By JESSE WINTER
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — With the General Election only weeks away on November 2, the eight candidates vying for the Westfield Town Council gathered inside the council chambers on Wednesday evening to make their case to voters in a forum sponsored by The Westfield Leader and moderated by Publisher Lauren S. Barr.
Both the Republican and Democratic candidates, competing for the four spots on the council dais, outlined their vision for Westfield’s future, and touched upon major town-wide issues that included finances and fiscal policy, the future of the downtown, the proposed Edison Intermediate School fields project and the role of redevelopment projects like the recently-green-lit Southside Redevelopment Project.
The upcoming election features all four of Westfield’s wards in play, with four incumbent Democrats defending their spots on the council against Republican challengers. The election also will feature a mayoral race, with incumbent Democrat Mayor Shelley Brindle challenged by Republican JoAnn Neylan. A separate forum between the two mayoral candidates will be live-streamed next Thursday, October 14, at 7 p.m.
Throughout the course of the night, all the council candidates had the opportunity to respond to questions offered by the moderator, along with providing introductory and closing statements surrounding their candidacies. The event featured a sizable audience filling the chamber benches. Those Westfielders watching remotely were able to view the candidates’ forum being live-streamed on Facebook.
The forum began with the First Ward candidates, the Republican challenger Amanda Como and incumbent Democrat Linda Habgood.
Ms. Como would begin her introduction outlining the various fund-raising and community-service roles she has occupied in town, including being on the PTO at Roosevelt Intermediate School and a fund-raising chair for the Westfield Welcome Club. A Ward 1 resident for 14 years, Ms. Como said her decision to run for office was motivated “by extreme partisan politics from the national scene that have trickled down into Westfield.
“I believe in the diversity of thoughts, ideas and approaches, and those started to feel stifled to me. That is not the type of town I want my children to grow up in, so I decided to try and do something about it,” she added.
During the course of her comments, Ms. Como took various positions on hot-button issues confronting the town, including Westfield’s downtown businesses. During the question portion of the meeting, Ms. Como was asked what she would do to attract new businesses.
“As a small-business owner, it’s upsetting to me to see the two dozen plus vacancies downtown. Immediately, I would advocate to remove any ordinances restricting certain types of businesses from operating on the ground level,” she responded.
The topic of the Historic Preservation Commission was raised for both Ward 1 candidates.
Westfield’s adoption of new historic-preservation laws passed last year put in place measures that potentially make it more difficult for owners of an historic house to make changes, or to potentially knock it down.
“I believe in the promotion of architectural integrity, and community heritage, but it should be 100 percent the homeowners’ choice,” said Ms. Como. “Through education, encouragement and empowerment, you can get more people to develop a love and a passion for historic preservation,” said the Republican nominee. “For most of us, our homes are our biggest investment.”
Councilwoman Habgood, who sits on the Historic Preservation Commission, offered a different take on the historic-preservation ordinance.
“There is no one on this council today who is going to force anyone to designate their home,” responded Councilwoman Habgood. “We put these additional ordinances into place because we heard, over and over again, from residents, that they don’t like all the teardowns that are happening.”
Councilwoman Habgood said residents express to her their “love of Westfield’s historic feel,” and “the culture that comes with being an historically-grounded community.”
The night also featured Councilwoman Habgood, a 21-year Westfield resident, taking time to highlight her financial credentials and track record as the chair of the Finance Policy Committee and founder of the town’s Investment Advisory Council.
“Over the last four years, I worked to put our financial house in order; we had a bloated surplus only earning 0.75-percent interest,” she stated.
“The first thing I did was to ask the banks to be better. At one-and-a-half percent, double, we earned an additional $300,000 in interest alone. Between the surplus, uncollected receivables and monies in accounts without a purpose, we had more than 17 million dollars of your money sitting on the sidelines, idle,” the candidate said.
In response to any accusation of squandering the surplus, she responded, “Let me set the record straight. The real story is, we put your money to work for you, investing in 47 and a half miles of roads, and in public-works equipment.” She added that the investment in infrastructure and public-works equipment allowed for an improved quality of life for Westfielders that included the efficient plowing of roads, park maintenance and debris cleanup.
