WHITESBORO – Two candidates for Middle Township Committee squared off at the Martin Luther King Center last week, and though they’re from opposing parties, they spent much of the evening agreeing with one another.
Democrat Mike Clark, incumbent committeeman and current mayor, faced Republican Dan Lockwood, both a former committeeman and a former mayor.
Pat Taylor, an Independent committee candidate, was also invited to the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro “Meet the Candidates” event, said Bernie Blanks, president of the CCW. She did not attend.
“This is not a debate,” Blanks said, Tuesday, Oct. 18, laying out the rules of the evening as he introduced Clark and Lockwood to a crowd of about 30 people. “The candidates will share their platforms, and then we’ll have a question and answer period.”
Both men are Middle Township residents, married, and have children. Clark’s kids are grown. Lockwood still has a daughter attending the township’s high school. Each man cares deeply for the township and expressed a desire to serve the residents through public service.
“I served six years on the committee,” Lockwood said. “I have more experience than anyone currently serving.”
Lockwood lost a bid for reelection to committee last year in a close race with Democrat Jeff DeVico. Since giving up his seat in January, Lockwood has continued to attend committee meetings, often sharply questioning Clark, or offering his own ideas for resolutions or ordinances.
“I don’t say that I’m running against anyone,” Lockwood told the crowd at the MLK Center last week. “I’m not running against anyone for committee. I’m running for Middle Township.”
Lockwood stressed his own ties to the area. He has a landscaping business based in Cape May Court House and has seven employees.
“The flexibility of my business allows me to get involved in the community,” he said. “With Habitat for Humanity. With my church.”
The schedule of a landscaping business is flexible, Lockwood said. That allows him to attend committee meetings, and he said that he hadn’t missed a meeting during his tenure on the dais.
“I appreciated the opportunity to serve Middle Township for six years, and I hope to serve again.”
Clark sounded many of the same notes during his opening statement, noting that serving the community is important.
“I’m a volunteer,” Clark said, introducing himself as firefighter with Middle Township Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. Clark has worked with the fire company for 22 years, and spent the last 18 years as president of the organization.
“When I talk to the kids in the schools, I tell them to find something they’re passionate about and then volunteer,” he said. Serving the community is important to both the township and residents, he said.
If he’s reelected to committee, Lockwood said that his primary focus would be on the budget, taxes and looking for sustainable ways to manage the township.
One idea that he’s proposed is training some Public Works employees to take on small paving jobs within the township’s borders.
“We’ll be able to save money and take on small projects,” he said.
Currently, small projects are tacked onto larger jobs as “no bid” paving jobs, and given to outside contractors as part of larger projects. That needs to change, Lockwood said, noting that it could create seven to eight “good jobs” to Public Works. Higher pay along with training for those workers would also be part of the plan, he said.
Rosie Jefferson, Cape May Court House, asked Lockwood how the township would pay for the asphalt paving, as well as the training needed to pave the roads. Though she said she supports the notion of better paying jobs in Public Works, Jefferson wondered whether it would add to residents’ tax burden.
“We can only pave for about nine months in a year,” Lockwood said. “They would be doing things other than paving – working in other areas.”
Lockwood said the township already has the money to pay the workers. “The money is there. We’re just paying someone else.”
In addition to saving the township money, Lockwood said local residents would benefit. “Repaving local streets saves money on car repairs, adds to property values, and adds to the safety of the roads.”
Lockwood said he would also explore the idea of a community pool, and adding a gymnasium to the MLK Center.
“Middle Township is a big town with a lot of different textures,” Lockwood said. “Other people don’t have as complete a plan as I do. I’ve been working on it for a lot of years.”
Presenting his platform, Clark noted the accomplishments of the committee and township departments during his tenure as mayor.
“We have the Street Crimes Unit, and the new police substation in Rio Grande,” he said. “We have four new police officers, and we’re on our way to reaching our goal of 52 officers.”
The Street Crimes Unit was revitalized near the end of 2015, following the murder of 15-year-old Nicole Angstadt, whose body was found in a vacant home in Rio Grande. The police substation was likewise introduced near the end of 2015, and realized early in 2016.
“We’re cracking down on hotels and motels in Rio Grande to make them better neighbors,” Clark said.
Township officials in the past have criticized the transient nature of so-called voucher motels, especially in Rio Grande, saying that they can attract a criminal element.
