Jefferson Twp.: The Town Itself Might Not be the Only Lowkey Factor…

Jefferson Township is one of Morris County’s most rural, and sometimes forgotten about, municipalities.

Nestled around Lake Hopatcong and touching Sussex County, it’s not the easiest place to traverse, even if there are really only two main local thoroughfares – Berkshire Valley and Weldon roads. Republicans rule here; Donald Trump won the township with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2016.  He got only 49.7 percent county wide.

So it’s probably not all that surprising that most of the interest in June’s primary is on the GOP side of the ballot. But what is different this year is that Mayor Russ Felter, a 20-year incumbent, is facing a primary challenge from Eric Wilsusen, who spent about 30 years with Jefferson police, retiring recently as deputy chief.

On the surface, this may be a troubling scenario for the mayor.

Veteran police officers by definition tend to be known around town, but Wilsusen’s resume goes beyond the local police precinct. He has been involved in myriad township activities and currently is president of three organizations – the high school PTA, the girls’ soccer booster club and the board of governors in his community of Lake Shawnee, one of the many individual communities that make up a township of about 23,000 people.

While incumbency always has some obvious advantages, extended stays in office can become a negative. Candidates often get mileage out of talking about change – even if it’s merely for the sake of change itself.

Wilsusen’s team, which includes two council candidates, talks of a “New Vision,” a slogan that can be either uplifting or vague depending on your point of view.

Felter, who will turn 59 in May, and Wilsusen, 53, both grew up in the township.

While being mayor chews up many hours, it’s technically a part-time job. Felter’s “real job” if you will, is manager of park projects for the Morris County Park Commission. His job actually fits the township, given the fact two of the commission’s premier attractions – the Mahlon Dickerson Reservation and the Berkshire Valley Golf Course are in Jefferson.

Felter didn’t respond to numerous phone calls to discuss the race. In previous interviews with local media outlets, he spoke of a need to bind different sections of the township together. There may be two fire departments, two rescue squads and two senior centers representing the Lake Hopatcong and Milton sections of town, but, as the mayor has noted, there is only one police department and one public school system. It is one town.

Wilsusen, who sat down for a recent interview at Paul & Christa’s, a venerable township eatery near the lake, says he wants to bring about more economic development, That won’t be easy, About 75 to 80 percent of land in the township is preserved either by local regulations or the state’s Highlands Act.

Still, Wilsusen says if elected, he’d form a economic development committee to pursue all options. He is dismayed there has been no redevelopment of a now-closed Pathmark store on Route 15 or a former Blockbuster outlet on Berkshire Valley Road. In general, there are too many “for rent” signs on township commercial buildings, he said.

He also wants to improve the municipal website and bring about a more transparent government. For many of his years with the police department, Wilsusen served as public information officer, meaning it was his job to speak to the media about crime occurring in Jefferson.

Law enforcement agencies often have very different ideas about dispensing information. Wilsusen was always candid and forthright in making sure the public knew what was happening police-wise in Jefferson. He said he wants to bring that same type of thinking to the mayor’s chair.

But he admits to not being comfortable with the nuts and bolts of a campaign.

“I love public service, but I really don’t care for politics,” he said. “I’m not one to promote myself.”

That may be a problem. But the challenger already has discovered another problem, one that is probably well-known to seasoned political hands.

And that is, a lot of people don’t know what a primary is.

Wilsusen says he’s met a number of people who say they will vote for him in November. All well and good, of course, but there will be no November election for Wilsusen if he doesn’t win in June. So part of his campaign activity is explaining to people that they have to vote for him in June. And to do that, they may have to register as a Republican or switch parties before the deadline for doing so.

One thing Wilsusen says he won’t do is make a blanket statement about lowering property taxes.

He said that would be idiotic, because people know better.

(Visited 110 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

News From Around the Web

The Political Landscape