MORRISTOWN – There’s an unhappy, would-be campaign donor in town.
Mayor Tim Dougherty said at Wednesday’s debate that he returned a check from a contributor, because it would have violated town pay-to-play laws he called the toughest in the state.
“I received a check … I had to return it,” the mayor said. “The person could not donate.”
Dougherty made the comment during a League of Women Voters’ virtual debate with Esperanza Porras Field, his opponent in the June 8 Democratic primary.
In contrast to a mobile billboard that appeared a few weeks ago alleging corruption in Morristown, the debate was more or less a polite affair.
The mayor’s comments came in answer to a question about “pay-to-play,” which is the practice of individuals seeking jobs or contracts through campaign contributions. Town ordinances to stop the practice are working, the mayor said, using his experience as an example.
He did not identify the would-be contributor when asked about it after the debate.
Porras Field has not made any direct allegations of corruption, but in general, says town government is too secretive and not transparent.
The billboard, which appeared in April, highlighted a recent criminal case in which the mayor’s wife pleaded guilty in connection with receiving an improper campaign contribution when she ran for freeholder in 2018. She was sentenced to probation for one year.
While the mayor was not involved in the case, the billboard and an accompanying website called “MorristownWatch” has been alleging wrongdoing in his administration.
The site also is promoting Porras Field.
That activity was not specifically raised at the debate, but the mayor was asked about the political involvement of the local PBA, which has been promoting MorristownWatch.
Dougherty said everyone has a right to get involved in politics and attributed his problems with the PBA to contract negotiations.
The mayor has been endorsed by a number of the state’s Democratic luminaries, including Gov. Phil Murphy and Rep. Mikie Sherrill. That may make this seem like a one-sided contest, but one never knows. As of now the primary is everything; Republicans have not filed a mayoral candidate.
Morristown, which is surrounded by Morris Township, is smaller than some outsiders may think. It also has much tax-exempt property in the form of churches, the Morris County government complex and most of the Morristown Medical Center.
So increasing ratables through redevelopment is a big issue.
And it’s one that Dougherty likes talking about. He says the town is thriving and that contrary to popular belief, new residential buildings always include a percentage of affordable housing. In fact, he said Morristown has developed 156 affordable units during his tenure and is on tap to increase that amount by almost 100 more. This is the best record for affordable housing in decades, he said.
One of Porras Field’s campaign points is that Morristown should do more to help create housing for those who are not affluent.
She also talked about the town’s use of PILOT’s or payments in lieu of taxation. These are deals that facilitate development by allowing builders to make a direct payment to the town as opposed to paying property taxes.
These schemes tend to be controversial because the developer is getting a break and perhaps more importantly, the revenue goes direct to the municipal government. Property tax payments are split among the municipality, the school district and the county.
That prompted Porras Field to ask, “Why (are) we giving so many tax breaks?”
Dougherty said PILOTs are common, noting that they were created by the state. But he acknowledged that the town may have to do a better job explaining them.
The mayor was asked why a town planner and redevelopment attorney are getting $5 million from the town.
Dougherty said that’s not true.
He said the planner’s salary is $150,000 and that the redevelopment lawyer is paid out of escrow funds garnered from developers. So the bottom line is that those posts cost taxpayers $150,000, not $5 million.
Porras Field was not satisfied.
“Everything is a big secret,” she said, suggesting this information should be disseminated to the public.
Dougherty countered by saying this info is in the town budget, which is on the town website.
Porras Field also wants term limits. Dougherty has been in office for 12 years.
The mayor brushes this concern aside, saying it’s all up to voters.
“Elections are term limits,” he said.