It was a first. A debate between Fair Haven Borough Council candidates. And it was last Wednesday night.
With two seats up for grabs and a host of controversial issues on the local government’s plate, two Fair Haven-raised Democrats running on a hometown “time for change” slate are challenging incumbent Republicans raised out of the area, but with a record of service to the borough, and running on an “experienced team” platform.
Regardless of background, all professed a true love of Fair Haven. And, with questions submitted in writing and fielded by League of Women Voters representatives upon entry, the debate ensued in cordial, measured tone with a full-house, standing-room-only audience of roughly 50.
It started with a short biography and introductory remarks by each of the candidates …
The Democrat challengers
Meghan (Meg) Chrisner-Keefe, 36, a Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School (RFH), Syracuse University and Seton Hall graduate, is an employment lawyer. After being raised in Fair Haven, she came back to raise her family where she grew up. Why the run? To get involved as another generation of her family and give back to the community in which she was raised and said thrived. She is interested, in particular, in transparency, keeping residents with roots in the borough in their hometown, the brush shared services agreement with Rumson and fiscal accountability.
Her running mate, Mike McCue, was also raised in Fair Haven and graduated from RFH. In fact, he an his running mate were an inadvertent team years ago as Knollwood School students. They were dubbed class flirts in the Knollwood yearbook, a post on their Facebook page shows. McCue, 35, served in the U.S. Marines and attained the rank of sergeant. He served in the early 2000s for four years in active duty and later as well assisting in the Iraq withdrawal of troops.
Coupled with his service to the country, as a graduate of Georgian Court University with a degree in history and education, McCue said, “I decided I was ready to come home to Fair Haven to raise a family and become a history teacher. I saw a need for well-educated citizens and teaching history was the best way I saw I could serve my country. Now I’m running for borough council not to serve my country, but to serve my community.”
The Republican incumbents
Jonathan Peters is presently Fair Haven Borough Council president. He has served on council since 2005, 15 years. Hailing from Staten Island, NY, he has been a Fair Haven resident since 1999. A professor at CUNY, he specializes in public finance. He heads the borough’s finance committee. “You can best think of me as the financial plumber and carpenter in town,” he said. “I am the financial backbone that supports the fire department, police, recreation and public works. I troubleshoot financial challenges before they become operational problems.
He said that the borough’s fiscal issues are “not usually visible to residents on a day-to-day basis, and that is good thing (because it means nothing needs fixing), as I am always working to avoid catastrophic failures, unforeseen problems and plan for future needs.” Peters, in his capacity on council, oversees/mediates union negotiations (police and civil service), is liaison to the borough’s Environmental Commission and is commissioner of the police department.
Peters is also co-author of the book Preventing Fraud and Mismanagement in Government. He touted Fair Haven’s AA-plus bond rating, which, he said puts the borough in a strong fiscal management spot and offers budgetary flexibility.
Jacqueline (Jacquie) Rice is newer to her role on council than her teammate. A 19-year Fair Haven resident, she grew up in Union Beach. She married into a longtime Fair Haven family, she said, and came to love the borough just as much as her in laws.
She is a fan of the proposed facilities update, calling it “a wash” as far as taxpayer expense is concerned, with the proposed sale of other borough properties to offset costs. She spearheaded and serves on the new borough Communications Committee to enhance community relations and transparency and is a strong advocate of advancing pedestrian and bike safety initiatives.
While campaigning, “I listened to a lot of residents who wanted improved communications between the borough and residents. So, as soon as I was sworn in, a communications committee was formed.”
She has volunteered on the Fair Haven Day Committee as well as Oktoberfest and joined the Recreation Committee two years ago. On Fair Haven Day, she said, “Those Fireworks signs you see in month of May were my idea.” Rice’s interest in government began in 2013, she said, when she when joined the Junior League of Monmouth County. “I found the process to be amazing,” she said. “It is through these experiences that I decided to run for office.” She added that she has pride in the fact that in less than one year, she feels borough-resident communications have improved.
Several questions were fielded from residents through moderator Sue Sferas. The following is a condensing of the questions into categories of what have been seen as the most critical issues facing the borough and each candidate’s responses, not necessarily in order of questions posed, but, rather, highlights.
