When I was in college, my political science professor announced that any student who could get his name on an electoral ballot would earn an A for the semester. No one in the class did. Until now. Almost thirty years later, I am a candidate for the New Milford Borough Council.
I am running as a Democrat because I am a Democrat, and because I happen to support most, but not all, of the Democratic Party platform. The conclusions I reach, as a lawyer and candidate, are based less on any political ideology and more on exhaustive research and, hopefully, sound principles.
But, here’s the thing. The true differences between the major political parties are irrelevant in local governance. The significant and deep divides that define national party affiliation surround foreign policy, abortion, guns, (most) taxes, crime, the judiciary, commerce, trade, the military, defense of the homeland, and interpreting the Bill of Rights. And, while these issues are important and impact the lives of every American, they are controlled exclusively by the federal and state governments. You will never attend a municipal council meeting where these issues are seriously debated.
When it comes to the agenda of local government, the differences become a lot murkier. Local taxes, open space, policing, library hours, trash and recycling, stop signs, snow removal, public schools, zoning, and paving roads. These are the real issues that affect residents on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, when it comes to those issues, you’d be hard pressed to find material disagreement among Democrats and Republicans. I assume they all want to lower taxes, attract business, preserve open space, reduce crime, improve educational standards, and so on. And, you know what? There is only a limited universe of ideas to accomplish these priorities, and those ideas are not defined by political party.
So, why am I running? Our borough council has fallen into a crushing cycle of animus and hostility. Mayor & Council meetings and real issues are hijacked by mistrust and recrimination. Often, decisions (good and bad ones) are made without substantive debate or compromise. It seems as if some council members may vote against good ideas merely because they are proposed by a member of the opposing party. Heels are sometimes dug in over bad ideas simply because winning a vote becomes more important than contemplative consideration. Along the way, little gets done while the municipal debt continues to grow at an unconscionable rate.
The dysfunction is palpable.
Two years ago, the council decided to upgrade the police station. It’s a great idea and needs to be done. So why hasn’t it? The council could not agree on the scope, location or cost. So months and months of infighting meant wasted time, rubber stamping designs, and a triangle of mistrust between the council, the police and the public.
Last year, the governing body removed a number of bus stops because it seemed like one major bus company was not using them, and some felt them to be a nuisance. Turns out, other bus companies used them and residents were outraged at their removal. This year, the bus stops were returned. A 360 degree reversal that did nothing but waste much needed tax dollars.
Currently, they are taking steps to upgrade the Memorial playing field to artificial turf but the discussion is drowned out by noisy accusations in and out of meetings. The upgrade to the field has proven benefits and some parents seem to be in favor. Others believe the cost may be prohibitive — especially in light of the growing debt. The prospect was handily rejected by voters in a ballot question 3 years ago. So, what is the plan? Why is this good idea? What are the positive and negative impacts on the borough? Is this the ideal time and location? The public does not know because all we hear about is how this council member is lying or that one is abdicating his duties or how some council members must obviously hate children.
And, it goes on and on.
Up and down the political spectrum, it seems like the line between healthy debate and valueless ad homonym personal attacks is slowly becoming the accepted norm. Unfortunately, that is where we have arrived in New Milford.
I am running because we need to inject more civility and more open mindedness into a healthy debate. I am running because I am tired of waiting each election cycle for something to change.
Don’t get me wrong. I respectfully disagree with those in town who decry any dissension on a town council. Who hate the debate. They want kumbaya harmony on the governing board. But, deliberation, dissension, disagreement, and, yes, even heated fights are not only necessary, they are literally the foundation of democracy.
Without serious opposition, the voice of minority positions are lost. Those in power need not even consider alternate positions because none are advanced. It’s not merely the obvious value of alternative approaches to the same problem. To properly govern, you need to know the flaws in your own position. And that will often lead to argument. Tension. Debate. And, often, it isn’t pretty. And, it shouldn’t be.
Until it leads to dysfunction and paralysis.
Yes, I will try to lower taxes, improve our recreational facilities, protect open space, attract commercial tax ratables, increase sharing services, pay down the debt, and expand policing. I imagine the candidates running against me will offer much of the same.
But more than anything, we need a governing body that listens to the voices of its residents, composed of people who may not necessarily agree on anything – – except that both the needs of the collective good and the voices of those in the minority, must always transcend personal agendas or political pumpfuffery. You need a cross walk? Concerned about crime on your block? Mistake in your tax bill? Garbage not getting collected until the wind distributes it all over your street? You should have someone you can call. You’ll have my cell phone number. Use it. Because, in my mind, that’s the value of a town council. They should not be advancing their own agenda, they should be advocating yours. They should be able, every day, to help at least one person with a municipal problem.
Yes, as a litigator, I know how to fight. I know how to argue. But, I also know how to negotiate. How to listen. How to change minds (including, often, my own). I can advocate for my neighbors without necessarily fighting against anyone.
I am proud that I am a Democrat appointed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment by our Republican Mayor and Council. During a time of increased antagonism between the parties, I think it says a lot. Actually, I am fond of a number of members serving the borough council on both sides of the proverbial aisle, and have worked with our mayor on several issues.
I serve on the New Milford Democratic County Committee and the Zoning Board. I am an acting prosecutor in Teaneck. I serve and have served on multiple school boards. I have lived in New Milford for over 16 years, and in this area (New Milford + Teaneck) for over 40 years. I love this town and its diverse population. My wife and I raised our children here. It’s our home.
That’s why I am running.
 Not really a word.