With that in mind, the North Bergen Reporter, which also covers Guttenberg, called a forum of the three Democratic mayoral candidates, Councilman David Delle Donna, Tom Rizzi and Ramon de la Cruz, to discuss the issues of the campaign.
All three candidates participated in the forum, which was held in the newspaper's offices in Hoboken on Monday. They were presented a series of questions related to pertinent issues in the township, and were given sufficient opportunity to voice their views.
Delle Donna has served as a town councilman for the last 18 months and also served in 1994. Rizzi is a teacher and de la Cruz is an attorney. Delle Donna and Rizzi are running with slates of council hopefuls, while de la Cruz is running alone.
Question 1: What would be your first priority if elected mayor?
Tom Rizzi: "My first priority would be to ask for a state audit of our finances in the town. We have to afford ourselves a budget that is lean and trim. We've had a series of high tax increases and as mayor. I would feel a tremendous responsibility regarding the budget. I would want the budget to be looked at, line by line, in order to bring the tax rate down. I don't think we've ever taken advantage of what the state has to offer us. There are other towns that have the state willing to come in and help and they've been able to bring down the tax rate."
David Delle Donna: "I think my opponent [Rizzi] is giving out misleading information. We have stabilized the tax rate since we've been in office. They're out to make people think we're the ones that raised taxes, but we inherited it from the previous administration. We got $650,000 in emergency state aid to help with the budget. The town of Guttenberg is solid right now. We don't have to talk about what we will do. We're going to continue to keep the tax rate stable."
Ramon de la Cruz: "In the first 100 days that I'm mayor, I would review the entire budget and make appropriate changes. I would change certain things how we spend money, like on a volunteer ambulance service. [Right now, the town pays Weehawken about $40,000 per year for such services, but Delle Donna and the Town Council want the town to start its own for the same amount.] That's not a priority. There are three issues: parking, taxes and the school expansion. I would examine all fiscal waste, like cell phone bills. I would also produce access numbers, where residents could contact the mayor and the council at all hours."
Question 2: What is your stance on development within the township? Are there any prospects for additional development?
Delle Donna: "There is very little space in town for development right now and we have people knocking down one-family homes and putting up three and four-family homes. Guttenberg is the most densely populated town per square mile in the country, so we have to be much more careful when it comes to further development. But the Planning Board has been very liberal in allowing contractors to build whatever they want. We can't afford any more mass development. It simply can't fit. We have to be a little more careful with the variances."
Rizzi: "I agree with Dave. It's a serious problem. But as a member of the Planning Board, we take every case seriously. Each applicant has to be looked at. I do not see the three-family homes like Dave sees. But I agree that we're not going to see the kind of development that will have an effect. We're in a highly populated area, so we have to have a tighter control on illegal apartments, without it coming in front of the Planning Board."
De la Cruz: "Any kind of development has to be scrutinized. Intelligent development is welcomed. I think it's a matter of sitting back and slowing down the process. If I'm elected, I would propose a moratorium on residential variances. We would bring in an expert who would examine each application fully. Until we can take full control, we need to put a stop to the overcrowding."
Question 3: How important of an issue is the quality of life in Guttenberg and how do you plan to improve the quality of life if elected?
Delle Donna: "I think we've already done a lot to improve the quality of life. We're in the process of paving 50 percent of the streets in town, so we'll have nicer looking streets. We adopted an ordinance that will prohibit the use of garbage bags on the street, that there have to be cans. We made a change in the collection hours, so the collectors are not picking up during rush hours. We've made improvements in our recreation program. Our baseball, tee-ball and softball teams have more players than ever. We're moving in the right direction."
Rizzi: "We need to address the issue of recreation. We have a lot of kids playing in the streets. We have to afford our kids a place to play. We have to reach out to get state and federal aid in order to get more park space. I'm a grant writer for the Newark schools, so I vow that I would get more aid."
De la Cruz: "The quality of life is not high up on my priority list. From the feedback I've been receiving from the residents, the issues are parking, taxes and school expansion. I know that there are people complaining about dog waste, that it's in excess in some parts. I'd like to see more trees planted in town. People tell me that there's too much asphalt and concrete. I think we have to characterize recreation. The kids don't have much to do. They're outside in the streets, loud, and don't have many alternatives. I think part of the school expansion plan will include the creation of a youth center and an improved library."
Question 4: Affordable housing has been a hot, controversial topic in the town, especially since the proposed high-rise at the site of the Sokol Hall catering facility was turned down by the council, after being approved by the Planning Board. What can be done to address the affordable housing issue?
Rizzi: "Voting on the Sokol Hall area was a tough, tough vote for me. I did some research and I understood that we had to provide a fair share of affordable housing units, according to code regulations, and that if we didn't pass the plan, it could go to the state and then the state would be able to force us to build it. It's now a dead issue. I'd like to see the area turned into a municipal parking lot or a park."
De la Cruz: "I think that plan showed a lack of planning and insight. Is there a need for affordable housing? Of course there is. I was strongly against that plan and was poised to fight it. For me to see Mr. Rizzi turn around and say he'd want to have a park or parking lot there now is disingenuous, because for months, he was for it. The density, the school population, the parking, have all reached a state of crisis."
