The New Jersey primary will be held on Tuesday, July 7. However, all active Republicans or Democrats in Jefferson received mail-in ballots to vote ahead of the election to reduce the amount of in-person voting in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While all voters are strongly encouraged to vote by mail, those with accessibility needs can vote at the municipal building from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on election day.
For the upcoming election, The Jefferson Chronicle reached out to each of the eight town council candidates running in the primary, three Democrats and five Republicans. Of the candidates running, each party can vote for up to three candidates to compete for the open town council seats in the November general election. Below are profiles of each of the candidates (listed in alphabetical order by last name):
Robert Birmingham (R)
Councilman Robert Birmingham has served on the town council for over a decade and prides himself on his allegiance to his residents’ interest above his party. With a degree in business management and his experience working both in the corporate world and small business, his biggest focus is on maintaining a fiscal conservative budget while also driving business into the town.
After working with the new town administration to develop a strategic road plan, improve the water system, and maintain a stable tax system, Birmingham wanted to run for re-election to continue to improve the town’s economy and tax structure. Although the state’s Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act restricts certain developments in town, Birmingham said that the town could encourage economic activity by loosening restrictions on some ordinances and making use of commercial lots.
Birmingham said that one ordinance he has already pushed to change was code 142-6, which restricts the town from issuing a liquor license to a business that is within a mile of another business with a liquor license. If this is changed, it could bring restaurants like Applebee’s into the area and bring in more taxes. He also said that the town should bring in more ratables, or high-value taxable properties, to the town and explore properties, like the Ringling Mansion, which hasn’t had to pay ratables in 70 years.
In the past, Birmingham has pushed for more transparency in municipal government. He said that the public had a hard time understanding what the council was voting on and helped bring changes to the agenda to make the information more readily available.
If re-elected, Birmingham wants to bring back the environmental commission. He said that activities and groups in town, like the environmental academy at the Jefferson Township High School, provide a great resource to help understand and preserve the town’s natural resources.
During his time on council, he has brought in many grants, promoted the open space fund, and conserved tax revenues. Despite the hardships caused by state aid cuts to the school budget and the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he is hopeful for Jefferson. In his 33 years of living in the town, he’s seen a lot of difficult circumstances and said he believes the town can push through this situation, too.
Jay Dunham (R)
Councilman Jay Dunham has served two four-year terms on town council, and because he said he believes in term limits, he wasn’t planning on running. However, his peers and organizations in town encouraged him to run again. He said he governs with an open mind and keeps in mind his social and financial experience of the community when he makes decisions for the whole town.
While economic development is important to him, he said he’s concerned about an increase in infections and wants to make sure development is done carefully. This process of economic recovery and development becomes more difficult due to the Highlands Act that restricts large-scale commercial development. Contract negotiations are also coming up soon, and he said that he wants to help with these important negotiations with the town’s employees.
In his 40 years of living in the town, he has participated in many community groups, including St. Thomas Church, VFW, the American Legion, a mediator for the court system in conflict resolution, and the rescue squad. In the wake of national conversations about police brutality, he said that whenever he arrived at an emergency as a rescue squad first responder, he always saw the Jefferson Township Police Department (JTPD) do an excellent job despite the tough positions they’re put in. He also said Jefferson is stigma-free in regards to race, sexual orientation, or disability.
Although The Chronicle reported that volunteerism is shrinking in town, when asked about this, Dunham said that the town does its best to support and fulfill all volunteer organizations’ needs. When it comes to environmental issues like logging in Mahlon Dickerson and the harmful algal bloom on Lake Hopatcong last year, he said that both issues were outside of the council’s responsibilities. The county has control over Mahlon Dickerson, and the state didn’t increase its funding at all to the Lake Hopatcong Commission after the bloom.
“All they gave was grief,” Dunham said.
Despite the council’s limitations, Dunham said he hopes to continue to serve the town well and make sure that taxes are used for the benefit of all the town. He said his work shows that he can work with others and support common causes.
Pamela Fadden (D)
Although Pamela Fadden hasn’t served as a councilwoman, she has a long history of public service and as an educator. She is a high school mathematics teacher, a mother of two, and has lived in Jefferson for 17 years. She said she was inspired to run because she wants to invest more of the town’s resources into its children, businesses, and recreational activities.
Since she also serves as the President of the Hawthorne Teachers’ Association and a consultant to the NJEA, she didn’t want to run for Jefferson’s Board of Education because she wouldn’t be able to vote on a lot of issues. Through the town, she said she wants to look at the budget and allocate more resources to children’s recreational activities like teen scene while balancing the budget through negotiations and prioritizing certain needs.
One example of where Fadden said she would consider cutting funding is with the JTPD. While she never heard of any racial injustice within the department, she said she wants to look into that. Regardless, she said she wasn’t sure if the JTPD really needed 20 percent of the town’s funding each year.
“There’s a want and a need,” Fadden said. “It’s not just about you.”
Fadden wants to use this freed-up funding to ensure LGBTQ+ rights are protected in town by providing counseling and educational services to people who identify as LGBTQ+ and their families.
If elected, Fadden would want to try to stop the county from chopping down trees in Mahlon Dickerson and follow through with Jefferson’s promise to explore converting septics into a sewer system to protect the lake from another harmful algal bloom. She also said she wants to make the town’s budget and other information more accessible to the public.
Kim Finnegan (R)
Like Councilmen Birmingham and Dunham, Council President Kim Finnegan has seen a lot of changes in the two years since Mayor Eric Wilsusen took office. Serving only one term so far, she ran for re-election to finish all the work she started.
“Your first time on council, your first couple of years, you’re learning,” Finnegan said. “For the next four years, I can go through all these things I started and leave it in a place for the next person to come and do wonderful things for this township.”
