Live blogging the Bergen County freeholder debate

Update, 4:30: What a difference in closing statements.

The Republicans hammered the corruption issue even harder. Duggan said the county needed an “ethical root canal,” and that only the Republicans could provide it. He went on to refer, again, to the ad that called him a socialist, saying “If the price that I have to pay for restoring this good name is the besmirching of my own name, then I would happily play that price.” Calabrese noted that none of the freeholders would explain the recent subpoena the board was served with, and brought up the Democrats’ home-town losses, saying “the people who know them best voted them out.” Heller said his election would help bring an end to “debt-financed spending.”

The freeholders have said, however, that they can’t legally discuss the contents of the subpoena, which was sent to the Custodian of Records. He happens to be part of the freeholder board.

The freeholders, however, never took the bait to engage in the corruption argument. None addressed the accusations directly, with Ganz only saying that he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t have thick skin. They spent the bulk of their time saying thank yous and reiterating a few of their accomplishments. McPherson, who frequently deferred to Ganz’s expertise throughout the debate, called him the “smartest” freeholder and said she made a lot of sacrifices to be a freeholder, but that it was worth it. Walton said that “Each of us have municipal experience and we look forward to continuing this journey together as people.”

Ganz gave the most comprehensive statement.

“In listening to us this year, you hear there’s a clear vision from the Democratic side that favors open space, education, stable taxes and good services to seniors as well as those less fortunate who are unable to represent themselves for us,” he said. “We stand for good government, progressive government, the things make us proud to be taxpayers and residents in Bergen County.”

Illegal immigration is not exactly the most relevant question to the debate, but it came up anyway in one of the audience-submitted questions: how, as a freeholder, would you deal with illegal immigrants in Bergen County.

All three freeholders more or less dismissed the question, saying that, while they fund the sheriff’s office and county police who in turn deal with problems relating to illegal immigration, it’s out of the scope of their authority.

Duggan was furious “You have a responsibility to uphold the law, number one,” he said., saying that the county ought to institute a program that deputizes law enforcement officers as INS agents (sounds like the controversial move Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello tried last years).

“They spent over $300,000 here to malign the only legal immigrant would dare stand up. The state of NJ pays $9.2 billion to services for illegal immigrants,” said Duggan.

Update, 3:59pm: The inevitable pay-to-play question came up.

Of course, it presented another chance for the Republicans to jump all over the Democrats on the corruption issue.

But what would they do about it?

Heller said that he would make sure all contracts are bid on, and that if there’s a problem finding a low enough bid locally, the search should be geographically expanded. Duggan said he’s like to “ban completely the conflicts of interest that link these contractors with the candidates.”

Ganz countered that, when he started off, there were no disclosure requirements, and that he wrote the law requiring it.

“I believe that banning it outright… is clearly unconstitutional,” he said.

McPherson said that the Democrats had streamlined the process of contract vetting, saving the legal department $1 million compared to when Republicans controlled the board.

Update, 3:51pm: The question is whether there’s a separation of power in county government.

Republicans, of course, say there’s not– that County Executive Dennis McNerney and the freeholders were all “hand picked” by Ferriero, and vote in “lock step.”

The freeholders, however, say that the Republicans ought to see them in their working sessions, and not just the meetings where they vote.

McPherson: “I can assure you also that we all have very strong personalities and interests, and we advocate to one another. There is a lot of discussion at the work session and committee meetings, and there are issues that the freeholder board and county executive do not agree with.

Walton: It’s interesting that [the Republicans] make reference to the public meetings, but the work sessions, which are also public, I’ve never seen them in attendance.

Update, 3:38 pm: Ouch. Shut down. Paul Duggan just said one way he would deal with the economic crisis’s impact on Bergen County would be to get rid of the freeholders’ cars.

McPherson: “Some of the things that were suggested by our opponents I don’t know what they’re talking about. The freeholder board does not get a car.”

Republicans suggested cutting freeholder salaries and reducing open space funding by half, among other measures.

The freeholders said they already govern fiscally cautiously, saying that they’ve cut jobs and noting the county’s AAA bond rating. Ganz said that calling the county debt $700 million was disengenous — and that it’s actually $400 million.

Update, 3:34: Duggan, responding to the Democrats’ charge that he was a socialist back in Ireland, where he grew up.

“I am Paul Duggan, and I was Irish first and American by God’s grace…. No, I was never a member of Sinn Fein, the sociality party back in Ireland.”

Update, 3:27pm: So far, the Democrats have not taken the bait. In their opening statements, the touted their own experience in office.

Bernadette McPherson noted that they all have municipal experience which, along with her experience as a parent and her three terms on the freeholder board, gives her the necessary expertise.

Walton noted that he’s only been on since February, and said he had already “rolled up his sleave.” Ganz said a vote for him means more good government and open space.

But the experience issue McPherson raised could also be liability. All three have held municipal office, and all three were, within the last couple years, voted out of those offices.

Update, 3:23pm: Well, that didn’t take long. Calabrese, in his short opening statement, launched right into an attack on the Democrats for corruption.

“I call it a corruption tax that each and every one of you is playing. The mastermind of no bid and pay to play contracts Is Joe Ferriero, and he hand picked each of the seven freeholders on the freeholder board right now. And the freeholder board was just subpoenaed last week.”

Heller, in his opening statement, said “The main focus of county government under freeholders ganz and Walton has been the perpetuation of a pay-to-play culture.”

“Not one of them has had the courage to step up and call for the resignation of Joe Ferriero.”

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Update, 3:18pm: The League of Women Voters’ Bergen County president, Barbara King, just said this is the first time they’ve had a debate that’s standing room only. The seats are totally full, with some of the few young people in attendance standing in the aisles (that includes what appears to be a high school or college class).

Update, 3:10pm: The moderator is Edith Frank, a state board member of the League of Women Voters. She’s from Morristown.

Update, 3:03pm: All six candidates have arrived. They briefly shook hands, and now they’re sitting at a long table, Last Supper style, and chatting with their fellow partisans. Nobody knows who the moderator will be.

Greetings from Bergen Community College in scenic Paramus, where the audience is just starting to roll in for the first and only freeholder debate. It’s sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and begins 3:15 p.m.

Incumbent Democrats Bernadette McPherson, David Ganz and Vernon Walton will defend their seats – and likely their reputations — against Republicans Chris Calabrese, Jeff Heller and Paul Duggan.

It could get ugly.

Republicans have been in the political wilderness in Bergen County for some time, though they still had a Republican Freeholder – Lisa Randall – until 2006. But with the Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero, recently indicted on eight felony corruption counts, Republicans see an opportunity, even if they’re still massively out-funded by the dominant party.

One thing to note: this will be a special election for Walton’s seat. He took office earlier this year to fill the unexpired term of Connie Wagner, who was elevated to the Assembly. Duggan is the Republican fighting for his seat. Calabrese and Heller hope to oust Ganz and McPherson for full three year terms.

The Republicans have aired cable television commercials blaming the Democrats to what they call a “corruption tax.” Republicans, in turn, have used a Sarah Palin impersonator to mock Duggan’s distant Labour Party membership back in his native Ireland, and helicopter rides County Clerk Kathe Donovan – the Republicans’ only county-wide elected official – took when she was a Port Authority Commissioner.

Expect to hear the corruption issue raised and tied into the usual debate about taxes and spending.

Live blogging the Bergen County freeholder debate