a lawsuit.
McCoy: Council’s subversion of township zoning laws to provide windfall profits to politically connected developers who are out to make a buck and care little about the quality of life in Hamilton is not a smart strategy for promoting economic growth.
Schirmer: Removal of the 1,500 ordinance was reviewed by attorneys who all indicated that this ordinance was indefensible. Keeping an ordinance that is indefensible if challenged in court would cost Hamilton taxpayer’s a large amount of money. That is irresponsible.
When considering future development, is it more important to get the property on the tax rolls or to hold out for the “right fit” for the community?
Gore: There is no power granted to government to wait for the “right fit” for a potential development. If a project is put forward to develop a property the government must find an allowable objection or the project must go forward. If the land use rules are adhered to, the presumption is on the side of the project.
Keelan: Neither. Most important is that citizens have a say in the decision. It is incumbent upon the municipal government to follow all the laws and not try to quietly change them in order to create the “right fit.”
Kenny: The term “right fit” implies that local government should pick winners and losers. The council sets zoning parameters, and if a permitted use is sought, the use must be approved. The council has no role in approving or disapproving land use applications.
Melker: Hamilton needs smart growth to be a critical part of its long range economic development plan. My years of professional experience have taught me that if handled correctly and discussed with the community, most businesses can be made into the “right fit.”
Pone: This question loses sight on how a free market economy functions. Property owners posses certain rights. It is illegal for governments to pick and choose which business goes where. If a business conforms to our zoning laws, they may open.
Santo: Both are critical components in planning the future development of Hamilton. We need to work together with developers, current businesses and citizens to create solutions when redeveloping our many vacant strip malls and commercial properties.
McCoy: Hamilton has only so much land and if we are to attract quality ratables, we must be aggressive in planning for and pursuing, business that provide better than minimum wage jobs to contribute to the quality of life in our township.
Schirmer: If government can choose which businesses can or cannot locate at certain properties, then you have the premises for communism. Townships have boards and zoning regulations to allow businesses in specific areas.
Is Hamilton a safe place?
Gore: Hamilton is certainly safe compared to many other communities. This does not mean that we relax our vigilance. Our relative safety is due in large part to our fine Police Department. I am proud to say that the number of police officers on patrol has increased, and public safety remains my highest priority.
Keelan: Hamilton is becoming less safe because Council has failed to take leadership on public safety issues. They were pennywise and pound foolish when they allowed the reduction of police staff despite a growing gang violence threat. Fewer police means less protection.
Kenny: Absolutely, Hamilton is a safe place. Recent statistics show that in the first half of 2013, robberies, auto theft and burglary are down. The number of police patrols has increased as a result of 12 hour shifts. Our police officers have recently been praised by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office and the ACLU.
Melker: Hamilton is not as safe as it could be, despite the tireless efforts of our Police Department. Hamiltonians could become partners in the crime prevention process and be more alert and vigilant if the crime information was promptly communicated to them.
Pone: Yes. We are one of the safest towns in the nation. The credit goes to our dedicated professional police division, as recognized by the ACLU and the county prosecutor’s office. 12-hour shifts and civilianized desk jobs have increased patrols.
Santo: Overall, Hamilton is regarded as a safe place. Unfortunately, times have changed. We all must be more aware, and take preventative measures against crime. Keeping citizens informed encourages their cooperation in deterring crime. Police should be supplied with the tools necessary to keep all neighborhoods safe.
McCoy: Hamilton remains a great place to live, but it is less safe than it was a few years ago. The failure of the current council to recognize and address gang-related violence is the greatest threat to public safety today.
Schirmer: Our police officers work every day to keep Hamilton families as safe as possible; they have done an honorable job and should be commended for their service. Police officers on patrol have increased through the expansion of the 12-hour shift.
Hamilton had a long-neglected ethics committee before outsourcing its duties to the state Department of Community Affairs this year. Would a fully staffed township-based ethics committee better address negative perceptions of government in the township? Explain.
