“New Vision for Jefferson with Experience” Theme for Local GOP Candidates
Retired deputy police chief Eric Wilsusen, council member Debi Merz, and Board of Education member Melissa Senatore have created the local Republican team’s campaign theme: “New Vision for Jefferson with Experience!”
Wilsusen – who won the primary election against current mayor Russ Felter – is running unopposed for the mayoral spot and is considered the township’s mayor-elect. Merz and Senatore, who are running for two seats on the township council, are facing opposition from two Democratic candidates.
The team’s “new vision” includes:
- reactivating an economic advisory board to research ways to bring new businesses to Jefferson
- increase ratables while managing taxes for residents
- improve government communication with residents
- make local government run more efficiently.
A lifelong resident, Wilsusen served as a Jefferson police officer for 31 years, retiring in 2017 as deputy chief of police. He was also the township’s director of communications and deputy emergency management coordinator. He is the director of child and youth protection for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson.
As a young adult, Wilsusen was a volunteer firefighter with Jefferson Township Fire Company No. 2 and became fire chief. Other volunteer work includes serving as president of the Jefferson Township High School PTSA, trustee of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, vice president of Jefferson Youth Soccer, president of the Jefferson Township High School Girls Soccer Booster Club, alternate member of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, and board member of Morris County Prevention is Key, an addiction and abuse education and resource organization.
The mayoral candidate has an associate degree from County College of Morris and attended Montclair State University. He also completed a graduate program at the School of Police Staff and Command at Northwestern University and the certified public manager program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Wilsusen holds both a municipal finance administrative certificate and a municipal budget process certificate from Rutgers University.
Wilsusen lives with his wife, Kristine, and two teenage daughters in the Lake Shawnee section. He has served as president of the Lake Shawnee Club since 2007.
Currently Council President
Debi Merz is president of the Jefferson Township Council, currently in her fifth term. She sits on the ordinance review, liquor license, emergency services, and finance committees.
In addition, Merz is an active member of the Jefferson Township Municipal Alliance. For multiple years, she served on the Planning Board to review the master plan, and understands the limitations the Highlands Act has put on the township. She has represented Jefferson in community development for Morris County and has been a member and chair of the Morris County Human Services Advisory Council.
Merz grew up in Jefferson, living in three areas of the township (Lake Hopatcong, Milton, and Berkshire Valley). She was married to Hank for more than 42 years before his death. Their four daughters have given her 12 grandchildren and three great-grandsons.
Through the years, Merz has been a coach, Girl Scout leader, Milton Tri-School PTA president, Blue Knights member, Jefferson Arts Committee member, Sunday school teacher, and three-term member of the Board of Education. Merz and Wilsusen brought DARE to the township’s school system. She lobbied for a Domestic Violence Crisis Response Team, which has now been answering calls for more than 10 years.
With a degree in human services, Merz was led to speak out about suicide and mental health and inspired to help develop and stay committed to JT Connect, the township’s mental health movement. Jefferson was one of Morris County’s first stigma-free towns, and New Jersey’s Mental Health Association recognized her with the Golden Bell Award. Her dedication and volunteerism were also rewarded by the governor with a Jefferson Award for Public Service.
Merz’s professional career – including employment with the New Jersey General Assembly and county government, as well as work with all 39 municipalities in Morris County – has given her the knowledge and ability to interact with government.
With a vested interest in Jefferson’s future, Merz’s main goal is to keep the tax rate stable through zero-based budgeting and justification. She is approachable and sees communication as the key to avoiding misunderstandings. At the council’s approximately two meetings a month, people can ask about whatever is on their minds, Merz says. “Working with the administration to have accountability is extremely important.”
Board of Education Vet
Melissa Senatore, a lifelong Jefferson resident, is finishing her sixth year on the Board of Education. “I believe that my years of experience on the Board of Education have helped me prepare for the town council, and I understand the wants and the needs of the residents of Jefferson,” she says.
Senatore, who lives with her husband and two children, cites her many accomplishments on the board, including work as an advocate for special needs children. She helped introduce a job coaching program to assist special needs students in preparing to enter the workforce. She also helped implement a continuing education program for high school special education students. In addition, Senatore has been involved in improvement to school facilities, implementation of a full-day kindergarten program, and passage of the 2018 referendum. She hopes to bring the same passion and drive to the township council, where she will work with the mayor and other council members to improve the community.
Senatore served on the Jefferson softball recreation board and committee, and she has coached for the Jefferson Recreation Department since 2013. She represented the township on the Morris County Educational Services Commission in 2016 and 2017, and has headed the Board of Education’s negotiations committee, educational committee, and building needs and finance committee.
In addition, she was PTA president at Park Lake School, was named Business Woman of the Year in 2010, served on the board of the Jefferson Township Chamber of Commerce, and is a member of Eastern Star.
Senatore has lived on both sides of Jefferson (Oak Ridge and Lake Hopatcong). She received associate and bachelor of science degrees in hospitality from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and is a regional sales representative for the Gillespie Group, industrial/commercial flooring contractors.