As a resident in town for 33 years, she has seen Jefferson go through many changes and challenges. She saw it rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and she said she knows the town can recover again from the pandemic. If re-elected, she would want to help small businesses recover and keep taxes down. As a member of the economic advisory board, she has met with businesses that were allowed to reopen and helped support them in any way the town could.
This past month, Finnegan participated in the racial justice teach-in and the raising of the pride flag. While there has been an increase in conversations about this on a national level, she said that the town administration is open to promoting diversity, and all town employees went through sensitivity training to reduce prejudice.
While volunteerism has declined in recent years, Finnegan said that she hopes the pandemic revitalizes a sense of community and increasing volunteerism. Jefferson currently provides training and uniforms for free to emergency response teams, and Finnegan said that this — along with flexible hours — might incentivize people to give their time.
Like Councilman Dunham, she said that the town has little control over logging Mahlon Dickerson or funding from the state for preserving the well-being of Lake Hopatcong. Despite these limitations, Finnegan said she looks out for the town as best she can. She is a former rescue squad chief, her husband is a fireman, and she brought up her children through the school district. With a well-rounded background, she tries to bring new ideas in from all over town and has an open door policy to discuss local issues with the public.
Lawrence LaSala (R)
(Editor’s Note: LaSala did not respond to an interview request from The Jefferson Chronicle. The information provided here came from a previously recorded video.) Lawrence LaSala is the only Republican candidate who hasn’t served on town council. With a business management degree, he said that he thinks he can bring a necessary change to town council and focus on new ways for Jefferson to expand business.
One of the ways that he said this could happen is by changing code 142-6, an ordinance that restricts Jefferson from issuing a liquor license to a business that is within a mile of another business with a liquor license. He said that this prevents the town from bringing in new ratables, or high-value taxable properties. He said that eliminating this code could help bring in restaurants like Applebee’s into the area and bring in more tax revenues for the town.
Other issues LaSala said he wanted to focus on included creating term limits for elected municipal positions and looking into privatizing Camp Jefferson.
Keith Peters (D)
Keith Peters has lived in Jefferson since 2002, and during that time, he didn’t realize that Jefferson Democrats had much of a presence until he got a pamphlet in the mail. He met the group and became active in campaigning for Mikie Sherrill for Congress in 2018.
Since that time, he grew appalled by trees getting cut down in Mahlon Dickerson — especially since he is an environmental consultant — and wanted more safe places for his children to play. He said that not everyone was being represented in town and decided to run to level the playing field.
The biggest issues that Peters wants to tackle as councilman are protecting Mahlon Dickerson and Lake Hopatcong, controlling taxes, and reducing spending. As a candidate, he has been trying to reach out to small businesses to support them in any way he and his ticket can. To address a decrease in volunteerism, he said that he would try to make regular engagement like this with the community to motivate others to help.
Peters spoke at the racial justice teach-in earlier this month about his experiences with racism and said he was “blown away” by the number of people in attendance. Since then, he has been engaged in many informative conversations about America’s racial history and learning how to support diversity in town.
If elected, Peters said that he hopes to continue these dialogues and is willing to stand up and do the hard work to improve this town. While he said he has a lot of respect for the current town administration, he thinks the town can do better as a more diverse group of representatives.
Maria Short (D)
Maria Short has served the public in her career as a journalist and now as a public service lawyer, working on behalf of victims of crimes and injuries like domestic battery. She is running for town council because she said she is concerned about Jefferson’s increase in spending and taxes. Although there is a local government cap on tax increases at 2.5 percent, she said that the 2020 budget increase is too excessive, though the town reported a tax levy increase of 1.6 percent.
“It doesn’t appear that anybody is saying no,” Short said.
Short criticized the lack of transparency from the municipal government, citing multiple examples of ordinances deemed to go to projects that seem appealing on the surface level like water improvements, but the allocations of those funds go to unnecessary spending like purchasing more computer equipment. If elected, she said she would talk about these ordinances in a more transparent and straightforward way.
Short said that one way to reduce spending, and ultimately keep taxes down, is to reexamine and thoroughly evaluate expenditures approved through ordinances and the budget. Another area of spending Short said the town could examine is appropriations to the police department. While she said she respects police officers, the town is putting far too much money into the department that could be going to other resources. She also said that she is a firm believer of the Black Lives Matter movement and wants to ensure the rights of all communities.
Although Morris County has control over Mahlon Dickerson logging efforts and Trenton funds the Lake Hopatcong Commission in charge of taking care of the lake, she said she would do more to fight for Jefferson residents’ interests. She said she would be happy to stand up to freeholders or state representatives to get them to stop cutting down trees or provide more funding to Lake Hopatcong.
Short said that it’s important to include both parties on council so that they ensure all residents can prosper. She said that she hopes to work with everyone on council to make the town a better place.
H. Ronald Smith (R)
H. Ronald Smith has served on the Jefferson Board of Education for six years and on the town council for a recent unexpired term. He currently serves on the economic advisory board where he has helped fill the empty Pathmark lot and encouraged businesses to invest in the area to expand ratables, or high-value taxable properties.
Smith said that he has done all this work because he likes to be involved. He was a school administrator for several years and continues to serve as interim school administrator positions in retirement, giving him knowledge on managing budgets and negotiating.
If elected, Smith said he hopes to continue to bring more business to the town and help it recover from the pandemic. In addition to his work with economic development, he has worked for the Lake Hopatcong Commission, helping solve funding issues to deal with weeds. He has also fixed the issue with pollution from the quarry and helps monitor the lake for any potential harmful algal blooms.
Smith said he hopes to use his years of government experience to deal with any issues the town council might face and manage the budget in a way that saves the town money and keeps taxes down.