Delle Donna: "Affordable housing is always an issue. I'm very much in favor of finding affordable senior housing. I am not in favor of putting restrictions, where seniors would not be able to afford the rent proposed. I voted against that building, because I thought it was bad for the town. We need to find low-rise affordable housing. I plan to work with the state, with [State Sen.] Bernie Kenny and [Assemblyman] Albio Sires to get low-rise buildings, four and five stories, not 12-story monstrosities."
Question 5: What qualities do you have that would make you a good mayor?
De la Cruz: "Those who know me and grew up with me in Guttenberg know that I have honesty, I have a commitment to the people and I have a good work ethic. As an attorney and a former assistant prosecutor, I have the ability to deal with people. I think the town needs a coalition builder. I think being bilingual helps. I can be able to communicate more freely and with a sense of professionalism."
Delle Donna: "The biggest quality if offer is experience. I've served on the Town Council, and the school board. I will be able to reach across party lines and with the help of Kenny and Sires, bring money to the town. I also bring a lot of hands-on experience. Just this week, there was a sewer backup on 70th Street and we went up there with a plumber to assure that it would be a better Father's Day. I'm involved with a lot of people and I would give it my all to make sure that things get done. The experience is the key."
Rizzi: "I think my biggest asset is my business background. I've worked in the biggest school system in the state and I have a lot of experience dealing with the business aspects of the job. As a member of the Guttenberg school board, I helped to negotiate the copier contract. [He helped find inexpensive copy machines for the district, saving $200,000.] I was the founder of the Taxpayer and Rentpayer Association, which led to 125 tax appeals."
Question 6: What's your stance on public safety?
Rizzi: "I think we have a terrific police department. I would like to see testing for promotions. There seems to be a perception that promotions come as political favors, and that becomes problematic and gives the public a negative view."
De la Cruz: "In speaking with residents, they feel shortchanged when it comes to follow-up investigation after a crime. They'll report a break-in, a car theft, and then there's no follow-up. We don't have the problems that there are in Jersey City, but we also want to make sure that you want to live here. I promise that I will work with [Hudson County Prosecutor] Fred Theemling in creating a neighborhood crime watch. I'd ask for more police officers on foot."
Delle Donna: "I think the police are doing a fine job. Nothing is perfect, but we have sporadic thefts. Because of the infrequency, it's not a major problem."
[Rizzi and De la Cruz also said that police officers should not be used during political campaigns.]
Question 7: What's your feeling about the formation of a volunteer ambulance service?
Delle Donna: "Along with Tony Casper, I started the ambulance squad. Right now, we have 10 people who have passed their EMS tests and they are currently riding with the Weehawken ambulance squad to learn the trade. We don't have enough people to handle it on our own, but we hope to have 23 members by the end of the summer. We're in the process of looking for a used ambulance. This way, we'll be able to give North Hudson another volunteer ambulance corps. There's nothing wrong with Weehawken's service, it's just that it's two towns away. If we have our own, it would be logistical. The cost in the beginning would be something to consider, but in the long run, 'volunteer' means exactly that. If we can re-direct our volunteer services, to perhaps have a volunteer fire and rescue squad, that could be a great service for a long time. We have to look at this closely."
Rizzi: "I honestly don't know too much about the volunteer ambulance corps. I don't know how much it will cost and whether it will cost a salary for a director. Some of those questions have to be answered."
De la Cruz: "I don't see that as a major concern, but the cost factor would be a big concern. I think it will cost a lot more money that what is being proposed. With insurance, supplies, equipment, we're talking a vast amount of money. I believe if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Question 8: What do you hope that voters do on Tuesday?
Rizzi: "I hope that after Tuesday, we're going to move along the road toward fiscal responsibilities. A lot of mistakes have been made in the past. We have to correct those mistakes."
Delle Donna: "If I'm successful, I'll just continue to do what I'm doing now. We've been moving forward in the right direction. I'll continue to be a hands-on leader and not dealing with fantasy."
De la Cruz: "People have the opportunity to vote for a change. I'm going to open Town Hall to all residents and listen to anyone with ideas. I will address the out of control spending and the taxes. I don't think we've been operating properly. We need to seek help and assistance in every way possible. People have the chance to prevent problems of the past and go in the correct path."
Stats on the Guttenberg mayoral candidates
Name: David Delle Donna
Marital Status: Married; wife Anna, daughters Stephanie (17), Dorothy (10), stepson Joseph (27).
Occupation: Construction coordinator for an air condition/refrigeration company, township councilman, Guttenberg (part-time).
Guttenberg resident: 22 years
Previous political experience: Councilman for the last 18 months, also served as councilman in 1994. Ran six times for Township Council. Served on the school board.
Council running mates: Councilman Javier Inclan, Councilman John Schwartz, Gerald Drascheff.
Name: Thomas "Tom" Rizzi
Marital Status: Married, wife Ann, no children
Occupation: Behavior modification teacher/business manager, Newark school system
Guttenberg resident: 24 years
Previous political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for Township Council in 1992 and 1993; served as an alternate on the township Planning/Zoning Board; former member of the school board (lost in bid for re-election last April).
Council running mates: Isora Bosch, Ivan Dominguez, Leonard Litof.
Name: Ramon de la Cruz
Marital Status: Single
Occupation: Attorney. Former assistant prosecutor, Hudson County.
Guttenberg resident: 30 years.
Previous political experience: Hudson County Democratic Committee representative, 1997. Organizer of Guttenberg on the Hudson Civic Association.
Council running mates: Running as an independent.