Democrat Jeff Martin has had a quick ascent to the top tiers of Hamilton’s municipal government.

Jeff Martin

Martin won election in November 2017, one of three Democratic councilmen to be elected in a municipal Blue Wave that wiped out a decade-long Republican stranglehold on municipal government. It was Martin’s first run for elected office, as it was for his running mates Anthony Carabelli, Jr. and Rick Tighe.

Now in his second year on council, Martin currently serves as council president, and won his party’s nod to run for mayor of Hamilton Township. He faces Republican Kelly Yaede, an incumbent who has served as mayor since November 2012.

Martin earned his bachelor’s degree from The College of New Jersey, a juris doctor from Rutgers University School of Law and a master’s of law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. After graduating from law school, Martin served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

After being honorably discharged from the Air Force, Martin worked for Farmers Insurance for five years. He currently works for Borden Perlman Insurance in Ewing. He is an active member of American Legion Post 31. Martin and his wife Scarlett live in the Golden Crest section of Hamilton.

Martin sat down with Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes the afternoon Sept. 17 at the Dunkin on Quakerbridge Road. An abridged transcript of their conversation follows. (For the Hamilton Post’s conversation with Republican Mayor Kelly Yaede, click here.)

Fire consolidation has been a big issue in the township for years. Last September, council passed an ordinance that would have made consolidation a reality, but the state held it up. The mayor has repeatedly criticized an aspect of that ordinance: a provision that requires a collective bargaining agreement between the fire unions and the township. Looking back a year later, would you have gone about that ordinance differently? How do you plan to complete fire consolidation in the future?

Jeff Martin: Absolutely, I would do fire consolidation the same way I have already done it, which is putting in a requirement that before we submit our plan to the state. There has to be an agreement between the fire unions and the township. It includes how much the firemen will be paid, what their health benefits will be, what the terms and conditions of employment are.

I equate it to this: nobody starts a job without knowing at least what their salary’s going to be, whether they’ll have the ability to get health insurance, things like that. To me, fairness here is allowing the town and the unions to collectively bargain. I believe that when you have a fair collective bargained agreement between the union and, here, the township, it’s a win-win for both sides because both sides have been equal participants in negotiating, and you do get a fair agreement between the two sides.

Here, unfortunately, you’ve had months and months without any movement seemingly. It still seems like months away from any final resolution. To me, that’s unacceptable. Both sides have collectively bargained before, and so both sides know what they’re doing. I believe that when you have a plan in front of you that could save taxpayers over $900,000 a year, it’s incumbent on the township that it gets done and a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

‘The employees at the animal shelter want to do a good job—I absolutely believe that. But they need the resources, they need the support to be able to do that.’

Why hasn’t it gotten done then?

JM: I think there’s animosity on the mayor’s part towards the union due to a political endorsement that Anthony [Carabelli], Rick [Tighe] and I received back in 2017. She has verbally advocated—if not her, then her administration—for over 20 less firefighters in town. To me, that staffing number isn’t realistic given the drop in volunteers we have. So, you need to make up for that to ensure that our firefighters who are responding to emergencies are safe themselves, and to be able to appropriately respond to the situation.

We see in Princeton for the first time ever having to hire professional firefighters because their volunteer numbers have dropped significantly. This isn’t an issue just in Hamilton. It’s an issue all over New Jersey and all over the country as well. With the drop in volunteers, to be able to have a fire service that responds in an appropriate manner and a safe manner, you need the staffing levels to do that. I’m comfortable with the staffing as is, which we maintained. We didn’t fire anybody and we didn’t hire anybody. It’s a number that’s safe both for the firemen and for the residents in this town.

The animal shelter has been a major topic in the township over the last year. Due to the prosecutor’s investigation, the council subcommittee investigation and the state attempting to revoke the township health officer’s license, the reputation of the animal shelter has been harmed. What would you do to restore the animal shelter to good standing?

JM: I think, first of all, we need proactive leadership. What I think many of the residents haven’t seen are any changes in terms of how the animal shelter is run and making sure it’s properly supervised. My understanding is, as we sit here today on Sept. 17, that [business administrator] Dave Kenny is responsible for oversight of the animal shelter. That’s due to not having a current shelter manager and not having a director over that person. Both those positions are currently unfilled. You need to put people in those positions who are going to provide the motivation and the oversight for the employees.

