Voters hear from office-seekers at forum

LYNDHURST – Presumably they came to fight but, by and large, there was more unity than division among the candidates for the Lyndhurst Board of Commissioners.

So it appeared after last Wednesday night’s (April 19) 2017 election forum sponsored by The Bergen Record and hosted by Lyndhurst High School in advance of the May 9 balloting.

All of the office-seekers agreed that further residential development in the Lyndhurst meadows needed to be stopped to suppress increasing demands on municipal and school services.

And they were as one in affirming that the town needed to find new ratable-producing businesses to fill the commercial gaps on Ridge Road, Valley Brook Ave. and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, there is a split on the current municipal governing body, as reflected in two commissioners – Mayor Robert Giangeruso and Tom DiMaggio – teamed on the “Lyndhurst Community Pride” ticket opposing fellow Commissioners John Montillo, Theodore Dudek and Matthew Ruzzo on the “Lyndhurst’s New View: Making It Happen” slate.

Newcomers Karen Haggerty, Laura Jean Checki and Richard Jarvis Sr. are with Giangeruso and DiMaggio while Christopher Musto and John Scardino Jr. (nephew of former Mayor Anthony Scardino) are partnering with the Montillo-Dudek-Ruzzo team.

There are also two non-aligned candidates – Elaine Stella and Joseph Sarnoski – in the mix.

Under the format set by The Record, each candidate was afforded a one-minute introduction, followed by six questions posed by the moderator to which each was given 90 seconds to respond, and then, brief closing statements. Sequence was determined by lot.

Each competing ticket started out with a handicap of sorts: because of prior commitments, neither Ruzzo nor Jarvis was able to appear.

But their compatriots carried on.

Montillo and Stella took potshots at Giangeruso, faulting the mayor for allegedly not doing enough to prevent the spread of multi-family residential developments in the meadows.

While acknowledging that state land-use laws deprived the township of exercising jurisdictional control over its meadows property, they griped that the mayor should have pressed for more concessions from the N.J. Meadowlands Commission and its successor agency, the N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority.

“For six years, mayor, you never attended any of the municipal meetings at the Meadowlands … Never once have we been protected,” Montillo said, because opportunities to negotiate more favorable results were never attempted.

Stella said: “Not once did the mayor bring up the number of housing units to be built – he did nothing to inform the people ….” After the Vermela Lyndhurst project on Orient Way got its initial approvals, the developer successfully pitched amendments to the original plans allowing him to expand its size, she added.

This and additional residential developments in the meadows are going to “destroy this town,” Stella said.

Giangeruso vigorously denied his non-involvement, insisting that he could document his attendance at meetings where he registered his protests against such projects.  

At 120 Chubb Ave., the mayor said, a developer put up a 218-unit building; at 240 Chubb, there’s one with 190 units; and another nearby with 358 apartments.

“They want to build, build, build,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to stop it.” As it is, he added, “we’ve got no room for children in our schools.”

Montillo said that “over 1,000” new apartments have been built in the township’s meadows but now that they’re here, he added, “It’s important not to forget them,” so township officials need to continue fighting to get things like “sidewalks, lights, recreational amenities” for those residential complexes.

Musto, a former president of the Lyndhurst Board of Education and a current member, said the meadows area was “never meant for residential” use but, with “100 students” coming from that area, in 2015, “we got a bus” to transport those youngsters to schools.

Sarnoski said: “We’ve got to get our legislators to stop the building in the meadows.”

Scardino added: “No more housing.” Instead, he said, the township must “try for warehousing as a safe ratable.”

DiMaggio agreed that legislation action was key “to stop the insanity. Our schools are overcrowded. And [the high residential density] puts a burden on our volunteer fire department.”

Dudek labeled the situation “a major crisis” for the township, “but we’re being dictated as to what can be built there.”

Checki urged that, “Our wetlands need to be protected as an educational resource for this town.”

Existing commercial structures in the meadows have also contributed to the township’s economic malaise, DiMaggio said. “The biggest drain,” he said, “is the tax appeals. We’ve lost $3.2 million, including one alone for over $800,000.”

And the uplands commercial district is suffering, too, Giangeruso said.

“Stuyvesant [Ave.] is a dead street. We need developers to come in and revitalize that area. Also for Ridge and Valley Brook, to put this town back together again.”

Musto said the township needs to reach out to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to invite Latino merchants’ participation.

Montillo said that, “once Lincoln School [property] is sold, that’s going to be the cornerstone of our future redevelopment.” Plus, he said, the new junior high “will pay dividends in years to come.” And, he said, the township needs to push NJ Transit to upgrade its train stations and ensure that the platforms are “handicapped-accessible.”

Montillo and Giangeruso, who switched departments in October 2014 (Montillo became public safety director and Giangeruso, public affairs), went head-to-head over Montillo getting the commission majority to go along with changing the LPD’s hiring policy in raising qualifying standards for applicants.

“I stand by that,” Montillo asserted. “I will not change.”

Giangeruso said he would prefer to be guided by the thinking of a “team of experienced officers” on departmental hiring procedures. But, in the end, he said, “It’s up to the public safety commissioner to do hiring and firing. It’s been that way in this town since 1907.”

Learn more about the writer ...