“What makes Madison Madison?”
That was the question incumbent councilmember Maureen Byrne posed to the roughly four dozen borough residents packed into the Madison Community Arts Center on the night of Wednesday, October 23, to listen to their candidates for mayor and council. The forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV), a national non-partisan organization that is hosting other such events throughout New Jersey as the state gears up for its general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
The forum was moderated by Louise Davis, an LWV-trained moderator, who kept the eight candidates to a strict answering time of one minute. The two candidates for mayor, incumbent Democrat Bob Conley and Republican Rob Catalanello, were seated alongside the four candidates for borough council. Both parties have one incumbent councilmember vying for re-election—Republican Pat Rowe and Democrat Maureen Byrne—and one newcomer seeking office—Democrat Rachel Ehrlich, an architect and Republican Kathy Dailey, who works on mergers at a law firm in Basking Ridge.
The forum kicked off with opening statements from the candidates—the Republican candidates generally centered around a theme of fostering community spirit while maintaining low taxes, while Democrats emphasized infrastructure, climate and the budget surplus grown under Mayor Conley. While the tickets agreed in the opening statements, there were differences within the parties on issues throughout the forum, especially on the legalization of marijuana and whether a dispensary would be allowed in Madison pending state-level approval. Conley, Byrne and Ehrlich were each broadly supportive of legalization, but warned that due to restrictions around school zones, parks and the borough of Florham Park (which has banned the sale of marijuana) it was unlikely that a dispensary could find a legal location in the township. Republicans were more split on the issue—Catalanello said he supported both legalization and a dispensary in Madison, Rowe said that he personally opposes it but would support it on the council and Dailey fully opposes legalization and a dispensary.
Much of the discourse revolved around the price of Madison residents’ electric bills. Revenue from the electric utility, one of only a handful of public electric utilities in the state, makes up 25 percent of the budget surplus. This has led to consternation in regards to whether the prices can be reduced while maintaining a healthy budget. Rowe said that he believed he had found a way to lower the bills while maintaining a “sustainable” budget. Ehrlich countered that while rates were high, they were supplemented by dividends for residents on their bills. (Here, the candidates discovered that while they were limited to a singular one minute response, the 30 second rebuttals were unlimited.)
Most candidates running emphasized the need for additional renewables as part of the public utility’s energy portfolio, primarily through increased solar. Catalanello said he supported putting solar panels on the roof of Madison Public Schools to both add renewables and help reduce costs for the Board of Education. Ehrlich raised the idea of cooperating with other public utilities throughout New Jersey with the goal of purchasing land in South Jersey to build a solar farm. In one of the more contentious exchanges of the night, Catalanello claimed that an electric car charging station had only been announced after he wrote an editorial asking for one. Conley retorted that, in fact, a grant asking for six had been written months prior and approved by coincidence shortly after the article was published.
As the forum was nearing its conclusion, the candidates were asked which issues they had heard the most about from constituents throughout the campaign. Dailey said that increasing amounts of high density housing was a concern for Madison residents, who felt that it was disrupting the character and historic “charm” of the town. Byrne had predominantly young families bring up concerns about traffic and speeding.
In their closing statements, candidates reiterated their priorities for the borough, reasons for running and thanked supporters. Catalanello emphasized responsible government and his intention to “do things differently,” including more stakeholders in the government process. Conley, quoting an endorsement from 2015, said that he was prepared to continue his brand of “calm and fair” leadership with fire in his belly.
The election is Tuesday, Nov. 5. Drew students registered in Madison can vote at the United Methodist Church at 24 Madison Ave.