The employees at the shelter want to do a good job—I absolutely, 100 percent believe that. But they need the resources, they need the support to be able to do that. To me, so much of that is just leadership driven and making them know there are people there who are looking out to make sure the shelter’s run the way it should be and they have the support of the administration to do so.

One of the major campaign messages from the Republicans over the last decade, going back to the John Bencivengo administration, is their record on stable taxes. Is that something that you envision continuing?

JM: First of all, it’s a farce to believe they have this great record on stabilizing taxes. For two years, the mayor proposed 5-percent tax increases in her budget. Last year, I was part of a council that, by a 5-0 vote, cut that tax increase in half after going line by line over the budget and looking at both our revenues and our spending. I’m proud to be part of a council that did that. I’m also proud to be part of a council this year that cut taxes by 1 percent. I think it’s, again, a farce to believe the Republicans have some great track record in stabilizing taxes.

Speaking only for myself and my administration, I’ll commit to do the same things I’ve done in my 20 months on council, which is going over the budget line by line, look both at revenues and at spending, and make sure the town isn’t overspending.

One of the things I’m most proud of is, I’ve looked back seven years, and last year was the first year of those seven years that the town’s overall debt decreased. This town was repeatedly under the current mayor increasing our debt and putting expenses on the town’s credit card. What that entailed, and what the effect of that was, was lower spending immediately but a higher spending cost into the future. I’m proud to be part of a council that paid specific attention to that, and lowered the town’s overall debt.

‘OBVIOUSLY I’D RATHER NOT HAVE POLICE OFFICERS at council meetings. BUT THEY ARE THERE TO ENSURE THAT THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO ATTEND COUNCIL MEETINGS FEEL SAFE.’

There are several large, prominent vacant lots within the township. Congoleum right down the road is one of them. As mayor, what would your administration do to revitalize areas like Congoleum or the strip mall next to Cost Cutters on Whitehorse-Mercerville Road?

JM: Again, it comes back to proactive leadership. One of my first votes on council was a resolution allowing the township to use eminent domain or condemnation on the burned-out row homes on East State Street. That was within the first two months I was on council. We sit here now over 18 months later, and my understanding is nothing has been done with those properties. We have groups that I know want to come in, buy those properties and redevelop them into affordable housing units. We’re talking about instead of burned-out homes near businesses, we want to make neighborhoods like that nicer to the eye as well as more useful to the citizens who are living there.

Take that proactive leadership to a Congoleum property or a Cost Cutters property. With Congoleum specifically, you’ve got to work with the county, you’ve got to work with New Jersey Transit. Something I’ve been advocating for since I’ve been on council is a pedestrian bridge to go over Sloan from the train station to whatever goes at Congoleum, to make sure that’s the best use of that property.

One of my biggest disappointments is under the current administration, the landowner got approval to keep a warehouse on the Congoleum property. What you’re now talking about is one of the most expensive pieces of property in Hamilton is going to be used by semi trucks and tractor trailers and things like that. To me, that’s just not an optimal use of the township’s property.

A lot of attention has been paid to the state of politics within the township. Many people have said they’ve never seen it quite like this. Council meetings have devolved into shouting matches and profanity. You had to station police officers at council meetings. There’s multiple scandals at town hall, including several criminal charges. The prosecutor’s office raided township offices and confiscated three computers. You are not personally implicated or involved in any of this, but you are council president and part of the government. Why should voters trust you? How will you improve politics in the township?

JM: My understanding of Hamilton politics is there’s been shouting matches and profanity and yelling from people in the gallery for many years before I was on council, going back to 2006 and potentially even earlier than that. In that sense, what’s gone on over the last 20 months isn’t anything different than what’s gone on in prior years. And I’m talking specifically about what’s gone on at council meetings.

As it relates to other issues, as it relates to township employees being arrested, being suspended, not being suspended, all of that, it all goes back to leadership. The leader needs to say, “The buck stops with me,” and hold people accountable when they need to be held accountable. We have a cabinet-level official who is suspended and has been since January. I won’t get into the specifics of this case, but it’s somebody who’s not criminally charged. Yet we had a member of the mayor’s cabinet who was criminally charged and had no action taken against him. That failure in holding people accountable allows other employees to see that there’s disparate treatment of employees depending on who you support and how vocal you are in supporting any one particular person.

