Thursday, November 02, 2006

Candidates Share Views At League Forum

More than 50 people attended the annual League of Women Voters forum Wednesday to see and hear seven City Council candidates.

Two four-year terms are up for election and one two-year unexpired term. Moderator Dawn Clarke of Westfield posed questions from the audience between the traditional opening and closing statements and Alice Logie of Plainfield served as timekeeper.

Besides the usual topics of crime, economic development and taxes, concerns of the downtown business community emerged in the questions.

Competing for the 1st Ward seat are incumbent Democrat Rayland Van Blake and Republican Arlington Johnson. Incumbent Democrat Rashid Burney and Republican Angela Perun are vying for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Three candidates are seeking an unexpired term caused by the untimely death of former City Council President Ray Blanco on July 28. They are Democratic appointee Harold Gibson, Republican Deborah Dowe and Independent Robert Edwards.

On crime, Perun, a former councilwoman and state Assemblywoman, called for more police on the street and said there is “denial” at City Hall over the extent of crime. Gibson, who served as city administrator and Public Safety director in the past, said the truth is that crime rates are down. Johnson said crime affects economic development and claimed there are “shootings every night” in Netherwood Village.

Burney said his goal is to get more cops off desks and into the streets, and he also wants downtown surveillance cameras to deter crime. Edwards said he is involved with a group called “Fathers Against Guns” and said part of solving the multi-faceted problem of crime is to have more programs for youth. Dowe said Homeland Security funding should be used to “beef up block associations” and a church network to help people in need should be established. Van Blake said the city needs to call on elected officials for more resources to fight crime and also endorsed the use of cameras downtown and in trouble spots.

On reducing taxes, Van Blake and Burney said the council is now seeking ways to trim fat. Gibson said he does not believe in giving developers tax abatements, a stance Perun also took. Dowe said grant-writing efforts could help. Edwards agreed with Van Blake that economic development could help reduce taxes, but said growth must be guided by the city’s master plan. Johnson spoke against proposed high-density condo development on East Third Street and said he envisions a youth facility on the site.

The business issues were related to the use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds and a surtax on owners in the Special Improvement District to fund programs to make business districts safer and more attractive to shoppers. The program is about two years old and is administered by a board of business owners and a hired manager. The program came under fire earlier this year when Blanco raised objections to the management and called the board’s presentation to the council a “dog and pony show.”

The SID includes over 400 businesses downtown and along South Avenue. Its efforts include sale days, holiday events, graffiti removal and a quarterly publication. The 3 percent SID assessment was to raise $113,000, which was matched with UEZ funds that come from retail sales taxes and are dedicated for improvements in the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone.

Burney noted some friction between the city and the SID, but said he was willing to work with the merchants. Van Blake said the new program is having “growing pains” but that conflicts could be resolved. Johnson said the SID should be self-governing. Dowe and Perun said the city was trying to impose a budget on the board and Dowe added she thinks the UEZ funds “need to be investigated.” Edwards said if elected he would work with the business owners. Gibson said without the UEZ funds, the business districts would not have extra police.

SID manager David Biagini, who attended the forum with several board members, said the latest from City Hall is that the group “at this point” can still have an independent budget. The issue has not come up at any recent City Council meetings.

Election Day is Nov. 7 and polls open at 6 a.m. There are 19,327 registered voters this year, including 9,136 not affiliated with any party, 9,050 Democrats, 1,137 Republicans, three Libertarians and one member of the Constitution Party.

--Bernice Paglia


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