Bloomfield Candidates Spar Over Issues at Forum

Candidates, from left: Democrats Wartyna Davis, Joseph Lopez, Carlos Pomares, Michael Venezia; Republicans Russell Mollica, Zachary Smith, Maribel Perez, Peter Santana.
Candidates, from left: Democrats Wartyna Davis, Joseph Lopez, Carlos Pomares, Michael Venezia; Republicans Russell Mollica, Zachary Smith, Maribel Perez, Peter Santana.

(NOTE: This article has been updated to correctly indicate that candidate Peter Santana was talking about the Essex County Open Space Trust Fund in his remarks, not the township’s OSTF as was originally stated.)

High property taxes, economic development, forensic audits and the animal shelter were among the key issues discussed Monday evening at the Bloomfield Candidates Forum sponsored by the Bloomfield Neighborhood Association Committee.

The forum was moderated by Marlene Sincaglia, President of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence & Summit.

The upcoming November 5, 2013 election has four openings on the ballot: Mayor and the three Council-At-Large seats. All three council seats are currently open, as former Council-At-Large representatives Bernard Hamilton and Peggy Dunigan are not running for re-election and Democratic Councilman Michael Venezia is running for Mayor, leaving his At-Large council seat available.

Competing for the three Council-At-Large positions are Democrats Dr. Wartyna “Nina” Davis, Carlos Pomares, and Joseph Lopez. The Republican slate includes Russell Mollica for Mayor, and Zachary Smith, Maribel Perez and Peter Santana for the council seats.

The candidates had been provided an advance question asking which one policy that is currently in place in the Township that would they keep, and which policy not already in effect would they implement.

Michael Venezia cited the “Complete Streets” program as a policy he would continue, and then talked about working to save money through shared services. He pointed out that the Township had recently signed an agreement with West Orange and Parsippany to share the costs of health care for their employees, which will save $2 million.

Lopez talked about expanding neighborhood crime watch groups and implementing foot patrols and police on bicycles to cut back on crime. He also said he supported the creation of a police substation in the Third Ward.

Davis focused on shopping locally, supporting the creation of a “Shop Bloomfield” program to incentivize residents to shop in town in exchange for lower property taxes. She also called for more transparency, and said the municipal budget should be presented to the community and made available on line.

Pomares commended the efforts of the Township in securing over $1 million in grants. He said he would work to bring forward new grant opportunities, and expand attention to cultural and historical aspects of the town. “Historic preservation enriches our culture,” he said.

Russell Mollica said that Township officials need to live by, and enhance, conflict of interest policies, stating that Michael Venezia had voted against an audit of the Fire Department that “saved the town $250,000.” He said that an enhanced pay-to-play law should be enacted.

Perez stated that impact studies should be done before developers come before the council with their plans, and said there should be better communications between the governing body and the Board of Education. She currently serves on the Board of Education.

Santana commended the Bloomfield ambulance squad for having replaced police with trained EMTs in the ambulances, freeing up the police for other tasks. He then went on to question the usefulness of the Essex County Open Space Trust Fund. “Since 2001 Bloomfield has paid over $6.6 million into the Open Space Trust Fund and what have we gotten in return? Nada.”Bloomfield taxpayers currently allot one cent for every $100 in assessed property value to the County’s fund. It was recently announced that Essex County’s Brookdale Park, which straddles Montclair and Bloomfield, will receive new lighting fixtures and improved landscaping worth $455,000 funded by the County’s Open Space Trust Fund.

Smith spoke about tax exemptions for homeowners who make improvements in their property. He said he would clarify chapter 520-1 in the Township code to ensure that homeowners understand they can be approved for an exemption for up to $25,000 for five years.

The candidates then answered questions on a number of issues from the audience that were provided on index cards to the moderator.

Lion Gate

The former Scientific Glass property on Lion Gate Drive has been approved for a 104-townhome development. The candidates were asked their opinions about the project. It has been suggested that the site could be used for soccer fields for the Township’s teams.

Venezia said he is in favor of taking the property, which he said is one of the last pieces of open space in the Township. He pointed out it is on a flood plain, and that building the townhomes would increase traffic on Broad Street and Bay Avenue. He said the property had only sold for $4.6 million and would not cost $15 million for the town to buy it, as some have suggested. 

  • Lopez, a former member of the Board of Education, said that any children coming in to the townhouse development would have a direct impact on the Brookdale Elementary School, which is already overcrowded.
  • Davis and Pomares agreed, saying that the Township is already overdeveloped. Pomares said it is his understanding that eminent domain can be used for a public use.

Mollica stated he had been against the project since its inception, and that in January 2011 he had provided information to the town that the property was in foreclosure. It was subsequently purchased by the developer and he said it would cost too much money for the town to buy it. He suggested using the vacant Westinghouse tract for soccer fields.

  • His team concurred, with Perez saying that they should look at other options and think of the big picture, not just one project at a time.
  • Santana said the Township could have had the property for $1.5 million but that now it would cost $15 million, and that eminent domain was not an option.
  • Smith said he fully supports building soccer fields, but “That ship has sailed.”