Both candidates did come to an agreement on the issue of Brightwood Park, which Ms. Como said she was committed to keeping a “passive nature park,” and Councilwoman Habgood opposed any mountain-bike trails.
The Ward 2 race features incumbent Democrat Michael Dardia being challenged by Republican candidate Denise Garrett.
“My first priority is fiscal responsibility,” noted Ms. Garrett during her introductory remarks. “Because it sets a strong foundation for other decisions.”
Ms. Garrett’s platform included a commitment to keeping Westfield a premier destination, by continuing to attract businesses, families, visitors and future residents.
“We currently operate with under-functioning and under-utilized sports and recreational facilities,” remarked Ms. Garrett. “An abundance of empty storefronts in our downtowns, and all while offering tax abatements to developers.”
She also said she would reevaluate the Downtown Westfield Corporation’s (DWC) “current operating structure,” and “reintroduce the downtown task force,” in order to “assist in finding ways to improve our businesses and the restructuring of dated ordinances.”
The Ward 2 Republican nominee throughout the night was a vocal opponent of granting tax abatements to developers in town. “As your councilwoman, I will work to reverse the town’s classifications of an area in need of redevelopment and rehabilitation, taking away the ability to give tax abatements to developers,” Ms. Garrett said.
During the question-and-answer period, Councilman Dardia responded to his opponent’s criticism of the town granting tax abatements to developers, specifically referencing the Southside Redevelopment Project, also known as Westfield Crossing.
“Westfield Crossing is our fifth affordable-housing project, but it’s the first one that we are requiring a redevelopment agreement in order to maximize the project’s value to the neighborhood and community.
“It’s a redevelopment agreement that allows the town to assert more control by mandating a higher-quality threshold,” said Councilman Dardia. “The fact of the matter is, this is not the time to debate, or politicize, whether or not Westfield needs more apartments. That’s already been decided by the courts,” he remarked. “Instead, let’s focus on how these new projects can add the most value, by providing needed public improvements to our community.”
The Ward 2 councilman shared personal experiences in his closing remarks, specifically speaking about his childhood as a late adoption out of the foster-care system and then being raised by a single mom who worked two jobs to support him.
“I realized early on, everything I wanted I had to earn,” said Councilman Dardia. “There’s a humility that accompanies this kind of background. I know I’m not better than anyone, and I know there’s much to be learned by listening.”
He emphasized that a strong community consists of people working, listening and helping each other.
“I’m proud of every single thing I’ve done to help this town be the kind of place our kids return to,” said Councilman Dardia. “I want what we all want. We want progress without losing character, we want a vibrant business in a walkable downtown, we want the most return from our tax dollars and transparency about how our monies are invested and spent. We want parks and athletic fields that make sense for all users. We want our home values to rise, we want commutes that don’t crush us, and we want everyone to feel valued in this town we call home.”
The Ward 3 and 4 races saw the Edison Fields project come into focus, as Edison and its communities impacted by a proposed multi-use-field complex falls on both wards.
In a moment of policy unity, all candidates agreed that a cautious approach to the fields, and consideration of their constituents’ concerns, especially involving noise, flooding, parking and traffic-safety issues and the overburdening of a neighborhood, were of the utmost importance.
“There are serious concerns that need to be answered before that project moves forward,” said Republican council candidate for Ward 3 Shawn Mullen.
“I actually agree with you; I think that’s good,” said Councilman David Contract. “To me, we have to make sure whatever fields we invest in work for the entire community.”
Beyond the fields, the Ward 3 candidates expressed a different take on Westfield and its future.
“I think you’ve seen tonight the progress we’ve made over the last four years,” said Councilman Contract. “I think we’ve fulfilled all the promises I made four years ago.”
Councilman Contract mentioned road paving as a major achievement for himself and his council colleagues.
“I promised you we would do a better job and we have. We’ve tripled road paving, we’ve overhauled the entire process,” said Councilman Contract. “I promised we would rejuvenate the Green Team and we have, with 11 new recycle programs, free to residents, 6 EV charges downtown, and the list goes on,” he remarked.