“Additional lighting in Rio Grande, along the route 9 and 47 corridor, is also in the plan,” Clark said. “The township has also applied for a grant to make it easier and safer to get to the Martin Luther King Center, with work on Gibbs Street and additional lighting.”
Clark also said that several new businesses plan to open in the township, including Aldi’s, Radio Shack, Taco Bell and an AT&T outlet.
“2016 is a banner year, and I’m proud to be your mayor – proud to represent the community,” Clark said.
Question and answer
Robert Matthews, CCW vice president and township recreation supervisor, said that the country appears to be divided, not only along racial lines, but political philosophies.
“With the Democrats and the Republicans fighting, how can you let us know that the bickering between the parties won’t come to this community after the election?” Matthews asked.
The fighting at the national level has gotten ugly, Matthews said. The impact at a local level could be devastating.
“We all need to work together,” Clark replied. “All lives matter. Blue lives matter. You can agree or disagree, but at some point, you have to put aside your differences and move along.”
Clark, a Democrat, said that despite his differences with Republicans, he works with them for the betterment of the community. “I don’t always agree with Tim (Donohue) and Dan (Lockwood), but we have to work together.”
In his response, Lockwood agreed with Clark.
“Mike and I are on the same page,” he said. “(Committeemen) don’t select the Supreme Court Justice. This is about Middle Township, not national politics.”
Lockwood noted that police departments across the country have been under scrutiny, but that locally, the township’s department has been successful in its efforts to reach out to the community. Lockwood pointed out that Daniel Auld, a community activist present in the audience, had worked with Police Chief Christopher and county Prosecutor Robert R. Taylor in a recent program to familiarize local teens and parents with the officers in the police department.
“We have to lead by example,” Lockwood said. “We have to reach across the aisle with a softer hand and gentler heart. Sometimes we have learn, and not always teach.”
Madelyn McCarroll and Cheryl Spaulding both wondered at the impact the departure of Business Administrator Connie Mahon would have on the township. Mahon resigned in early September and accepted a position in Wildwood Crest. Her last day with the township is at the end of November.
“I was heartbroken when Connie left,” said McCarroll, chairwoman of the township’s Animal Welfare Board. “How can we keep wonderful people, and make them want to stay in the community and township employ?”
“I was confused about the whole thing,” Spaulding said. “Why was there a need to renegotiate her contract this soon, and how is Connie’s leaving going to affect the township?”
The question tied into a larger issue of attracting and keeping Middle Township employees. Over the last couple of months, several employees have left the township’s employ for jobs outside of Middle Township, including Mahon, John Clifford, the former CFO, Suzanne Stocker, former deputy clerk, and Alison Akke, a former police officer.
Clark said that Mahon’s contract was due to expire in April 2017, and that it was too soon to negotiate a new contract.
“I didn’t know that she was out looking for another job,” Clark said. “I always worked very well with Connie.”
But other folks left in favor of higher paying jobs in other towns, Clark said. He compared it to the banking industry, noting that in his own career, Clark had taken different jobs over the years in an effort to better himself.
“You don’t want to lose people, but it happens,” Clark said.
Lockwood, on the other hand, said Mahon wasn’t confident that she would still have a position with the township following the November election. “Connie wasn’t feeling appreciated, and the other towns knew that, and they went after her,” Lockwood said.
“She wanted to know that passed this election, would still have job. She didn’t get that.”
In light of Mahon’s resignation, Chris Hetrick, an area resident, asked for an assessment of employee morale, as well as the morale of township citizens.
Lockwood said that employee morale was improving, and that while Mahon’s departure would have an impact, it wouldn’t be as widespread as some assumed. “Township employees are just as different as township residents,” he said.
“Morale is improving because of change, improvements made during my terms of office.” Lockwood noted that both the Employee of the Month program and Middle Matters started while he was on committee.
“If you appreciate employees, it will pay you back,” he said.
“Morale is very important,” Clark said. “Dan and I don’t always agree, but we agree on this also. Treat people how you want to be treated.”
Closing out the evening, both candidates thanked the residents for attending.
“Thanks for sharing your concerns, and I appreciate Dan being here,” Clark said, acknowledging his challenger. “It’s important to do these types of things.”
Lockwood, too, mentioned his opponent in his closing remarks.
“I’m not a better man than Mike Clark,” he said. “He cares about the community, and I care about the community.”
Lockwood reminded the audience that he had served six years on the dais. “But I have the experience, and I like the work.”