Gore: The previous Ethics Commission never received a complaint and the jurisdiction of a proposed local Ethic Commission remains unclear. I applaud Mayor Yaede for her ethics reform making Hamilton’s ethics rules the strongest in the State. The case involving the former mayor would not have been within the jurisdiction of an ethics commission, and in fact, it would have likely been cited for impeding a federal investigation.
Keelan: Yes. It is ridiculous to believe a cumbersome state bureaucracy can adequately replace a group of impartially chosen residents who have a real stake in seeing government acts ethically. To eliminate politics from a local commission, simply do not allow politicians to select its members.
Kenny: The characterization “long neglected” is false. The Board of Ethics never received an ethics complaint. It was unnecessary as the State of New Jersey is empowered to review ethics complaints. The State Board is better equipped to deal with such issues, with no cost to Hamilton taxpayers.
Melker: Hamilton has many dedicated, talented, ethical residents that are willing and capable of serving on a Local Ethics Board. Additionally, the State Ethics Board is flooded with complaints, does not possess our residents local knowledge of events and may delay the procedural process.
Pone: No. All Mercer County towns use the state ethics committee. Mayor Kelly Yaede has instituted the toughest code of ethics in the state. The ethics committee was not neglected, they never received a complaint. This removes the politics from the process.
Santo: Yes. When the present administration abolished the Ethics Committee, stating that a local committee could not make unbiased decisions, it was a slap in the face to the citizens of Hamilton. A local committee could handle referrals much more quickly and help prevent another corruption scandal.
McCoy: A home-grown all-volunteer ethics board, working with new council members who will be responsive to reforms, will be far more effective than a faceless state bureaucracy in bringing credibility back to municipal government.
Schirmer: Allowing the State’s Local Government Finance Board to receive and review ethics complaints removes local politics from the process. We are talking about people’s reputation and lives. It should be reviewed by people who can objectively review the complaint.
Almost a year ago, a federal judge found John Bencivengo guilty of accepting $12,400 in bribes. Engineering firm Birdsall Services Group – a company the township has hired in the past – was indicted for using employees to make campaign contributions. Former township employees in the planning department, recreation department, at Sayen Gardens and at the Bromley Center have all been in trouble with the law, or at least under suspicion of impropriety. In the wake of these scandals, members of the community have argued about the need for a full forensic audit of all municipal government departments by the state government or a firm with no prior connection to Hamilton. How necessary is such an audit?
Gore: The State of New Jersey Division of Local Government Service deemed the expanded forensic audit as “appropriate and proportional.” Additionally, the federal investigators scrutinized the financial records of Hamilton during its investigation and found nothing that warranted charges relative to the expenditure or accounting of taxpayer funds.
Keelan: Asking the existing auditor to make such an audit is like asking students to grade their own tests. An audit completed by any other entity than the State keeps the findings within the control of Township officials. The only information released to Hamilton residents came from a press release written by the acting-mayor.
Kenny: Mayor Yeade obtained an expanded audit at no cost to the taxpayers. The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services found it to be appropriate. Birdsall Engineering received contracts on which it was the low bidder. Prior to my being elected to the council, Hamilton did not bid professional service agreements. We have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by bidding such contracts.
Melker: Such an audit would be conducted by a firm or individual that was independent and was not already within the employ of Hamilton Township. Its scope would go through every Township Department. Its purpose would be to delve deep into every dollar spent.
Pone: Our expanded audit, by one of the most reputable auditors in the state, was deemed appropriate by the director of local government services. There was no evidence of illegal activities and all internal financial controls were intact and working properly.
Santo: We need to examine every aspect of Hamilton’s finances to root out the misspent dollars and potential violations of pay-to-play laws. Companies have won contracts with low bids, then received extra payment to complete their projects. The dismal record of corruption warrants a thorough review.
McCoy: The current Council has continued to award non-bid contracts to illicit campaign contributors even after those contributions were made known, thus a forensic audit needs to be accompanied by the election of new Council members intent on meaningful reform.