“We cut spending by five times, and yet we’ve delivered more services for you. And we’ve kept the Triple A bond rating and we still have a robust surplus,” said Councilman Contract. “Be careful what you hear, because a lot of facts are thrown around that are not true, or distorted.”
Councilman Contract’s challenger, Mr. Mullen, offered a critical account of the town’s trajectory under Democratic leadership.
“Where are we four years later?” asked Mr. Mullen. “Flashing signs draw our attention to rising crime, telling us to lock our cars and hide our valuables. A downtown on life support. Increasingly dangerous roadways. Rhetoric and rallies on divisive national issues on our public spaces, pushed by our elected officials.
“We’re being told the only way to save Westfield and fix downtown is to ‘reimagine it,’ by partnering with a corporate giant,” said Mr. Mullen, alleging in comments “a massive, no-bid redevelopment deal made behind closed doors to build hundreds of apartments, with hundreds of cars, thousands of people, untold numbers of schoolchildren and even more retail space.”
Commenting on the prior election that sent his opponent to the council dais, “Like you, I heard big promises in 2017; four years later, most of those promises remain unfulfilled.”
Mr. Mullen said his motivation to run for council is a “concern” regarding an attempt at a “fundamental reimagination of everything that makes Westfield so special,” spurring him to come off the sidelines.”
Candidates from Ward 4, an area on the south side of town, and encompassing numerous businesses, were asked if Westfield was doing enough to support all of its businesses, town-wide.
Republican challenger James Restivo drew on recent experiences talking to members of the Westfield business community operating on the south side.
“I frequent some of the south-side businesses often, and they do feel like they are kinda on the outs,” said Mr. Restivo. “One thing I’ve heard from several of them, ‘we’ve never met the president of the DWC; he’s never come to see us.”
During her comments, incumbent Democrat Dawn Mackey focused on what she sees as the positive trajectory of downtown business.
“I do hear people talk about the vacancies, but I’d like to talk about the successes downtown,” said Councilwoman Mackey. “If you look at the Warby Parker corner, that entire area was vacant for, I think, nearly a decade, ” she said. She pointed to other notable businesses like Bareburger, Atlantic Health and Custom Ink joining Warby Parker, a store known for both its online and brick-and-mortar retailing. According to Councilwoman Mackey, Warby Parker chose Westfield as its “anchor store,” and “speaks very well of where this district is going.”
Throughout his remarks, the Republican Ward 4 challenger made a point to emphasize the importance of bipartisan cooperation and service to one’s community.
“I want to bring civility and trust back to our local government,” said Mr. Restivo. “Too often, we judge people by their party affiliation,” he said. “We need to move away from this type of behavior and focus our attention on where it belongs, which is Westfield.”
He also urged transparency from the town council. “The residents need to be made aware of what the council is doing and what is planned for the community at all times,” said Mr. Restivo. The candidate was critical of the current administration’s actions, or inaction, when PSE&G sought to run high voltage power lines through Ward 4 neighborhoods.
“Residents had no advance notice that they would be extending the telephone poles to run a high-powered line through our neighborhoods and along the routes our kids walk to school,” said Mr. Restivo. “The residents had to rally and stand up for themselves against it. It should have never gotten that far.”
If elected as the Ward 4 councilman, Mr. Resitvo pledged that the public would know what is being planned, and “your voices will be heard.”
Councilwoman Mackey, seeking reelection to a second term on the dais, characterized her approach to governance and engagement with constituents as “measured” and “researched.” During her comments, she stated that she was the first council member to meet with PSE&G.
Speaking about her service on the governing body, Councilwoman Mackey said she is “proud to be known as a roll-up-my-sleeves, get-down council person.” She highlighted legislative achievements involving compromise with both the solar and historic-preservation ordinances.
Councilwoman Mackey proudly shared her work during the pandemic, where she worked with local volunteers to help struggling food businesses with delivery services and a website. She also was proud to state that she is very protective of the businesses in her community.
“During an unprecedented pandemic, I answered those calls morning and night,” said Councilwoman Mackey, who helped find critical supplies for business owners. She also helped found the “We Love Local Fund,” which raised $300,000 and “delivered relief within weeks of the lockdown.”
The full video of the forum can be viewed here.
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