Fair Haven Yacht Works lawsuit
Fair Haven Yacht Works is a longtime (since 1920) Fair Haven boat-building and storing business at the foot of DeNormandie Avenue. When the borough attempted to acquire land and river rights for its new park with access to the Navesink River, it found that Yacht Works property (from an expansion previously sanctioned by the state) encroached on riparian rights of the borough. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres and Blue Acres programs, which offer funding to acquire open space, such as this, to offer forever public access contingent upon accepting funds, maintained that the Yacht Works property (docks) inappropriately encroached on what would otherwise be considered public access points.
Yacht Works is owned by a Fair Haven fireman and rescue boats are moored there. Since the onset of the lawsuit, there have been code violations cited and abated and the matter currently is in litigation/mediation, with officials saying that they are hopeful for a compromise solution soon.
Copies of the lawsuit can be found at the Fair Haven Library, Councilwoman Jacquie Rice advised during the debate. With Mayor Ben Lucarelli in attendance, he attempted to advise the debate moderator that it is illegal to openly discuss ongoing litigation negotiations. That attempt was shut down by the moderator, who said she’s shut down the debate if he insisted. The mayor retreated and the debate continued. None of the candidates discusses particulars of the negotiations, which is the aspect that would have been illegal, according to state law.
Christer-Keefe said that she favors mediation as an alternative to often-costly litigation. “As an attorney, I do this on a daily basis,” she said. “Many issues are mediated. There is an appropriate time and place (to discuss such matters).” Mediation, involving a third party, she said, is often the best way to resolve such issues. She said she has seen successful resolution of many matters in such a manner as an attorney.
This business, in particular, she said, has supported the borough via the owner’s volunteer service and mediation would offer a more friendly resolution while avoiding further expenditure of “unnecessary legal expenses.” Sometimes, she said, “it’s important to bring in third party and talk about it (legal matter). If that means both parties are slightly unhappy (in the end), then that’s probably a good outcome.” That, she said, is because in any compromise, not everyone is 100 percent pleased in the end, but there is, indeed, an end.
McCue said that he knew there were some violation fines issues and since remedied. “We do know that Yacht Works has been in town for generations,” he said. “There’s some murky water going on there (with respect to the lawsuit). A lack of information on our part as residents raises a lot of questions. Questions I have.”
Ongoing litigation negotiation cannot be discussed, but, as Rice said, the lawsuit itself is public and the public may access it at the library. McCue reinforced his teammate’s perspective, saying, “I don’t think that lawyers need to get involved. One of the wonderful things about this small town is that we are a community we are neighbors … We can work things out without paying expensive lawyer fees.”
Peters, as a current member of the Borough Council and council president, said, “I’d like to speak freely on this topic, but as an elected official, I have to be mindful of my position. This (and its related issues) is a matter of ongoing litigation, so I just can’t speak as freely as I wish. I can say that we have been working in good faith with this individual for a long time trying to resolve this.”
Rice reaffirmed that “we are in this position because the DEP did not do its job correctly. When Yacht Works applied for expansion, the DEP did not check to see if riparian rights were infringed upon. Now we are in this position. I inherited this position.”
Concerning McCue’s comment about “murky water” and the public not being fully aware of what’s going on with respect to it, she said that “there has been a paperwork trail (on the matter) available since beginning of the year for all to read at the library.” She added, without broaching any negotiation specifics as an official, that Senator Declan O’Scanlon has stepped in to assist with some sort of mediation in an effort to resolve the situation more efficiently. “We are looking to come to conclusion on this in the very near future,” she concluded.
Shared Services and the Agreement with Rumson Brush Collection
Fair Haven officials have long touted the benefits of shared services with respect to saving taxpayer money as well as cooperative efforts with small surrounding communities like the borough. One of the shared efforts employed is that Fair Haven picks up and takes in brush from Rumson in exchange for Rumson’s maintenance of Fair Haven parks. Fair Haven is paid for the service. The Rumson brush is transported to and ground at Fair Haven’s DPW facility.
Years back, there was a proposal to share police services with Little Silver and Rumson. After much examination, nothing ever came of the proposal, as Fair Haven residents ended up preferring what they deemed more personalized services from its small police force. The emergency services dispatch, however, went to Monmouth County years back. There was disagreement among residents with that move as well. Some emergency responders have said that there are detriments to the system.
Rice, regarding the brush agreement, said that “Rumson pays us a good sum of money to take in their brush.” Any extra money for the borough is a benefit, she said, adding that she is all for any opportunity to share services. “It only helps us,” she said. “It helps us look good to the state and limits government (involvement at a higher level) a bit.”
