In the small, densely packed Bergen County village of Ridgewood, five candidates are competing for three council seats in the May 13th municipal elections.
Up for reelection are Deputy Mayor Betty Wiest and Councilman Jacques Harlow. Councilwoman Kim Ringler Shagin is stepping down, and three new challengers are vying for a spot on the board: political veteran Paul Aronsohn, police captain Keith Killion and community activist Anne Zusy.
The village, population 25,000, is governed under the Faulkner act, meaning that the mayor is a member of the council who is selected for the position by a vote of the body’s five members. The current mayor is David Pfund, who’s not up for reelection until 2010 but could either step down from that position or could be ousted if the council votes for a different member in its July 1 reorganization meeting.
While the town has long been considered Republican leaning, its elections are non-partisan, and its council race seems almost completely void of party politics. Ridgewood is located in Bergen County, but there’s no talk — good or bad — of two of the county’s most lauded and criticized public figures: Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero or conservative activist Steve Lonegan. Instead, the candidates are focused solely on the local issues: from property taxes to the local train station.
The biggest point of contention is whether to build a parking garage downtown.
The position of mayor, which leads council meetings but carries few additional responsibilities, pays $5,000 per year, while the rest of the council members make $3,000.
To get elected, some of the candidates may end up spending what they’ll make in their first year in office. Aronsohn has spent a little under $1,000 on lawn signs, and has $850 cash-on-hand. Wiest has spent $500 on campaign literature and has $1,435.00 on hand. The other three candidates do not appear to have raised any campaign money.
As to top vote getter amongst eight candidates four years ago, Wiest is often viewed as the frontrunner for the upcoming election. While she hasn’t yet invested in any lawn signs or other advertising, she says she’s not “resting on her laurels.”
Wiest said that she’s most proud of developing the town’s park master plan and working to secure more parkland in this town that has virtually no open space.
The most pressing issues facing the village, Wiest says, are its financial health and the need for more open space.
“While we have a AAA bond rating from Standard and Poor’s – one of only 6 communities in New Jersey – there’s going to be so much pressure on our infrastructure,” Wiest said.
Wiest –who’s served as deputy mayor since she was first elected in 2004 and whose husband, Quentin Wiest, served as mayor from 1986-1990 — wasn’t sure whether or not she’d be interested in becoming the next mayor.
“There’s a possibility, but here again I think it’s between the five of us to see where we want to go,” she said.
Incumbent councilman Jacques Harlow, who’s just finishing his second term, said that he’s not specifically running for the mayoral seat but will take it if the council selects him.
“I will serve if they want me but I am not running,” he said. “Some people run for mayor very assiduously, but I will serve only if called upon.”
Harlow said he’s most proud of stopping New Jersey Transit’s renovation of the local train station and forcing them to change their plans on where to place a ramp for the handicapped. He also noted his work to renovate Village Hall, which was completed in 2005. He spent 40 hours a week on the worksite and said that he helped save village taxpayers about $1 million.
Right now, Harlow said he’s focusing on alleviating the parking problem downtown by building a parking garage that fits his criteria: that it must fit in with the town’s scenery and include retail space on the ground floor.
Harlow also said that the town needs to focus on addressing the structural problem in its budget, and that when the budget comes up for a vote next month, he’ll cats a vote against it for the first time. Although the town’s taxes are lower than many of its neighbors, Harlow said they are too high and wants to increase shared services with neighboring towns.
Paul Aronsohn, a public affairs employee at Pfizer who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett in Congressional District 5 last year, comes to the fold with extensive governmental experience on a federal and state level. He served in various foreign policy positions in the Clinton administration and worked as former Gov. Jim McGreevey communications director in 2002.
Aronsohn has lived in the town for three years and was first approached about running by retiring councilwoman Kim Ringler Shagin.
Aronsohn offered no criticism of any incumbents or other candidates. Instead, he said that his mix of federal, state and private sector experience would give him a unique perspective as a councilman.
“I do come to this campaign with a unique background for someone running for council,” he said. “I think I can add to the mix as opposed to replacing anyone and anything along that lines.”
Aronsohn said that villagers seem to be most concerned about what they see as a lack of effectiveness from their government.
“I think that’s actually critical because I’m a big believer that government at whatever level should be responsive to people they serve, particularly at the local level,” he said.
Among the other issues Aronsohn said are most important is Valley Hospital’s desire to change the town’s master plan in order to expand its facilities. He said that it would set a bad precedent to make any changes to the town’s master plan – which has strict parameters for new buildings and renovations to existing ones – in order to allow the hospital to expand. Instead, he said they should deal with the hospital’s plans on a case by case basis.
“The hospital is right in the middle of a residential area,” he said. “Everything they do really affects in a dramatic fashion every person in the neighborhood.”
Anne Zusy is a former New York Times editor and breast cancer survivor who’s lived in the village for 13 years – between living in London and Washington.
Zusy, who extensively involved in various volunteer positions, said that despite the nominal salary, she sees being a councilmember as “the ultimate volunteer job.”
Zusy said that she was pivotal in creating the community center in Village Hall’s basement in 2004, helping to secure its funding from a local philanthropist.
According to Zusy, her unconventional way of thinking lends itself to getting things done quickly and efficiently – one of her campaign slogans is “Annie gets things done.”
“People keep asking me why I want to do this,” she said. “The village government is in need of a makeover, and I think I have lots of ideas to do that in many different directions.”
Zusy called the parking garage plan championed by Wiest and Harlow a “debacle,” and instead favored building surface lots on vacant land in other parts of town that could include lifts to stack cars.
While she said she has immense respect for Harlow and Wiest, Zusy said she would prefer Aronsohn and Killion if she had to pick two other candidates to win the election, if only for the sake of change.
“That would really send a message to the village that it’s time for a makeover – it’s time to refresh Ridgewood,” she said. “I think that experience is not necessarily number one in my book.”
Killion, who’s retiring as the village police department’s Captain of Detectives in July, took exception to the current parking garage plan, saying that the village could save $3 million by just building a surface lot on the property and then dealing with additional parking needs as they arise.
Killion said that he’s running because the council has been slow to address its constituents’ needs.
“The problem I have with the council is really nothing getting done,” said Killion. “They seem not to act fast enough. I’m sure their hearts are in the right way but we’ve had projects that have languished over the last four or five years.”
Among those projects, Killion said, is the Habernickel farm – land the village acquired with plans to build several baseball fields, but has so far only built one soccer field.
Killion also said that, while the village doesn’t have big city crime problems, crime is a serious concern. He noted that the police department just made a major drug bust, and that some cocaine had found its way to the high school.
“I believe a safe community is paramount,” he said.