Three candidates are up for two spots on the Lawrence Township Council.
Incumbent Christopher Bobbitt, 47, has lived in Lawrence for 13 years and has been a councilman since 2015. He is a licensed architect with his own office and has been practicing architecture for over 20 years. Bobbitt went to Brentwood High School in Los Angeles, California and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in urban studies with a focus on architectural design. Bobbitt then earned a master’s in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the council liaison to the Affordable Housing Board, Growth and Redevelopment Committee and Environmental Resources and Sustainability Green Advistory Committee. Bobbitt is also a member of the Eggerts Crossing Civic League and Sustainable Lawrence.
Incumbent Jim Kownacki, 65, has lived in Lawrence for 20 years. He is a retired Ewing Lawrence Sewerage Authority employee, where he worked for over 25 years. He served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves and the United States Army Reserves for 24 years, as well. Kownacki was first elected to Lawrence Township Council in 2010, and he served as the township’s mayor in 2012 and 2013. He was reelected to council in 2014, and he also serves on the township planning board. Kownacki is a member of American Legion Post 414, Slackwood Volunteer Fire Company, the Eggerts Crossing Civic League and the 112th Field Artillery Association.
Challenger Robert Pluta is 43 years old and is a lifelong Lawrence resident. He owns and operates Leonardo’s Restaurant on Route 1, and has never run for elected office. Pluta graduated from Lawrence High School and currently has one son attending Lawrence Intermediate School. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus and Trenton Kiwanis and is involved with Morningstar House of Prayer, Saint Hedwig’s and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Pluta is also the secretary of the Polish Arts Club of Trenton.
1. Over the last few years, Lawrence officials have placed a lot of focus on economic development. Do you agree with this philosophy?
Bobbitt: One can look back to news stories from 2011 about the loss of over $900,000 in net tax revenues due to the economic downturn’s impact on property values to find the answer to the question. By focusing on growth and redevelopment in appropriate areas throughout the township, while preserving of our natural resources and enhancing our recreational opportunities, we can build a capacity to lessen the effects of future downturns on the municipal budget.
Kownacki: Yes, encouraging economic development and redevelopment helps strengthen our commercial tax base. Using the smart growth theory to accomplish this preserves the quality of life our Lawrence residents have come to enjoy and expect from our elected officials.
Pluta: Yes, elected officials should take the initiative to improve the economic climate. I would put the emphasis on making better use of existing resources and infrastructure so we can avoid public expenditures that burden taxpayers.
2. What are some areas in Lawrence that you think could benefit from more development?
Bobbitt: Speaking with community and business leaders, I believe that each of our neighborhood commercial areas need a renewed focus on economic development now that the Mercer and Quakerbridge Malls are thriving again. This focus needs to be done in partnership between the Township and neighborhood groups to ensure that development is appropriate and welcomed. Living in the Colonial Lakelands neighborhood, I am excited about the future of the Lawrence Shopping Center and its new ownership.
Kownacki: I believe Lawrence Township has reached its peak on new development, and as a councilman I am proud that over the years I have served on council we have protected 27 percent of our land area as open space. However, I feel the focus should be on redevelopment and those areas in need are, Route 1 North from Lake Drive to Allen Lane, including the Lawrence Shopping Center and from the Brunswick Circle south to Spruce Street.
Pluta: I’m not sure the answer is more development. I think Lawrenceville is already maxed out. We have some terrific bucolic areas I’d like to preserve and dynamic commercial corridors that could use modifications and improvements. As a business owner on Route 1, I’m saddened to see so many empty storefronts. Although I am encouraged by the recent redevelopment project currently underway, I think council could be more proactive in enticing small business to the area. Again, let’s make better use of what we already have.
3. What do you think is the most pressing issue in Lawrence, and how do you plan to address it?
Bobbitt: Balancing the desire to expand township services while holding the line on the municipal tax rate is the most pressing issue in Lawrence. Township council has guided the manager and staff to be effective and economical with our services and resources, but this efficiency has limits. Going forward it will be important to have community conversations to ensure that any additional service or expense by the township adds value to our community.
Kownacki: One of the most important responsibilities of a council member is the oversight of the township budget. Keeping taxes stable, finding new ways to reduce cost, maintaining services and having a strong ratable base.
Pluta: There area too many government regulations and mandates that intrude upon the freedom and ingenuity of average people. I’d like to take a hard look at existing policies to see if there is a way we can streamline regulations that burden small business owners and individuals. Richard Krawczun, the previous town manager, was successful in keeping tax rates at minimal if not zero growth. Keeping taxes in check is no small achievement. I would like to continue this policy of sound fiscal management.
4. Why do you feel you are the right person to serve on the Lawrence Township Council?
Bobbitt: In the two years that I have served on township council, I have worked to build relationships with the community, municipal staff, my fellow council members, and other elected officials. Being able to have candid conversations with different groups, I can make informed decisions about the issues at hand and their impacts on our community. Much like the practice of architecture, serving on council is about exceeding community expectations while staying within a budget.
Kownacki: I have served on Lawrence Township council for eight years, serving two years as mayor. I also serve on the Lawrence Township Planning Board. As a retired blue collar worker and military veteran, I will bring leadership to Lawrence Council and offer new ideas, there is always room for improvement. As a leader, it takes courage to take a stand on an issue that may not be popular with every segment of the town.
Pluta: I was born in Trenton and grew up in Lawrenceville. I attended Lawrence Public schools. I own a business in Lawrence, and live in Lawrence. I can be found in my restaurant most days. I want to be a public servant. I have a personal stake in the success of Lawrenceville.