Last night's candidate forum gave Plainfield voters an unusual opportunity.
In a community as heavily Democratic as Plainfield, where the winner of the June Democratic primary is practically the de facto successful candidate for the office, a contested primary is an opportunity to get a look-see at an alternative candidate and really probe all candidates' points of view and experience.
For that reason, I commend the Crescent Area Neighborhood Association for sponsoring last evening's candidate forum, at which Dem contenders Tony Rucker and Cory Storch shared the mike with GOP candidate Deborah Dowe, who will face one of them in the November general election.
While all three came across as thoughtful, credible candidates, I was keen to contrast Rucker and Storch.
Storch brought a wealth of experience to the questions put forward -- whether about the Park Hotel (where he has professional expertise) or budgets (he serves on the Council's Finance Committee, but also has 6 years of School Board budgeting and several years of a citizens' budget review committee to his credit) -- and zeroed in on the main points in answering questions, generally avoiding both windiness and minutiae.
Storch's experience also showed in planning and development-related matters (he has served on the Planning Board for several years), and I was impressed by his insistence that the complete rail corridor needs to be kept in mind as planning moves forward -- especially with regard to setting aside places for light industry.
Earnest, Rucker came across as having rather detached, somewhat bookish ideas. While he pitched the idea of developing a 'technology center' downtown, it was not tied to any of the really possible players in such a big venture, such as Union County College or the Union County Economic Development Corporation.
On budgeting and finance, it was clear that his experience is in business, not government, and that he understands neither the governmental budget process nor the outside constraints on the timelines involved, which often make an adoption near the mid-point of the fiscal year an 'early' budget.
When the question was about the number of 'outsiders' (meaning non-residents) hired by this Administration, Rucker went on at length about citizen participation in the budget process in Westfield, only bringing his answer round to Jennifer Wenson-Maier (head of Public Works and Urban Development and president of the Rahway City Council) as the red flag was thrown signifying his time had run out.
For me, though, the deciding moment was Rucker's howler about the Mt. Laurel affordable housing credits. First, he garbled the program, asserting Plainfield would pay other towns to take over their affordable housing obligations. Quickly recovering from this slip, Rucker then said that a good part of Plainfield's housing problems came because the city DID accept the affordable housing obligations of other towns. This mischaracterization caused a general murmur throughout the audience, many of whom seemed aware -- as I am -- of the intense discussion and REJECTION of such credits by the Council in the past.
From where I sit, experience takes the cake. But it would be a good idea for the powers-that-be to encourage Mr. Rucker to get some real experience in the same way that Storch has done over the years, and then come back.
Deborah Dowe evoked ripples of laughter from the audience several times, but perhaps no more so than when she commented on the proposed transit villages, "If you build it, they will occupy it. But the question is who will occupy it."
PET PEEVES DEPT.: I found it annoying that no one corrected several mistaken -- perhaps purposely inflammatory? -- assertions in the questions submitted. For instance, when the Park Hotel was referenced as a 'mental hospital.' Or when the plaza in front of the new County Office Building was cited as the 'Chase Bank plaza' (I have already made a modestly wicked suggestion in regard to this particular spot). Or when it was alleged that 'most jobs at City Hall are given to outsiders'.
My real estate nerves were particularly rubbed raw by a question which asserted that the value of Plainfield homes has 'decreased to the point they are below those of Newark, Roselle and Elizabeth.' Huh?!
Loaded, emotive statements like these are not really intended to elicit thoughtful responses. The candidates are to be commended for mostly not taking the bait.
Your part comes next Tuesday.
The polls are open from 6 AM to 8 PM.
You know what to do.
View today's CLIPS here. Not getting your own CLIPS email daily? Click here to subscribe.