Schirmer: Our expanded audit—done at no additional cost to tax payers—found no evidence of illegal activities, thanks to strong internal controls praised by Standard and Poor’s Rating Services. A forensic audit would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With the economy struggling in the last five years, council has taken austerity measures it deemed necessary for the township to survive. Residents willingly accepted the sacrifices. Do these measures affect Hamilton’s ability to be a nice place to live. Why or why not?
Gore: “Austerity”? If you mean that we have cut the budget for three years in a row, this does not mean the spending is austere. The level of services has increased despite the curtailing of spending. A record number of Hamilton roads are being repaved this year. The number of police officers on patrol has increased.
Keelan: Yes. Our crumbling roadways and gang-threatened streets make the impact of reduced township services readily apparent. The failure is due to poor leadership, not austerity. Neighboring municipalities preserve services by growing their ratable base without tax hikes to family taxpayers.
Kenny: No services to residents have been cut. Rather, Hamilton government has become more efficient. In the past five years, municipal taxes have increased a total of 1.24 percent. Our record on taxes and spending is better than any municipality in New Jersey.
Melker: I have traveled throughout the Township and have heard hundreds of concerns from Hamiltonians. Residents question how our government has done many things, and are outraged that other needs have been ignored. The lack of communication coming from the municipal building is appalling.
Pone: No, and residents were not asked to make sacrifices. In fact, township services have never been better. 100 roads have been paved since 2008. The sewer system is aggressively being upgraded, and all events are taking place without taxpayer money.
Santo: Austerity measures do affect quality of life. I have heard numerous complaints of poorly maintained roads, neglected vacant properties and diminishment of services to the community. We must thoroughly review our allocation of resources to maximize the services we provide for our citizens.
McCoy: As Mercer County as a whole was growing economically, the current council’s preoccupation with the corruption of Mayor Bencivengo’s administration was the driving factor behind the economic stagnation and a decline in the quality of government services in Hamilton.
Schirmer: What residents have received under this administration have been stable tax rate, decreased spending and an increase in economic development. We are investing in our infrastructure and continuing to move forward in a financially responsible manner.
In this year’s budget, 17 government positions were eliminated. Spending was cut by $1.2 million and is now at a level lower than it was in 2011. The cuts allowed for a budget with no tax increase. Will Hamilton ever be at a point where belt-tightening is not necessary. Explain.
Gore: The 17 fewer positions came about solely through attrition. Thanks to good management, it is the Hamilton government who is belt-tightening, not the taxpayers. Since the government only gets its money from the taxpayer it the government should be on a chronic permanent belt-tightening mode.
Keelan: Spending is nearly $20 million more than it was 6 years ago. A forensic audit will determine if we need a budget that spends almost $100 million per year and has put us $90 million into debt.
Kenny: I will always work to minimize the cost of government to Hamilton taxpayers. We have been able to eliminate positions through attrition, recognizing that many of those positions were no longer necessary, and employing technology and better equipment to provide services more efficiently. The savings have been passed to taxpayers.
Melker: In my business life, I face this challenge daily. It is very difficult to bring in the increasing revenues that are needed in order to face the ever-rising cost of living expenses. We must run the township like a business.
Pone: Government should always keep its belt tight. When someone retires, we evaluate whether or not the job is essential, or can be shared. Everyone benefits from the resulting smaller, more efficient and less costly government.
Santo: The current plan revolves around one-shot deals and budgetary gimmicks. We need to develop a sound business plan to broaden our tax base and provide good jobs and wages for our labor force. We cannot thrive without aggressively making revitalization a top priority.
McCoy: Members of the current council would like us to forget that they voted for the largest tax increase in the townships history in 2008. It isn’t austerity that is causing the decline in municipal services, it’s failed leadership.
Schirmer: Positions were eliminated through attrition. We will continue to make financially responsible decisions for our residents. Residents don’t want promises; they want to know that those they elect are financially responsible and know what they are doing.