The discussion was part of a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Madison Community House. (A RosenetTV video of the forum is above.)
Two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent will be on the ballot Tuesday.
Incumbent Robert Catalanello is running for re-election. He's running with Board of Education Vice President Patrick Rowe as the Republican ticket.
Maureen Byrne, a four-year member of the Downtown Development Commission and chairman of the Friends of the Madison Public Library, and Jeff Gertler, an 11-year member of the Planning Board and six-year member of the Environmental Commission, are the Democratic ticket.
Former Councilman Sam Cerciello is running as an independent.
In their opening statements, Cerciello, a Vietnam veteran, said his construction background would be of value to the Council, and has been useful in the past, such as when he learned the North Street Pump Station project was awarded to a contractor who did not have the necessary experience. There is a lack of accountability with Madison's government, and he gets things done, he said.
Catalanello said he's very proud of what he accomplished in his first term, and thanked Madison employees for their work on a number of infrastructure projects. He said he led efforts to rebuild Madison's infrastructure, and the borough has encumbered money for necessary projects in the future. He said he voted for the award-winning Madison Recreation Complex, held the line on taxes, and started having Madison engage with agencies that rate Madison's credit. He would continue the work he began in 2011 if re-elected, he said.
Rowe said he has been honored to serve on the Board of Education for almost 10 years, nine years as finance chair, eight years as vice president, and two years as chair of the Board of Education and borough's Shared Services Committee. He said he's proud Madison stayed a top district in the state even when the district lost $1.7 million in state aid in 2010. He also said he's proud the district added needed space after voters in 2005 approved a capital improvement plan, and of the board's work with the council toward selling the former Green Village Road School.
Byrne said she has been in Madison 20 years and volunteered on exceptional committees. She said she has seen how Madison prospers when everyone works together and puts the borough ahead of political parties. On the council, she would work to vitalize Madison's downtown, attract new business, support open space financing, and ensure Madison does not raid its surplus, she said.
Gertler said campaigning door to door he heard about the same comments from residents: they love living in Madison, and wish the taxes were lower.
"I feel the same on both counts," he said, adding that lowering taxes isn't so easy, and that Madison's police, fire and public works departments, ball fields and teams make Madison the community it is. The borough collectively can identify ways to compromise and be creative about making changes, he said.
The forum moderator said written questions from some of the approximately 50 people who attended the event showed there was interest in what the candidates thought should be done with an anticipated increase in the amount of surplus generated by Madison's electric utility.
Rowe said in his opening he and Catalanello aim to review what gains there will be from the electric utility when the cost of purchasing electricity for the borough drops at the end of May. It should be enough for a rate cut, while providing millions of dollars for needed capital projects, he said.
Catalanello said in 2008 the borough locked in a five-year purchase contract at high levels, but later bought smaller chunks at greatly reduced prices. Madison could pay 40 to 50 percent less once the contract expires, he said. Catalanello said he would reward residents with a 10 percent rate cut, and use the rest to fund capital needs, not expand the operating budget.
Cerciello said the money should go toward fixing the east wing of borough hall, and doing something for Madison's seniors. He said work still needs to be done on the wing, which shows the need to properly plan projects.
Byrne said it would be nice to give a 10 percent or more discount or rebate, but there is a "substantial backlog" of needed improvements, and the council recently heard from residents complaining about the condition of Academy Road.
She said there is a several million-dollar backlog of projects.
"I'd like to see those be funded before we start reducing electric rates," she said.
Rowe said there is a backlog of projects, but there should be room to do both as long as the borough takes a multi-year view and does a good analysis quickly.
Byrne said they should do the analysis "before we start talking about giving people money back" on their electric bills.
When asked how they would make Madison's downtown more vibrant and appealing to retailers, Catalanello said cutting electric rates would help. Cuts could lead to lower rents and enable businesses to stay open longer, he said. Madison could consider "pedestrian days" with limited cars, and improve parking, he said.
Rowe agreed lowering rates would help, and supporting the Madison Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Commission also could help keep it vibrant.
Byrne said, as a member of the DDC, she has worked to promote Madison's downtown the last few years. She joked she has done everything she can do short of picking up people in Westfield and taking them to Madison. Marlboro, she said, is trying a program where residents who shop downtown get a discount on their electric utility bill, which could work in Madison.
Gertler said the downtown is the borough's heart and soul, and Madison retail stores compete with Summit, Morristown and the Short Hills mall. He said Madison's downtown is not as exciting as it was 16 years ago.