On the subject of the new proposed municipal facilities and more shared services possibly saving the borough that money, she said that the sale of borough property to offset the cost is “a wash.” It will not cost taxpayers, she said. And, she added, if police headquarters are not improved/moved, a police union problem could ensue, as, she said, the current police headquarters are substandard. The borough doesn’t want or need that, she said.
Peters said, from a fiscal perspective, he favors anything that will save the borough money, including shared services. He added, however, that shared services require a balance in order to achieve success. But, if and when it works, it’s a major benefit.
Be mindful, he said, that “shared services is like a marriage … you don’t always get what you want out of the deal. It’s a compromise, a contract” a measure of giving to get. Citing that it’s difficult to keep costs down, he added that the borough is always examining how things are going in a shared services agreement and the benefits of any potential agreements. On the subject of the new facilities project proposal, he said he promises that there will be no cost to taxpayers. No rise in municipal taxes.
McCue said he is “generally in favor of shared services. Anything that brings in money into our town and offers less of burden on taxpayers.” However, he said, the Rumson brush haul and grinding agreement is a detriment to the safety and health of residents, especially those close to the DPW facility where the brush comes in via large trucks and is ground. McCue lives in close proximity to the facility on William Street.
The streets are getting dirty and infrastructure is wearing, he said. There are other costs involved, he said, that he feels outweigh the money earned by Fair Haven for the service and the exchange. In addition to the safety with respect to truck traffic, there is a cost in eventual road repair and, “we have to now man a cop there. That’s an additional cost. All (true) costs were not considered enough when we decided to take Rumson’s brush.”
Chrisner-Keefe said that “shared services has a place.” But, agreeing with her teammate, she added that it has proven “not as big a benefit in the taking of Rumson’s brush as first thought.” She also offered that she felt further sharing of services should be explored before the borough forges ahead with its proposed new facilities project.
“The borough facilities project is not moving as quickly as anticipated,” she said. “I think we have to think about a more open dialogue with residents (on the subjects of shared services and the facilities). There have been meetings about the project and copies of the proposal are on the borough’s website. Chrisner-Keefe’s thinking is that perhaps the borough won’t need new municipal facilities if more services are shared and not all personnel need to be housed in Fair Haven.
It is constitutionally mandated that affordable housing be provided to all. However, it has been widely documented that affordable housing is seriously lacking these days, especially in the state of New Jersey and in more affluent municipalities, like Fair Haven. The average property in the borough is currently assessed at upward of $800,000. The Mount Laurel legal decision years ago made affordable housing a mandate. The doctrine “ordered all New Jersey municipalities to plan, zone for, and take affirmative actions to provide realistic opportunities for their ‘fair share’ of the region’s need for affordable housing for low and moderate-income people.”
It is a mandate that many municipalities have not met. Some officials, mostly those representing the more affluent and fully developed communities statewide, feel the mandate poses an unfair burden to towns for various reasons, such as density, adding children to the school system, lack of sufficient tax revenue from lower-assessed dwellings, and builders’ remedies, which offer breaks to developers who include affordable housing in their development. The system that is used to arrive at a required number of affordable units, some municipal officials throughout the state have said, is skewed.
However, it is the law to at least show a good faith plan to provide a fair share of housing that is affordable in any given municipality to every citizen. Fair Haven has fallen short and recently submitted its plan to remedy that, which includes zoning overlays to allow above-retail business apartments and possible future acquisition of property to provide senior housing that would include some affordable units.
Working in concert with the state to help see the meeting of affordable housing mandates, the non-profit (501c3) Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) was borne in 1975. It “is the only public interest organization entirely devoted to defending the housing rights of New Jersey’s poor through enforcement of the Mount Laurel Doctrine, the landmark decision that prohibits economic discrimination through exclusionary zoning and requires all towns to provide their ‘fair share’ of their region’s need for affordable housing,” the organization’s website says.
The organization gets involved in litigation against the state and its municipalities challenging what it deems exclusionary zoning, not allowing for people of more modest means to live in a municipality. The borough hired planners to challenge the FSHC’s determination that it fell 371 units short. The proposed overlays and senior housing, they felt, offered a satisfactory resolution. There are no concrete plans to build the housing, only conceptual proposals.
On the subject of that in concert with keeping seniors on a fixed income in town …
Affordable housing, he said, is a constitutional obligation mandated nearly 35 years ago. “I think offering affordable housing is important to (preserving the character of) Fair Haven,” he said. Diversity, he added, is important in any community. For instance, “blue collar workers are an asset,” he said. Varying demographics offer a more positive community experience, he said. So, “we need to fulfill our constitutional duty to get affordable housing in Fair Haven.”
