Dear Fellow Belleville residents,
“Who do you think I should vote for?”
I’ve been asked that question by a few people over the past couple of weeks. Due to some personal matters, I haven’t really been able to weigh in much on the upcoming Belleville election. As we close in on the final stretch, I wish to offer a few observations, which I hope will help those whom have asked me that question, and maybe even some undecided voters, make up their minds.
1. We should demand commitment from our elected officials. When someone runs for office and wins, and takes the oath of office, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that person to serve out their term. Truthfully, it’s a basic matter of trust. How can we trust someone who would abandon their current position for another? It is because of this that I cannot support the candidacies of current BOE members Thomas Graziano and Liza Lopez, who are running for mayor and council seats on separate tickets.
2. Candidates should avoid the appearance of running for office out of bitterness or for “payback.” Michael Melham, a candidate for mayor, has a lawsuit against the township related to a building he owns, and it doesn’t seem to be a secret that he and now-Mayor Kimble have had bad blood between them in the past. It is shocking to discover that there is no law or regulation that bars a person with an active legal case against a town from running for a seat in that town. Absent such laws or regulations, I find it unseemly, if not unethical, for Melham to pursue an elected position on the same body against which he has litigation.
3. Candidates need to be specific with their promises and precise in their language. Belleville voters have been treated to vague promises like “stabilize property taxes for Belleville residents” and “bring responsible development to Belleville.” There are a myriad of ways both promises could be kept, but the question of “how” seems to remain unanswered. What candidates should be able to answer is, “What method of stabilizing property taxes or bringing development to Belleville will be best for the town?” Or, to put even a more fine point on it, “What approach will maintain Belleville’s aesthetic, historical, and suburban character while providing benefit to the town and its residents?” There is also the matter of defining one’s terms, i.e., how does the candidate define “responsible?”
4. The influence of political bosses, machines and special interests must be monitored, isolated and repudiated by both voter and candidate alike. It is surprising that in a state that has a reputation for political corruption, New Jersey has a rather comprehensive and user-friendly campaign finance research tool in the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Use it to find out from whom your elected officials or candidates for public office have taken campaign donations. Have they taken donations from lawyers? Real estate developers? Engineers? Labor unions? The township committee for a major political party? That’s not to say that a campaign donation is an automatically open door for a particular donor, but it might shed light on a candidate or official’s agenda or give a clue as to who might try to exert influence. Unfortunately, Belleville has been a battleground between political machines and factions for decades, and it will continue until Belleville residents stand up and say, “No More!” We have an opportunity to do that every time there is a school board or municipal election, if only we seize upon it. Political machines and bosses, from either inside or outside Belleville, should have no place in our government.
5. No matter who wins, residents need to be active and informed and hold our officials accountable. If you read some of the campaign literature that has arrived in your mail over the past two weeks or so, you’d think that all you have to do is vote in the right candidates (the people who paid for the advertisement) and they’ll do right by everyone. That is, to say the least, absurd. Whoever wins the election will need to be held accountable, and the only way that happens is by being involved, asking questions and demanding our officials do right by Belleville. Politics consists of two things: money and people. People of influence often use money to get their way in the political system, and honestly most average Belleville residents don’t have a lot of money to spare. So, what does that leave? It leaves you, joining with your like-minded residents to hold our officials accountable and demand that things get done. I ask that you act on the exhortation of Frederick Douglass that “Power concedes nothing without a demand!”
I have made up my mind as to for whom I will vote, and I hope my observations above will help you make up your mind. Be thoughtful, be tough-minded, and think of the best interests of Belleville, which inevitably are your best interests.
I wish all the candidates good luck on May 8th, and I wish to remind them that it is only by the virtue of the voters’ faith and trust in them that they will be elected or re-elected, and that it is at their own peril that they take advantage of that faith and trust.