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WEST ORANGE, NJ — There are three open seats on the ballot for the West Orange Township Council, and the seven candidates debated one another virtually in a Sept. 30 event moderated by members of the West Orange Youth Caucus. Challengers Bill Rutherford, Tammy Williams, Susan Scarpa, Brent Scott and Monica Perkowski are running against incumbents Jerry Guarino and Michelle Casalino. Guarino is running for a third term on the council. Casalino is running for a second full term; she was appointed to the council in 2015 to complete an unexpired term before being elected in 2016.

WOYC members Truman Segal, Andree Celestin and Joe Nalieth moderated the debate. Candidates answered questions alternately in alphabetical order by last name and in reverse alphabetical order. They had between 30 and 90 seconds to answer, depending on the question. If a candidate was named in another candidate’s answer, that candidate had the option to respond.

The candidates were asked whether they support term limits. In West Orange, there are currently no term limits for either the mayor or the council; terms are four years long. Councilman Joe Krakoviak is not running for reelection, due to his strong beliefs regarding term limits.

“Term limits promote fresh ideas, promote competition and policy changes,” Williams said. “Term limits do help leaders focus on results and getting things done. But in business we don’t have term limits. In corporations, we simply vote leadership out. Term limits don’t necessarily and won’t necessarily make West Orange government more or less effective.”

Scott said he supports imposing a limit of two terms per council member.

“I find it very duplicitous to say that the voters vote for them, but if the voters vote for term limits, that’s somehow illegitimate,” he said. “I believe that term limits are a necessary tool for a functioning democracy. In every state and every town that has passed term limits, we’ve seen progressive policies expand.”

In her answer, Scarpa said term limits would help combat low voter turnout in local elections.

“Only about 25 percent of the population votes in a municipal election, and 50 percent vote in a presidential election,” she said. “Once we have term limits and we have new people with fresh ideas, I think we’ll see a new vision.”

Rutherford agreed, saying that enacting term limits would give more residents the opportunity to be heard.

“We’ve been dealing with some of the same problems for, in some cases, up to 30 years,” he said. “The only way to really find new solutions is to have new ideas and new voices being heard, and making sure that every corner of the community has a chance to participate in the decision-making process. Term limits encourage that.”

Perkowski said she is a supporter of term limits not only at the local level, but at the state and national level as well.

“I think it’s one of the ways that we promote political accountability,” she said. “People get in and they have a shorter term to achieve whatever their goals are, and it keeps the fresh voices and new perspectives flowing. I also think it gives people in underserved communities an opportunity to stand up and be heard and get beyond the same old that we’ve been seeing in West Orange.”

Guarino thinks that term limits in local elections should be left up to the voters.

“The beautiful thing about democracy is that people can choose who they want to represent them, period,” he said.

In her answer, Casalino said she understands the need for term limits but that it depends on the candidate.

“You might have a very productive person who is giving a lot to the community,” she said.

The legalization of marijuana is on the state ballot this year, and the council candidates were asked whether they support legalizing marijuana, in addition to being asked whether they support the development of dispensaries in West Orange. At a Jan. 7 meeting, the council voted to table an ordinance that would update the zoning provisions in town to allow the legal operation of medical marijuana dispensaries, wanting more time to discuss. It has not been on a council agenda since.

In July 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, thereby increasing the amount of marijuana that patients with a medical card can purchase, removing limits for terminally ill patients and legalizing edible forms of the drug. The law expands the program to include more diseases that qualify patients for a medical card. Murphy wants to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey.

“I could be supportive if the procedure was done a little differently,” Casalino said. “It’s a cash business, which concerns me. For the medical aspect, there is not a licensed pharmacist that would dispense, so that’s another concern.”

Guarino said he would like to see the results of the ballot measure; he did not say whether he supported or opposed legalization.

“I’m glad to see it on the ballot to give the people of New Jersey and the people of West Orange the opportunity to voice their support or not for the legalization,” he said. “I’m particularly concerned about individuals who require medicinal marijuana to take care of pain. Whatever the people of New Jersey decide to do, I will support that.”

Perkowski said she is not supportive of legalization but is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the criminal records of those who have been arrested for it.

“It’s on the ballot, and should it be decided by the people that that’s the direction we go, then I would support dispensaries in West Orange as an additional revenue driver for us,” Perkowski said.

Rutherford is in favor of full recreational legalization.

“The criminal justice aspect of it is just abhorrent,” he said. “We cannot continue to break up families and ruin people’s lives over marijuana. It serves as a strong source of revenue. The taxation on that would be a boon for all municipalities, so I think we should. I think you should elect council people who are going to take the lead on that. I think we need to have that debate openly and involve every single corner of the community as we make that decision in the best interest of West Orange.”

Though she does not support legalizing recreational marijuana, Scarpa said she believes medical marijuana is a necessity.

“I am for decriminalization,” she said. “I am very much in agreement that our laws have really not been there and done what they need to be doing for the kids who have gotten involved with marijuana. I do think the American Medical Association needs to weigh in and better explain to the public what marijuana actually does to a developing brain, and I think law enforcement needs to weigh in on what has happened in the community and what can or will happen in terms of crime.”

Scott agreed with Rutherford, saying that dispensaries opening in West Orange could provide the town with another revenue stream. He is in favor of the state ballot measure and described the racial disparities between the number of black people arrested on marijuana charges versus the number of white people arrested on similar charges as a reason to expunge criminal records.

“The people who use medical marijuana the most are senior citizens,” Scott said, giving another reason he supports legalization. “They have a lot of illnesses. They have pain; they have suffering. They need that.”

Williams is also for decriminalization and expungement, but said she has not yet made a decision on legalization.

“I am concerned with legalization, because, as you know, when we look in underserved communities, that is where most liquor stores end up being,” she said. “So we need to be able to protect our minority and low-income communities and not have them preyed upon by legalization. I would like to see more structure around legalization. I support medical usage, the unlimited use of that. But I am concerned about how this will impact low-income communities.”

The debate lasted two hours; other topics discussed include redevelopment, taxes, systemic racism and law enforcement. To view the entire debate, visit www.facebook.com/woyouthcaucus. The election is Nov. 3; West Orange voters should already have received their mail-in ballots.

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