Providing affordable housing in a feasible, fiscally prudent and beneficial way is difficult to do in Fair Haven, he said, but the borough is trying. However, with a lot of the borough built out, he said, the additional building is not necessarily the answer. And, with the average assessed property upward of $800,000, apartments or townhouses could become a very expensive venture, he said, and add to density with most ending up not being so affordable.
Under the Mount Laurel Doctrine, there is something called a builder’s remedy lawsuit. It allows a developer to sue a town when they propose a development that will help satisfy the affordable housing need and the town’s zoning prohibits it — or is what is called exclusionary. “If the court determines that the community’s zoning is exclusionary or that the town has failed to meet its obligations, the court can order the town to permit the developer’s ‘solution,'” according to the doctrine. The “remedy” then offered by the court is the fruition of the development and permission to allow the developer to override density and other zoning restrictions in a town to satisfy the constitutional obligation for more equal housing opportunity.
“We are trying to get some ability to build mixed-use developments,” Peters said. That’s where the new plan comes in. It would allow for apartments above retail and, with the zoning overlays, could extend to be more flexible about allowing apartments on bigger estates. “I hope now that we have a reasonable plan that will be acceptable to the courts,” he said.
With respect to seniors, Peters said that keeping them in Fair Haven is key. He choked back tears as he mentioned his 95-year-old neighbor whom he said he values very much as a member of the community.
The borough’s affordable housing plan is currently being negotiated, she said. The FSHC deemed that Fair Haven needed 371 affordable units, she said. “We hired planners who looked at our space and said all we can do is one,” she added. The planners’ study has been submitted, but not yet sanctioned.
“Affordable housing will be coming soon,” she added, pointing to the new facilities plan and the idea of placing one or two Habcore units in plots of land where that will go, if it comes to fruition. She also mentioned Fair Haven’s potential plan to allow the building of senior housing by the Methodist church, cautioning that “nobody’s selling the church, but if it ever gets developed, we wanted to look into putting senior housing there so that it will be more affordable.” With respect to seniors, she mentioned that they should know that they can apply to get their taxes frozen if they are in a certain tax bracket and pay level as a measure to help in any way possible in keeping seniors in the borough. “We can help with the information and helping fill out forms,” she said.
“I understand the issue of affordability,” she said. “My family was one of those families that had to move as soon as I graduated from RFH. It’s not uncommon for the RFH Senior Lives Here sign to go up immediately followed by For Sale sign. It’s very concerning …” She said that “continuing to expose and explore our budget,” is critical. “It’s important to help understand where to make cuts where to increase spending. Keeping our seniors in town is critically important”
She said that there should be more senior tax breaks. “We need to be considering residents of all ages in Fair Haven. Even though a huge portion is 18 and under, I think it’s important to keep seniors in town and promote diversity. A lot of people have deep roots here. I hope you don’t leave and can continue affording to stay here.”
On the fair share housing obligation, Chrisner-Keefe said that the constitutional obligation is critical to satisfy. “For reasons I am not familiar with, we have not met that obligation,” she said. “I know that we are in litigation to come up with a plan (that has bee formulated). I also know that we ended up in litigation because we did not meet the obligation. We need to do that. It’s a constitutional obligation.”
When it comes to taxes “you get into ‘Well, what do we want to spend our money on?’ It’s a matter of what the borough and the community wants. For instance, he said, the borough privatized trash collection, but it is paid for by the municipality. Towns such as Holmdel, he mentioned, have residents paying different entities themselves to pick up their trash and, as a result, it gets picked up in different spots on different days by different entities.
As far as municipal services offered for the municipal portion of taxes paid, he added that officials “hear about different requests for investments/projects, such as the tennis courts, public facilities and parks.” Residents, through municipal taxes, pay for those projects, so, he said, officials try to accommodate their requests, attempting to strike a balance between what is needed and what is wanted or a combination thereof and what the borough can afford.
Grants subsidize many of those projects, he said, calling attention to the fact that Fair Haven is “very good at grant writing.” All needs/requests, he added, when looking at a project are fit within the borough’s existing spending and debt costs as to not have any effect on the existing tax bill.
