JACKSON – Former committeeman Michael Kafton went to the microphone at the head of the room in Town Hall on Tuesday and pointed out the camera standing on a tripod in the corner, unmanned, tilted slightly downward and dark amid a jumble of cords.
"That equipment was given to us by Cablevision," Kafton told the governing body. "When I was up there, the meetings were filmed. You haven’t filmed a single meeting."
"We don’t have that gentleman you used to pay $60,000 to do that," shot back Councilman Angelo Stallone. "Didn’t you pay him $60,000 to film the meetings? We don’t have that gentleman."
"I didn’t pay him $60,000 to film the meetings," said Kafton.
"$65,000," put in Jackson Mayor Mark Seda from his seat on the far end of the dais, and Stallone led the hearty chorus of laughter from the council.
"That was his salary," said Seda. "$65,000." Then to Kafton directly, the mayor added, "We’re going to set aside time for ‘The Michael Kafton Hour,’ Mike. Just for you. One hour."
"You’re hiding from the public," charged Kafton amid the back and forth of several voices that did little to diminish the one overriding and ongoing public duel in Jackson politics.
Seda and Kafton.
Their rivalry goes back several years, these two men who straddle the terrain of this Ocean County town numbering 42,816 residents, which sprawls over 100 square miles at the edges and in the midst of the Pinelands.
In the early 2000s, then-committeeman Kafton labored to change Jackson’s government to a strong mayor’s form. Throughout that process he projected little doubt that he himself would be the Democrats’ best contender for mayor of the fast-growing town. Family man. Local businessman. Community leader. Fire in the belly committeeman. Rousing speaker. A public presence.
"I remember Mike coming into my political and legal ed class at Jackson Memorial High School in 1995," said Todd Porter, now 29. "He was wearing a purple suit at the time, which I thought was pretty gutsy. He gave his spiel, and he’s a good politician, I’ll give him that. Eighty-percent of the class went to work for Kafton and the Democrats. I looked at my friend where we were sitting in the back of the class and we agreed, ‘Man, we’re definitely Republicans now.'"
Kafton, like Porter and Seda, is a lifelong resident of Jackson, who started early on a path into local activism and politics.
"When I was in my teens I laid down in the road and blocked trucks from coming in to Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area to store toxic barrels," recalled Kafton, a 42-year old real estate broker. "It was a huge issue in our town, and I was out there fighting to prevent this from happening. It was the start of me getting involved, and I realized later I could do more for my community by serving in public office."
He served eight years on the township committee, including a couple of years as titular mayor.
But when his plea of guilty to a 2005 drunk driving charge dropped him, Democrats, including Kafton’s childhood friend Committeeman Sean Giblin, shied away from the political animal and prepared another strategy they believed would win them the newly formed four-year mayor’s term in the 2006 election.
The Democrats ran Giblin, and that was a tough choke-down for Kafton because the two had grown up together and served on the governing body with the latter grooming himself and being groomed for the leading role. Nursing a suspicion that the police stop was a frame-up and undeterred in his quest to win the office he had envisioned, Kafton without his party's blessing ran for mayor against Giblin.
The other man in the race was Republican Committeeman Mark Seda.
Looking back on that campaign, Seda said he knew it was going to get ugly, and kept his head down.
"I steered clear of the drunk driving charge," he recalled. "I was behind in the polls, sticking to the issues. Giblin was raising money, but Mike Kafton appeared to be the frontrunner. So Giblin went negative. He went to the drunk driving issue."
The Kafton and Giblin campaigns imploded in a newspaper and mail war.
Originally an opponent of Kafton’s idea to change from a township committee to a mayor and council form of government, the low-key Seda, who works in the air conditioning business, figured his love of politics would generally keep him in the role of consigliere. But the Republicans ran him and he plugged away, and found an opening amid the Democrats’ bloodbath, and beat both of his rivals in May of 2006.
Seda assumed office as Jackson’s first directly elected mayor in July of the same year.
Now two years later, Kafton’s back to run for a seat on the council at the head of a bi-partisan team eager to upend Seda’s GOP allies, including budding politico Porter.
To hear Kafton tell it, Seda’s been a disaster – the near opposite of everything Kafton hoped to have been had he prevailed in 2006. The new mayor hiked taxes by 30%, gave himself a 300% raise, tried to pave over wetlands in a gaffe decision that cost the town $15,000, and, perhaps most egregiously in Kafton’s view, refused to spray in the face of a seasonal gypsy moth invasion that ravaged 19,000 acres in Jackson.
"I am very disappointed in the mayor and council and the way they’ve run government," Kafton told PolitickerNJ.com.
Although Seda, 39, who is not up for re-election until 2010, and two of his confidant councilmen – Jason J. Gudaitis and Stallone, both of
whom decided not to seek re-election – will not be on the May 13 ballot, Kafton and his running mates, Roberta "Bobbie" Rivere and Michael Reina, said they are running against a council controlled by the Ocean County Republican Party.
The township attorney here in Jackson is none other than George Gilmore, the organization’s powerful chairman.
"Mike’s (Kafton) idea of a new form of government was perfect on paper, then we went out and elected the wrong mayor," said Rivere, a English teacher who moved to Jackson with her dentist husband from Long Island seven years ago. "They’ve gone and made political appointments to key positions all over the place."
Incumbent Committeewoman Emily Ingram is an easy link to Seda, said Kafton, and at least publicly rarely opposes the mayor. As for newcomers Charles Garafano and Porter, who are running on the GOP ticket with Ingram, "They’re part of the same system’s that already there." Kafton said. "Garafano was an appointee to the MUA (Jackson Municipal Utilities Authority), and Porter’s on the planning board. I’m sorry, but based on the actions of the mayor and council of the last 20 months, we don’t need that."
