As the Fair Lawn Town Council elections rapidly approach, the candidates discussed local issues at a forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Fair Lawn, on October 15.
Incumbent Democratic council members Kurt Peluso and Lisa Swain were joined by candidate Ellen Taner. Mayor John Cosgrove and candidate Marc Zharnest represented the Republicans; their running mate, John Gil, could not attend due to a death in his family.
Three four-year council terms are up for reelection this year. Although the candidates are running on Republican and Democratic tickets, voters are free to choose up to three candidates from either party. The mayor is then selected by the council from amongst its own members.
The discussion began with the candidates speaking about what they envision for the future development of Fair Lawn.
Peluso said that he stands by his pledge he made four years ago, when he first ran for council.
“If it’s green, I want to keep it green. If it is developed already, let’s redevelop it into something” better for Fair Lawn’s residents.
Swain added to that idea, explaining that the town needs to engage in “smart development.”
Cosgrove noted that some areas of Fair Lawn might need to be redeveloped to become more “aesthetically pleasing.”
As for pedestrian and cyclist safety, the candidates were all in agreement that the town is hampered by the slow-moving state and county government, which controls the major roads in Fair Lawn.
Zharnest added that he believed it was also important that the town continue efforts to educate pedestrians about wearing reflective vests at night.
The incumbents were given a chance to state their greatest accomplishments on the council in the last term.
Mayor Cosgrove noted how he has “change[d] the attitude and calm[ed] things down,” referring to the previous no-confidence vote for the police chief in 2012, and his other efforts to work to build consensus in town affairs.
Peluso said that he was most proud of “lowering the tax burden of all the residents,” and Swain said how she has worked to create smoke-free parks, improve public safety and the overall quality of life for Fair Lawn residents.
All the candidates agreed that encouraging more residents to be engaged in the political process was an important part of building a better council.
Taner proposed that the local schools offer “civics classes” to students, and encourage teens to sit in on council discussions so they can learn the process.
Swain offered the idea of televising work sessions, where most council work is conducted, so residents can see the process of how plans are developed and issues are addressed.
As for preventing underage drinking, the candidates all supported strong efforts to continue the battle against teenage addiction.
Swain advocated for mental health programs. Cosgrove added it is important to support the LEAD team and create stigma-free zones.
The candidates differed though, on the challenges that face Fair Lawn.
Peluso pointed to pedestrian safety, while Cosgrove drew to attention “long-term financial planning,” in particular the long-delayed need to increase funds for the public library.
Taner drew to attention the growing usage of heroin in Bergen County.
As for alternative ways to increase revenue without raising taxes, the participants each advocated for increasing shared services with neighboring towns.
Zharnest, however, said he would not support sharing emergency management services, saying they need to be ready to respond exclusively to Fair Lawn’s emergencies. Peluso added he would not advocate for regionalizing the police dispatch service.
Towards the end of the discussion, the candidates were each asked to identify one important issue they hoped to work on if elected to the council.
Taner reiterated her push to have residents choose the mayor directly, saying, “The right to vote is so near and dear to my heart,” and the current system of electing a mayor is undemocratic.
Cosgrove said he would continue his efforts to build affordable senior housing, noting he “really think[s] that would be a great thing for our community.”
Peluso pledged to focus on working with town officials to keep the budget affordable, and Swain said she would continue to stand up for residents with special needs.
Zharnest, the youngest of the candidates, said he would further the council’s support for the town’s volunteer services, of which he has been a long-time member, and continue to move Fair Lawn forward in the right direction through new and innovative ideas.
“I think it is time for someone to bring outside-the-box ideas to the town, and to the table,” he said.
Fair Lawn voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, November 3rd.
Zachary Schrieber is a student at Columbia Law School.
By Zachary Schrieber