‘Look What They Did to Steve Lonegan:’ at Newton Debate, Candidate Goes After NJ.com

Newton has seen better days. Its business district needs a boost, it longs for new ratables and like every other town in America, it must cope with the continuing problem of opioid addiction.

The borough of 8,000 is the seat of government in Sussex County, but even that cuts both ways. While the county courthouse and other county facilities bring people to town on a daily basis, local officials gripe that they’re exempt form paying property taxes. Ditto for a number of other medical and charitable institutions drawn to the county’s commercial center.

Seven individuals, including three incumbents, met Tuesday night at Sussex County Community College to debate these and other issues.

Three seats are up on the five-member council.

Newton has non-partisan May elections and the mayor is selected by his, or her, council peers, not directly by the voters. The election is next Tuesday.

The debate and election are unfolding two months after the current mayor and reelection candidate, Wayne Levante, was censured by his peers for a Facebook post that referred to conspiracy theories that claimed one of the victims of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting was an actor.

Levante is hardly the first public official to find dealing with social media a bit treacherous. Still, this issue is not going away.

Touching on his censure, Levante said his council colleagues, who include reelection candidates Sandra Diglio and E. Kevin Elvidge, “threw him under the bus.”

Elvidge replied that the council had no choice.

Levante was not done. He complained in general about media “bias,” mentioning both Fox News and CNN. Earlier in the campaign, he criticized TAP-Into, a local online news outlet.

At the debate, Levante also criticized NJ.Com, saying, “look what they did to Steve Lonegan.”

Talk about an odd interlude into a debate about municipal government.

For the record, NJ. Com recently called for Lonegan, a well-known New Jersey conservative, to end his GOP primary campaign for the Fifth District congressional nomination for using a profane anti-gay slur in referring to a political opponent. That occurred more than 10 years ago, but the incident has resurfaced.

No other candidate commented specifically on Levante’s censure.

In fact, with some exception, there seemed to be general agreement on many issues.

All but one candidate said the town must explore all options, including litigation, to get non-profits and other government units to contribute money to the town. The exception was Jason Schlaffer, who said being the Sussex County seat benefits Newton. Schlaffer is running with Matthew Dickson.

The other two candidates in the race are Alexander Majewski and Ludmilla Mecaj.

The problems of the Spring Street business district were frequently discussed.

Collectively, the candidates said problems include empty stores – 24 by one count – high taxes and lingering effects of the last recession.

How do you fix things?

So-called PILOT, or Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes, plans were discussed.

Under such a plan, a business pays the municipality a fixed amount each year as opposed to paying standard property taxes. Some candidates were skeptical about the policy. One drawback is that PILOT plans generally provide funds only to the municipality and not the school district.

Elvidge was the strongest proponent of PILOTs, noting that the concept was instrumental in attracting ThorLabs, one of Newton’s most significant businesses.

There was talk of creating a Business Improvement District. Such districts normally assess a fee to each business in the district with the money used for promotion, improvement and general upkeep.

The incumbents said they have looked into the idea and found it would not benefit Newton. But the challengers said they want to consider it again.

One contentious issue was the election itself.

Many towns have moved municipal elections from May to November in hopes of increasing turnout and saving a small amount of money. Byram, Sparta and Vernon have done this in Sussex County.

One of the candidates in the race, Mecaj, began a petition to do the same in Newton.

Most of those running seemed to favor the idea, expressing confidence that town elections could still be non-partisan even if moved to November. School board elections, in fact, remain non-partisan even though most have been moved to the fall.

Mecaj has sent out a release contending that those who see partisanship in moving elections to the fall are dealing in “fake news.”

Elvidge is not buying it. He suggested the move was just a scheme to bring partisan politics into municipal elections.

“If you don’t like partisan politics, watch what happens in November,” he said.
Imagine that. Politics impacting an election.”

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