Economic Development/Hartz Mountain

The two teams had conflicting visions for the future of the vacant Hartz Mountain site.

Mollica said the site could be used for a medical office complex, and stores similar to those at Clifton’s Promenade Shops. The Westinghouse site, he said, could be used for soccer fields and a new DPW building. Santana said that the last areas of open space in the town are the Hartz Mountain and Westinghouse sites. He said the Hartz site should be used for commercial ratables, and that they had letters of intent from Home Goods and T.J. Maxx.

Venezia countered that there is already an 18% commercial vacancy rate in town and questioned why Mollica would support continuing to build commercial real estate. He also said there is a new medical building on Broad Street. He said a “Shop Bloomfield” program, similar to one recently implemented in West Orange, would encourage local residents to shop in town. Pomares said that the town needs to build on its assets, such as the train station and the adjacent parking garage. He also cited Restaurant Week as a successful program in increasing traffic to local businesses.

The two sides later scrapped over an earlier proposal to place a Walmart on the Hartz Mountain site.

Venezia said that the current Mayor had sat down with the developer to propose a 75,000 square foot Walmart on the property, which Venezia said he opposed. He also said that the developer is providing three acres of the property for the Township to build a new DPW building. Pomares agreed that he did not want a Walmart on the site.

Smith said the zoning of the Hartz Mountain site was changed “behind closed doors” from industrial to residential, and said the town needs a “completely different solution” for this property. Santana supported the idea of a Walmart, saying he shops there.

Shared Services/Stabilize Taxes

All of the candidates supported saving money through shared services.

Russell Mollica talked about sharing telecommunications costs with the County and other municipalities.

  • Perez said there is a New Jersey Shared Services Association that can help the Township identify services that can be shared across municipalities.
  • Smith said the Fire Department is a good opportunity, as Bloomfield has the only certified Fire Department in the area.
  • Santana spoke about the possibility of consolidating municipal courts.

Michael Venezia said that in addition to the shared health costs between municipalities, the Township Administrator is also working on a shared services agreement for dental care.

  • Pomares said the Health & Human Services Department could continue to expand its role, and that there may be opportunities to share more costs with the Board of Education.
  • Lopez said when he was on the Board of Education the town received $300 thousand to share services with Nutley.
  • Davis cited the “incredible amount of redundancy” in local government.  She agreed with the idea of sharing health services, as well as buying in bulk to take advantage of economies of scale.

Forensic Audits

The Venezia team opposed an across-the-board forensic audit of all Township departments. Michael Venezia asked, “Are we really going to spend $200 thousand?” He said that not one town in New Jersey has ever done a forensic audit on their whole budget. Davis said that a forensic audit “sounds like a very sexy title,” but it’s for when there is reason to suspect there is something wrong. Otherwise it is a waste of money, she said. Pomares pointed out standard audits are done on a yearly basis, and if they show something is wrong, then a forensic audit would follow.

Mollica pointed out a forensic audit recently done on the Fire Department uncovered $250,000 in excess costs. He said the yearly audit is only a topline. Santana said that he would rather find waste in the current budget than implement a 5% cut across the board, as the Venezia team has advocated. Perez said that a forensic audit can tell the town where they could do things differently in order to save money.

Animal Shelter

A two-part question about the future of the animal shelter askjed the candidates if they support returning volunteers to the shelter and whether they supported the legislation known as CAPA (Companion Animal Protection Act), which would guarantee proper treatment of the animals in the care of the Township.

All of the candidates supported returning volunteers to the shelter and agreed that the council should pass the CAPA legislation.

Mollica said, “It is critical that we have the volunteers back at the animal shelter,” calling the shelter a “cornerstone” of the community.

  • Santana agreed, saying, “Why would anyone discourage volunteers from working anywhere in the town?”
  • Smith said that the entire animal shelter program had been “mismanaged,” and that volunteers would do “a far better job running the shelter” than the Township Administrator. He also said the town should bring back Memphis (the shelter dog that was sent to a trainer in South Dakota over a year ago under the auspices of the Health Department).

The Democratic team also supported the return of volunteers to the shelter. Michael Venezia promised that his team would create an Animal Advisory Board after they take office. He said that Township Administrator Ehrenburg is currently writing rules and regulations for the shelter so the volunteers can return in January. He also pledged they will pass the CAPA legislation.

  • Pomares, who has a background working at nonprofit organizations, said that nonprofits “thrive” on volunteers and that he supports CAPA. He also said he is against euthanizing animals.
  • Lopez was more cautious in his support, saying that before returning volunteers to the shelter, they would need to make sure it would have no fiscal impact on the Township due to lawsuits or other issues. He then said he is a vegetarian, and supports the shelter.

Other topics covered included rent control, requirements for police, firemen and township managers to live in town, and the Affordable Care Act. The videotape of the forum will be available shortly on WMBA’s website and on Channel 35.