Equity in holding people accountable is something I learned in the Air Force, and is vitally important not just for that particular person but so that all the other employees will see that they’ll be treated fair and they’ll be treated equally. You start to do that, and at least in the beginning, it starts to turn the page on some of the scandal, on some of the allegations that have been made against a variety of people in the current administration.

To your first point, you’re right that the contentiousness has always been a part of the political fabric of the township, particularly leading up to election years. You mentioned the mid-2000s. There’s when council appointed Kelly Yaede to be mayor after Bencivengo’s resignation in 2012—that certainly was a contentious time. But I don’t recall a time they’ve ever needed police officers at council meetings. Do you see a problem with the fact that’s needed?

JM: Look, obviously I’d rather not have police officers there. I don’t think anybody wants police officers there. But they are there to ensure that the people who want to attend their council meetings feel safe in doing so, and that we have a sergeant-in-arms in case protests get too loud or should the meetings get too disruptive.

At the beginning of the year, on two separate occasions, I asked people to leave the council meetings because I felt they were being too disruptive. I don’t like doing anything like that. I want more participation. But on the second occasion, you had somebody who didn’t want to leave, and we thought we had to get the police involved to get someone to leave. Both people left without the police having to get involved, but we want to make sure it’s safe for all people to be there.

The sewer department has been another hot-button issue, particularly now that the township has sued Robbinsville for money the administration says Robbinsville has not paid. If elected, would you continue to pursue the lawsuit against Robbinsville?

JM: Absolutely, if that’s the only way we can get our fair share of what Robbinsville owes, not only retrospectively but prospectively, then we’ll keep the lawsuit. But I would hope that a more open dialogue with [Robbinsville Mayor Dave] Fried and myself would yield quicker and more substantive changes and an agreement for not only a short-term benefit to the residents of Hamilton but a longer term benefit to the residents of Hamilton. It goes back to what we talked about with a collective-bargained agreement. You have buy in from both sides versus one person unilaterally saying, “This is what it’s going to be,” you get a better relationship not only in the short term but in the long term.

What I would want to do is reach out to Mayor Fried within my first few weeks in office, and say, “Here’s the information I have. What information do you need? Let’s figure this out.” I think we can get a better outcome that way than through a lawsuit.

My understanding is there hasn’t been much talks or negotiations between the current mayor and Mayor Fried about the sewer. That’s disappointing because a better outcome could have been reached with more communication and certainly less expense to Hamilton taxpayers.

The mayor continues to attack you on the sewer issue by repeating one sentence you said in a budget meeting.

JM: I know the exact sentence you’re talking about. That was the first budget meeting we had about the sewer department. That was when members of council were concerned that under the budget proposed by the mayor, the sewer department would go bankrupt. For example—and I don’t remember the exact amounts— in 2018 the sewer department spent about $370,000 on electricity. The budget that was put forward to council only proposed $200,000 for electricity. It was the same types of things with other line items, such things as removal of sludge that can’t be stopped, that can’t be avoided that are necessary expenses for running a sewer treatment plant.

What I said on the record—and it’s available for the public to OPRA or otherwise obtain—was that my responsibility as a member of council was to look out for Hamilton taxpayers to make sure the sewer department didn’t go bankrupt, but also because the sewer department serves Robbinsville, that I also had an obligation in that sense to Robbinsville taxpayers to make sure our sewer department didn’t go bankrupt. I get the mayor wants to cherrypick one line, and not include the words before and after, but if you listen to the whole thing, I was concerned about the budget the mayor proposed causing our sewer department to go bankrupt.

The mayor also keeps saying that you winning this election would allow the governor to take over Hamilton. For proof, her campaign has used your wife’s employment as a state political appointee. How do you feel about the mayor involving your wife in this campaign? And how connected are you Gov. Murphy and the state Democratic Party?