Of course, Seda disputes Kafton’s interpretation of how Seda’s administration runs the town’s $38 million operation, and blames Kafton for many of Jackson’s financial troubles. According to Seda, the Kafton-dominated township committee recorded numerous operating expenses as long-term debt items. They frittered away an $8 million surplus in 2000 while failing to compensate for increases in insurance costs and pension benefits. They did not address affordable housing, did not settle town contracts, and spent little or no money on parks and infrastructure improvement.
"He was great at ribbon cutting," Seda said. "But rather then face reality, Kafton refused to raise taxes in an election year (2006) and when they lost, they left us with a budget deficit."
Kafton said Seda’s claims to repairing a budget crisis created by the prior administration does not bear scrutiny, as the Republican administration maintained the same increase – $6.7 million – this year.
Seda justified his current salary of $29,500 as the low end of an average of other New Jersey towns that employ a mayor and council form of government. Moreover, he said, he doesn’t have an aide making $65,000 annually.
"When he got elected, Kafton and those guys repaid their campaign manager by making him an aide to the mayor," Seda said. "This is a guy who was being paid to do their job: return phone calls, do research for the township committee, etc. My point is once you’re elected you should be doing that work. If I’m paying an aide to the mayor, I’m not doing my job."
Already excoriating the mayor and council over taxes, Kafton last year seized hold of another compelling issue for residents living in the heavily wooded town: the worst case of gypsy moth infestation since 1990, according to the Asbury Park Press. During his time on the committee, Kafton said he budgeted the proper amounts of money to blanket spray Bt. bacteria at the clusters of tree-eating caterpillars – even though the state couldn’t guarantee reimbursing the town.
Arguing fiscal conservatism and questioning Bt’s effectiveness, Seda by contrast last year opted against budgeting the $253,000 necessary to combat the gypsy moths, and later touted Dimlin as a more effective measure.
"They took a stand on an issue and ruined the town with it," Kafton said of the mayor and council. "We were the worst hit town in the entire state. NBC and ABC news were here covering it. The state estimates that it will now cost $1 million to spray."
Seda stands by his decision, pointing to surrounding towns that sprayed with Bt and were nevertheless nailed as hard as Jackson, even as they managed to avoid what he
calls the politically whipped up news coverage that beset his town.
"Bt is not an eradication program, it’s a curbing program," said the mayor. "Dimlin and Bt are both labeled level three pesticides. Now Michael would like to scare people and tell them that if you use Dimlin, you’re going to have children with three heads. But Bt is only effective on a certain size gypsy moth. They have to hatch the week that you spray, and once they grow beyond that, Bt is ineffective. Statistically, everywhere they sprayed in ’05, ’06 and ’07, the gypsy moth presence doubled."
Demonstrating his penchant for political theater, an unconvinced Kafton appeared at Jackson Day last year in the midst of the gypsy moth storm, handing out tiny saplings to residents on which he’d inscribed the words: "gypsy moth proof."
Porter shook his head half in admiration as he remembered Kafton that day. "He’s in the kind of industry where he has a lot of free time to do this stuff," said the rival candidate, who works as a service adviser for Subaru in Somerset.
Running with Rivere and Reina – a registered Republican who considers himself more independent-minded than those affiliated with the Ocean County Republican Party – Kafton is trying to work his connections with the Democrats, disaffected Republicans, and an anti-Seda splinter group called the Jackson Tea Party. Jackson's registered Republicans outnumber the Democrats, 4,551 to 3,184; but 19,355 Independents make up the bulk of voters.
Regarding his drunk driving conviction, the candidate said he strives to put it behind him, but can’t resist mulling the timing and circumstances of his arrest three years ago by the Belmar Police Department.
Police said he had a reading of 0.09. "The law is 0.08 or more is considered legally intoxicated," said Kafton. "I had one and a half drinks two hours earlier, so I question the whole incident. At the time I was a driving force to change the form of government, a boisterous political figure. When I requested a copy of the tape of my test, the tape had disappeared. The process lingered for six, seven months. In any case, I’m not a drinker."
At Tuesday night's council meeting, Seda stood with members of the Jackson Township Police Department and urged the public out of their chairs in the packed chamber to applaud the newly decorated officers standing at attention in their dress blues.
"It’s not very often that you can say thank you," the mayor said into a handheld microphone. "Tonight, I’d like to take two minutes to do that."
The applause was long and hard, then the room all but emptied, leaving behind scattered holdouts of Seda allies juxtaposed by Kafton gadflies and the coming public portion of the meeting.
"We’re just getting warmed up," said Porter, referring to the campaigns.
Soon Kafton the candidate was at the microphone, refusing to credit the council for standing up to the mayor on the issue of emergency medical services, and asserting that a passive governing body had finally stared down Seda only after the public flailed the council members and insisted that creating an EMS government bureaucracy was the wrong approach.
Then he was referring to a same day Asbury Park Press article about the townspeople’s favorite larvae co-habitants, demanding to know what the council intends to do as the dreaded gypsy season again bears down on Jackson. Unsatisfied with the governing body’s response, Kafton announced, "I called Monmouth County Freeholder Barbara McMorrow to inquire if they’re spraying around Jackson. Maybe we could do an inter-local agreement as long as they’ve got their helicopters in the air."
Treating the advice as a geared-up performance piece with two months to go until Election Day, Council President Ann Updegrave amid groans from the council waved Kafton off while reminding the former committeeman, "When you sprayed, people called to complain."
"A simple ‘thank you’ would have been sufficient," Kafton replied. "I don’t surrender. I don’t just throw up my hands and give up."
As the council prepared to move on, the mayor told his rival, "Like I said, Mike, it’s going to be the ‘Mike at Night’ show."
"You’ll be my guest," said Kafton.
"No," said Seda. "It’s all you."