"It's still a great downtown," but needs to pick up, he said. Incentives, including financial incentives, to bring in businesses could be tried if needed, Gertler said.
Cerciello said Madison should be more business friendly and work with businesses instead of making them lay out "a ton of money" during the approval process for renovations or opening.
"Let's work with them," he said.
Historic preservation, open space
Rowe said he supports open space purchases that have a purpose.
Byrne said she is on record as supporting open space, and Madison has used its open space fund to get grants that exceed the amount Madison puts toward purchases.
Cerciello said it's important for Madison to have a good plan and execute it properly when buying open space.
Catalanello said in addition to voting for the Madison Recreation Complex he supported the creation of the Madison Community Gardens. In some cases, Madison does not always get good value for its money, he said, citing remediation issues with the 49 acres. It's also important for Madison to encourage private fundraising, he said.
Asked about the makeup of Madison's administration team, Gertler said he has met several times with Borough Administrator Ray Codey and thought he is doing a fantastic job for the town. He said Codey highlighted savings the borough has realized, and he was astounded by his grasp of everything that goes on in town. Gertler said he would not want to lose Codey or Assistant Borough Administrator Jim Burnet, and he's very pleased with their performance.
Byrne agreed, saying she worked with Burnet for a very long time on various projects in town, and Codey almost as long. Both bring substantial value to Madison and always are looking out for the bottom line and making sure Madison's best interests are reflected in their decisions, she said.
Rowe said he's happy with the makeup, and worked with Codey and Burnet as part of the Shared Services Committee and negotiating with developers on the sale of the former Green Village Road School. Their expertise and dedication has been helpful through that process, he said.
Cerciello said Madison needs to look at the cost of its overhead if the borough is to be run like a business. He said he voted against the creation of the assistant administrator position and appointing Burnet to it because it happened at a time when other employees were not getting raises. He said Burnet was doing a good job in the new role, but then a previous Council voted to fire Codey and make Burnet administrator, which he didn't understand. Cerciello felt the assistant borough administrator position should have been removed. (The council later reversed its decision.)
Catalanello said he believes people overwhelmingly support the current structure, and, as a servant of the people, he supports it. He said the assistant borough administrator should be much more proactive in the financial management of Madison's electric and water utilities. With an administrator, assistant administrator and CFO, Madison can certainly spend more time there, and that's where he would direct the assistant administrator's efforts, Catalanello said.
On the topic of sustainability, Byrne said she has worked with Sustainable Jersey and Madison is on the right track, exemplified by its silver status with the program. She said sustainability does not just involve the environment, but also a community's ability to thrive economically, socially and educationally.
Gertler said with small steps, from the type of building materials used to bicycle lanes and promoting tree growth, incrementally, the entire health of the community will improve.
Cerciello said the spirit of Madison has changed from a time when cops were on downtown corners. Madison needs to work with a good plan, such as ensuring the same type of pavers are used throughout downtown.
Catalanello said he's in favor of anything that makes Madison a more attractive place for young families and creates a sense of community while still respecting property rights. He said there is much Madison can do, including looking into a bio diesel plant.
Rowe said with the new electric purchase rates, there might be a way for Madison to encourage the use of solar power.
In response to another question, the candidates agreed it's important to complete the borough's budget by state deadline. Catalanello said the borough should start its budgeting process earlier.
Catalanello said the Green Village Road School redevelopment plan is a good idea that could attract new residents, new businesses and help make Madison a more vibrant place. It's a shame Madison is losing some of the ball fields, but there are adequate rec facilities, he said.
Byrne said it will be the largest development Madison sees in a long time. Gertler said he hopes the developer takes advantage of incentives offered for sustainable construction, underground parking, or creating a cultural center. He hopes the project will be one Madison can use collectively and be proud of for years to come.
Responding to a question about some residents' displeasure with the governing body's decisions in 2012 and whether there are adequate opportunities for public input, Cerciello said meeting attendees should get better answers, and meetings should start on time.
Catalanello said Madison should release more of the meeting agenda and relevant data sooner so residents have more time to study it in detail. He said the open question period sometimes comes after a two- to four-hour meeting, and it might make sense to move the question periods around.
Rowe said the council should attend a Board of Education meeting. He said they're run more democratically, such as by giving the public a chance to question presenters after they speak and respond to the board.
Byrne said "when an issue comes up that concerns Madison, Madison turns out." Agendas could be publicized at the Madison Public Library and senior center, she said.
Gertler said it's unfair the public does not get to speak until the end of meetings, and sometimes it seems like the governing body already has made up its mind.