JM: It’s despicable for the mayor to keep bringing my wife into this campaign. This campaign is about my ideas to make Hamilton better, and my wife doesn’t have anything to do with that. I understand that when she goes after my wife, it’s because she doesn’t have any valid criticisms of me directly. But I think it is a low blow to go after my wife.

I’ve probably met the governor twice, and have never talked to him one-on-one, and really never said anything more than, “Hi, how are you, governor?” to him. He has nothing to do with me. He has nothing to do with my campaign. There’s things I agree with him on. There’s things I disagree with him on.

My concern is for Hamilton. Gov. Murphy isn’t going to be in that seat forever, and as long as I’m mayor, whoever the governor is, I’m going to work with them to advocate on behalf of the residents of Hamilton to make Hamilton the absolute best place it can be.

Another issue that has come up during the course of the campaign is the amount of time you’ve lived in Hamilton. How long have you lived here? Do you believe that’s long enough for you to understand and represent the township and its residents?

JM: I moved to Hamilton in 2014. Prior to that, I served in the Air Force for four years, and I was stationed in England in four years. I came back to the United States in 2013, got married, and my wife and I were already looking for a house. We were under contract three times. Finally, on the third time, we were able to close and move into Hamilton.

I don’t think there’s a minimum amount of time you have to live in a place to be worried about the direction it’s going. I don’t think there’s a minimum amount of time you have to live in a place to want to see it do better and to be involved in making it better. I think residents two years ago knew how long I’ve lived in town, but saw my sincere desire to make this town better, to be involved in its decision making, to make strong, ethical, fact-based decisions to move this town forward. I think residents will see that this year as well.

I don’t think there’s a minimum time you need to be here to want to make your town better. For the mayor to suggest otherwise is disingenuous on her part.

‘What I’ve known in the 20 months I’ve been on council is that a little communication goes a long way. Open communication goes even a longer way, and when you have that, you can get a lot more done.’

You’ve had a fast political ascent. You were elected to council on your first try. You are council president in your second year. Now, halfway through your first term in elected office, you’re your party’s nominee for the top office in Hamilton. What are your political ambitions?

JM: I don’t have any. I just want to be mayor of Hamilton. I want to make this town better. My wife and I chose this town to live in, and my only goal is to be elected this year as mayor, and make the town better.

Is there anything voters in Hamilton should know about you?

JM: Voters should know that in November what they’re going to get is somebody who brings an ethical leadership to town hall. In the Air Force, I had the privilege to serve our country for four years, and the motto for the Air Force—the first two things ring specifically true to me and what I want to bring to the mayor’s office. Integrity first—without integrity, you’re not going to get people to buy in on your decisions, you’re not going to get credible opinions from people or give your opinion on issues. You have to have integrity first.

And you have to have “Service before self.” I want to be the mayor because I want to make Hamilton better and bring it in a better direction. To do that, it means sacrificing time away from friends, time away from family. I am 100 percent committed to doing that. I won’t forget that I’m just one of 90,000 people in this town. It’s important for a mayor to never forget that because there’s 90,000 opinions on any issue in Hamilton. You need to be able to humble and listen to all the residents to be able to be their leader. That’s what I intend to do.

If elected, what are your top priorities?

JM: There’s a few. The first is to address the abandoned and blighted properties we have in town. They’ve become an eyesore in our community, and they’re not contributing anything. In many ways, they’re detracting from our town’s overall betterment, both in terms of an aesthetically pleasing look, and many are contributing nothing to the tax rolls. I talked about the fires on East State Street and the burned-out rowhomes. That would be one of the first things that I prioritize is those properties.

The second would be finally consolidating our fire districts into a municipal department. The plan I put forward when I was on council will need to be updated, but it would have saved at a minimum $900,000 every year moving forward. It would provide not only a more cost-efficient fire service in the town, but also a safer fire service for the men and women who serve in our fire department.

The third thing would be bringing a proactive leadership style back to the mayor’s office, being willing to listen, being willing to communicate, being willing to talk to residents no matter their political affiliation. I’m proud to have worked on a bipartisan council. We’ve never had a vote where it’s three Democrats on one side and two Republicans on the other. What I’ve known in the 20 months I’ve been on council is that a little communication goes a long way. Open communication goes even a longer way, and when you have that, you can get a lot more done.