Bipartisan Group Backs Public Financing

MSNBC — Friday, May 1, 2009

By Melissa Hayes
Staff Writer,

WILLINGBORO — The fourth time was the charm for a grassroots group attempting to hold a candidates forum in the township just weeks before a hotly contested municipal primary election.

Organizers said the event was canceled at the last minute by three venues due to "political" reasons and was almost kicked out of Willingboro High School hours before it was scheduled to begin Wednesday night.

At issue is a contested Democratic primary race for two seats on Township Council. Whoever wins will run unopposed in November unless independent candidates file.

Five Democrats are vying for two seats on the Township Council. Incumbents Paul Stephenson and Jim Gray are being challenged by Ken Gordon, Nathaniel Anderson and Dennis Tunstall.

The Burlington County Democratic Committee is backing Gordon and Anderson, who will appear on the party line in the June 9 primary.

Local officials, including Mayor Jacqueline Jennings have accused the county Democrats of trying to take over the township in order to create patronage positions. Gordon and Anderson have denied the claims, saying they are independent-minded individuals supported by the party.

All three challengers appeared at the event. Despite organizers saying they invited all the candidates, Gray and Stephenson uphold they did not get invitations.

The event was hosted by township-based GrassRoots4Change and NJ Citizen Action of Camden.

David Hopkins, of GrassRoots4Change, said he received written permission from the district and had to involve attorneys to hold the event after local officials tried to stop it.

"There were many attempts to deny the citizens an opportunity to hear from the candidates," Hopkins said.

The event went off without a hitch despite problems earlier in the day.

Gordon, Anderson and Tunstall all said they would support changing the form of government from a strong manager to an elected mayor, an issue that has arisen in the past.

The township operates under the Faulkner Act, an optional municipal charter law. There are five elected Township Council members who appoint a member as mayor annually. The township manager serves as the chief executive and administrative official, drafting the budget and hiring department heads.

Gordon said voters would have to approve the change, but he thinks it's worth asking.

"It is something I strongly believe we need to vote on," he said.

His running mate, Anderson, agreed that voters should select their mayor.

Tunstall said many residents he spoke with want an elected mayor.

"I think whatever the people want they should get," he said.

The candidates also used the forum to detail their platforms.

Gordon and Anderson said they want to restore pride in the township and would do so by making it more affordable; improving communication with other municipalities and organizations; and focusing on safety.

Tunstall called for the school board and Township Council to work together to improve the community. He said the township needs to reduce taxes without hurting programs that reflect positively on the community such as the annual Jazz Festival, which was cut from this year's budget.

All three candidates said they supported shared services.

While the forum was advertised as nonpartisan, Democrats dominated the event.

In addition to the municipal candidates, 7th District Assemblymen Herb Conaway of Delanco and Jack Conners of Pennsauken attended and took questions from the audience. Two independent candidates running for mayor in Camden also attended.

Hopkins said Republicans were invited though Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park. Allen, who is not up for re-election, did not attend.

Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton said last week his candidates were unaware of the event. Conners and Conaway will face Republicans Harry Adams, a Westampton councilman, and Leah Arter, a former Beverly councilwoman in November.

GrassRoots4Change is an affiliate of Organizing for America, a grassroots advocacy effort under the Democratic National Committee announced by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

The organization has not endorsed any candidates, and although it is affiliated with the Democratic National Committee, Hopkins said the group is nonpartisan. He said he was glad the event finally happened. "This is a First Amendment right of freedom of speech to hear from the candidates," he said.

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