When running the borough, he said, it’s “our own responsibility to look at spending plans and available funding to accommodate those plans. Everybody from the federal government down doesn’t care about us (and funding because Fair Haven is a more affluent town). I don’t like to talk about our grants success for that simple reason. The reality is that we’re trying very hard to raise funds and people will wonder why we need the grants and have them. They’ll hear about our success and try to make noise ate the county or state level saying Fair Haven shouldn’t be getting so much. The reality is that it’s a wealthier town and (that makes it) going to be more difficult for us to get more money.”
When it comes to borough expenditures, McCue said, “transparency is key … that at the helm of leadership is transparency. (For instance), the budget for litigation went up. What raised my eyebrows is that litigation costs went up. Now, we are allocating more funds for litigation.
“We are also spending (roughly) $10,000 on a public relations firm to actively communicate with our constituents. I think that’s a lot of money. They might say it’s a drop in the bucket, but then we can’t afford a slide, because a tree limb took it out and it costs (the) $10,000 (spent on PR). Children who can’t vote don’t have a slide, but we have a PR firm. We need to look at the budget a bit closer and listen to priorities.”
He stated the fact that most of the portion of the tax bill goes to the schools budget. “Meg and I went through this school system and value it. That being said, we need to look at the big picture. That is that most of the taxes go to schools. The referendum that recently passed was chosen by the people. Period.” The bottom line, he said, is that “people struggle to stay here. It’s hard to live on a fixed income when taxes keep rising. We need to keep taxes level.”
Making spending more transparent can be accomplished in many ways, she said. That, she said, can be accomplished by making budget meetings open to the public so that the residents have the ability to participate in the process. Municipal budgets and accountings of all spending is available to the public. Copies of the annual municipal budget are available for public purview and accountings of all spending are available at twice-monthly council meetings (in a binder next to agendas at the table to the right as you walk in).
She added that while the borough has a good bond rating, the real question is whether or not “we want to continue to get into more debt. For instance, how did we get into a state where we need all new roads?” And whether or not the debt is for variable or fixed expenditures is something residents should understand with, perhaps, detailed budget presentations. She again brought up the value of shared services as, perhaps, an alternative to the new proposed facilities. “With the schools referendum passed, we need to be looking to keep the budget intact,” she said.
Citing that the budget is available for residents’ examination at all times as well as day-to-day expenditures, Rice said that the municipal budget is and has always been in good shape, with no notable hikes in many years. The process, she said, is already very transparent.
She called attention to the borough’s keen ability to access and secure funding, citing that the borough has attained $4.2 million grants in the last 10 years. “Fair Haven is amazing at finding grants,” she said. “It’s one of the leading municipalities in the area for getting grants.”
Support of Small Businesses
Fair Haven is extremely supportive of its small businesses, she said. But, it has come to officials’ attention that the applications for businesses coming to town are confusing. She added that, keeping that in mind, moving forward, officials are looking at ways to streamline the process and make it clearer to help businesses to spend less money on the applications and get through the process successfully.
The desire, she said, is to continue to make the borough attractive to residents and businesses alike. “We need to set up plan to attract small businesses and explore barriers to them coming to town,” she said. “If we’re going to add more business (facilities), we need a strong plan in place to make sure they are filled and we are able to benefit from them in town. We need to work with one another. It’s about mutual solutions to problems. It’s all about communication and working together.”
Businesses, Peters said, are out of the borough council’s hands. “We pay for the fire hydrants ($65,000 a year) and we pay for the street lights,” he said. “That’s our (council’s) job.” Commercial businesses, he said he can’t really speak to. “Private individuals are going to make decisions about what businesses are in town,” he added, specifying that the borough’s zoning and planning board members are “deputized by council and the laws of the state of New Jersey to make decisions (about development),” including businesses brought in and that their use conforms with those laws. “It’s out of our hands, in terms of borough council,” he said.
The future, he said, will show that we will probably see less ability to keep brick and mortar stores (because of more of a reliance on the internet for shopping, though “the current council is pro-active about keeping small businesses, because it’s what the community wants.”
On quality of life as it relates to businesses in the borough, McCue “I can’t really answer to that (particularly as it relates to the contentious Dunkin Donuts application). I can say, though, that the quality of active citizenry has certainly improved because of the issue.” And, he said, that was a positive aspect of an otherwise negative situation. “It raised eyebrows and got a lot of people involved,” which, he said, should always be encouraged.
It’s all a learning process, he said. “As a a teacher, I continue to teach, but I’m also a lifelong learner,” he said. “As a community, people learned a lot about how local government works (from the Dunkin experience) experience. It got people involved.”