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Fair Lawn Democrats Look to Retake Council

Lisa Swain, Kurt Peluso and Ellen Taner are trying to do something that has not been done in four years: bring a Democratic majority to the Fair Lawn Town Council.

The trio will need to sweep all three council seats up for election on Tuesday, November 3. Swain and Peluso are seeking reelection, while Taner is hoping to win the council seat currently held by the mayor, Republican John Cosgrove. He is joined by Marc Zharnest and John Gil on the Republican ticket.

The Fair Lawn council selects the mayor, through a vote, from amongst its own members.

Swain, who works as the business manager for Bienstock & Michael, LLC, first found her calling to public office after serving in the Fair Lawn PTA, on the executive board of Temple Avodah in River Edge (which has since merged with Temple Shalom to become Temple Avodat Shalom), and as the treasurer and president of the board of the Fair Lawn Public Library.

“I really wanted to step up and get even more involved in the community,” she said about her decision to seek public office eight years ago. “Running for council was the next step.”

If elected, she says her top goal is to keep taxes stable and, if there is a surplus, and a funded “rainy-day” account, she plans on returning a portion of that money to the residents of Fair Lawn.

“The money belongs to the taxpayers,” Swain pointed out. “If there is enough money to offset a tax increase, I’m going to give it back to them.”

Swain, who served one year as mayor in 2011, also plans to pursue additional measures to improve pedestrian safety. Many of the major roads in Fair Lawn are officially operated by the state or county government, which means that most decisions need additional approval. But Swain said she will continue to propose safety precautions, like instituting no “right on red” at a number of high-traffic intersections, that the town can institute on its own.

“It is sometimes frustrating that these roads are run by the county,” said her running mate, Peluso. But he added that he tries to be proactive in working with the state and county to smooth the process on improving pedestrian safety.

“It’s important to take the initial step and be an advocate for Fair Lawn in the county,” he said.

Peluso, a lifelong Fair Lawn resident, who serves as the executive director of Jersey On, a non-profit organization which works to provide internet access to low-income students, found himself involved in politics from an early age.

“I realized I had an interest in this when I was in high school,” he said.

In his senior year of high school, The Fair Lawn prom was moved from Thursday to Friday evening, inadvertently preventing the grade’s one Shabbat-observant girl from attending. Peluso helped organize a group of 30 fellow students to ask the administration to change the date, but the school refused, claiming that it was not a religious institution, and plans for the event were too far along.

“It’s not about being religious,” Peluso told the school administration. “It’s about showing respect to all the students.”

Peluso’s efforts proved to be successful in the long run. The following year the town moved the event back to Thursday night, and it has remained there ever since.

“I learned that you could speak up for someone else’s rights,” Peluso remembered about the incident. “And your voice could be heard.”

He enrolled at the University of Rhode Island to study English Literature and Political Science, and decided to run for student government after a devastating knee injury ended his athletic career. He went on to earn a Master’s degree at Monmouth University and returned to Fair Lawn to raise his family.

“When I ran four years ago, there wasn’t anybody with young children on the council,” he said. “We needed someone who could be a voice for the younger generation. Since I’ve been on the council, we’ve sort of started a 40-and-younger revolution of local involvement.”

Along with improving pedestrian safety and preserving green and open spaces, Peluso hopes to continue his pursuit of building a better and more efficient government, one that is affordable for young families like his own.

He also wants to preserve Fair Lawn’s excellent community services.

“My youngest son is in pre-k, and I have a 92-year-old grandma who lives in town” said Peluso. “There are four generations of my family living here. It is amazing that our community center, and other services, are able to benefit all the residents.”

“We need to make sure we are meeting the needs of our older residents,” added Taner, the third member of the Democratic team. “I want to make it possible for people like me and my husband to stay in Fair Lawn.”

Taner, who earned her undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice at CUNY John Jay College, and Master’s degree in Health Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has dedicated her career to advocating on the state and national level for parenting and family education programs through her private consulting company.

“I wanted to use the expertise I’ve learned on the national and state level to help my community,” she said.

Along with focusing on traditional local issues like taxes, pedestrian safety and zoning, Taner is working toward building a more democratic community in Fair Lawn, which would allow residents to select the mayor through the electoral process.

“One of our most important rights as Americans is to choose our leaders,” she said, citing recent elections in Fair Lawn in which the leading vote getter was not selected as the mayor by the council.

Taner offered a couple of different approaches for changing the way the mayor would be chosen, but said specifics would have to be decided by the council.

The Democratic candidates know they face a challenge in sweeping the three open seats for council, but Swain says the team is “confident” they will succeed on election day.

Peluso offered one reason for why he is seeking reelection, and why he enjoys serving on the town council.

“People in this town are very open,” he said. “You know, they’ll see you on the street and tell you something they like about you. Or, they’ll feel free to tell you something that they don’t.”

“I like that about this town,” he added.

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