The candidates concluded by summing up their positions and asking for the public’s support on Election Day. The forum was followed by a reception in an adjacent building where residents were able to meet with the candidates.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Saying no to condos in Lion Gate & yes to apartments in Hartz Mt doesn’t make sense. The same rationale needs to be applied to both properties. Is the council more worried about traffic & school crowding in one part of town and not another?

  2. Excellent reporting Mimi!

    Mike Venezia supports returning volunteers to the shelter? Really? The veteran core volunteers especially were fired March 16, 2012. When, exactly, was he planning on voicing his support for the volunteers and doing whatever he could to get them back? Oh, wait…I already know the answer to that question.

    As for volunteers running the shelter, the township tried that to disastrous results 8 yrs ago. Doesn’t anyone pay attention? We had what we needed before F. Michael Fitzpatrick (with the blessing of Karen Lore and backed by the BoH) fired the only two long-time, professional and competent Animal Control Officers and began to hire part timers on a year by year (or in some cases month by month) basis. Karen Lore hired four incompetent, unqualified and inexperienced people to “manage” the shelter in as many years.

    The shelter needs qualified, experienced, professionals to manage it. No other department would be run the way the shelter has been over the decades. Why is the shelter different? We need someone who gives a damn about the shelter, the animals ant the people who want to volunteer.

    Will we have to wait until January before someone decides to start all over again? That is not acceptable. It’s doable now. It always was doable. In fact, it was getting done. By the volunteers, at least.

  3. “Is the Council more worried about traffic & school crowding in one part of town and not another?”

    Bebopgun, don’t get people started. There is no Bloomfield/Upper Bloomfield as in Montclair/Upper Montclair.

  4. “Santana commended the Bloomfield ambulance squad for having replaced police with trained EMTs in the ambulances, freeing up the police for other tasks. He then went on to question the usefulness of the Open Space Trust Fund that currently sets aside a half cent of tax for every $100 in assessed property value. “Since 2001 Bloomfield has paid over $6.6 million into the Open Space Trust Fund and what have we gotten in return? Nada.””

    Incorrect Mimi – Sanatana was talking about the County Open Space Trust Fund- not sure what we contribute but it is NOT 1/2 cent per $100 – check the tape and you’ll see I’m right. We have not contributed $6.6 Million to the Bloomfield OSTFC which started in 2001.- you are mixing apples and oranges

  5. Hey karen- new space on the official Bloomfield web site – talks about the animal shelter (some of it posted yesterday and some today)

    The Shelter Program is currently being reorganized. Updates will be posted as more information becomes available.

    https://www.bloomfieldtwpnj.com/content/animal-shelter

    We stilldon’t have an answer as to wherethe money that the fundraising committeee hasd gathered is going. We can’t even get a list of them from the Township administrator and yet they are still raising money- for what?

  6. AND – that local shopping stuff that Venezia touts as working so well in WEST ORANGE hasn’t even started yet! REMEMBER TO NOT ACCEPT ANYTHING THAT TEAM VENEZIA SAYS AT FACE VALUE- IT’S ALL DONE WITH SMOKE AND MIRRORS

    Posted on: October 18, 2013
    Shop Local Cards Available- Program Kicks Off November 1st
    For Information & To Request a Card by Mail…….

    Shop West Orange Begins November 1, 2013

    https://www.westorangechamber.com/Shop_WO.htm#Shop WO Card

  7. Local shopping in Bloomfield? Really? Where? Nails? Dollar Stores? Fried chicken? And at 25 cents for 20 minutes courtesy the parking authority? Are they kidding? I do what I can shopping locally, but there’s not much to choose from. And with those parking meters that take only quarters (not to mention my $25 ticket for participating in Restaurant Week) I don’t stop any more at all. Anywhere. Unless I’m in Brookdale and can park on the street or in the lot behind Terry’s so I can visit some of those shops. The Center? Never again.

  8. Banda is just a broken record. As long as she and Gilleran continue their diatribe, they’re will never be a viable volunteer program at the shelter. They have seriously harmed with the animals with the constant attacks. I hope if the volunteer program is ever reimplemented that people like Gilleran Gove, Banda and the agitators are kept out of there

  9. Wow- we have kept this issue alive. Without our involvement no one would know of the treatment (or lack of care) at the Bloomfield Animal Shelter.

    Currently we are asking the township administrator to allow volunteers to care for the cats – and release some of the staff to walk the dogs more that 3-5 minutes at a time.

    Not sure what your involvement is- but you sure sound like that North Country troll. Do you live in the area? Are you going to volunteer at the shelter? I doubt it…

  10. lol…good catch, Pat! In any case it’s someone who doesn’t know squat. A troll is a troll is a troll, regardless where they’re from.

  11. PS to icare: I have NO intention of ever setting foot in that shelter again, especially if a certain faction – the one that actually did screw up the volunteer program which you would know if you knew anything – is still there. Many former vols refuse to go back for the same reason. It’s sad. We can only hope for a new group who prove to be as dedicated and competent as the veteran volunteers were. BTW, they are all lending their time and talents to other shelters and rescues. You can’t keep a good volunteer down.

Comments are closed.