It’s not easy running for freeholder. No matter what you call them – they’ll soon be called commissioners – many people don’t know what county government does.
Proving that, the first question at a Monday night Morris County freeholder debate was very simple – what does a freeholder do?
That’s not a joke.
“We fix the roads, we fix the buildings … we help people in all walks of life” replied Tayfun Selen, an incumbent Republican freeholder from Chatham Township. Selen, who was appointed to the seat to fill a vacancy nine months ago, is running countywide for the first time.
His Democratic challenger is Cary Amaro of Randolph.
The obscure nation of county government – stuck as it is between the more visible state and municipal levels – is a problem for all challengers. But for Dems in Morris County, winning a seat has been more than a challenge; it’s been near impossible. Morris County has been around for a long time, and the record is clear – there has been only one Democratic freeholder.
Democrats have been making inroads in Morris; just look at the last congressional election. They’re also winning more municipal seats, but freeholder has up to now been an impossible hurdle for them.
The debate, which was jointly sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, covered a number of legitimate topics, one of which was Morris View Nursing Home. Run for years by the county itself, it has been recently privatized.
Amaro wants to review that.
“There’s a concern quality of care has gone down,” she said.
Selen disagreed. He said the nursing home had been costing the county close to $500,000 a year, so it makes sense to let the professionals run it.
But why put a price tag on care for the elderly, Amaro asked.
No, that’s not happening, Selen said. He said money saved from privatizing the nursing home can be used for other services that benefit the elderly and the needy. He said this is what innovation is all about.
The candidates also were asked what they can do to merge towns to reduce property taxes.
Amaro supported an active approach. She said the freeholders should meet with municipal and school officials to encourage them to share services.
Selen said this is already happening. As an example, he cited an agreement with Sussex County in regard to housing jail inmates.
As an overview, Selen stressed a common Republican argument – Morris County is one of the best counties in the state in which to live, so why change anything about how it is being governed?
Amaro didn’t challenge that assertion, but she said there are people struggling with financial hardship and that the freeholders can make more of an effort to reach them.
But as we said, the function of county government can be a mystery – sometimes even to those taking part in a freeholder debate.
We saw that with a question about whether money for police in Morris County should be reallocated to mental health services.
Everybody listening likely understood this is a topic of national debate. However, Morris County government does not oversee all that many police departments. It has a sheriff’s office and the park police. The majority of police departments in the county are run and funded by municipalities, not the county. So this was really a question for local officials.
An even more off-topic question was about Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. The candidates were asked how they would respond to systemic problems at the hospital “since it has been under county oversight.”
You have to wonder why that question was asked.
Greystone is not under “county oversight.” It is run by the state – always has been.
Rather than just saying that, each candidate labored to answer the question.