Six candidates are running for election to three four-year seats on Lawrence Township Council on Nov. 5.
Democrats Cathleen Lewis, Michael Powers and John Ryan are being challenged by Republicans Robert Pluta, Joseph Vinch and his father, Philip Joseph Vinch III. The elder Vinch stepped in as a candidate after Eric Jaszewski dropped out of the race due to personal reasons.
Lewis and Powers are incumbents. Ryan runs in place of Jim Kownacki, who opted not to run for re-election after serving on township council for two terms.
Lewis, 40, and her husband, Paul Penna, have been residents of Lawrence Township for more than 15 years. She currently works in the Office of Clean Energy at the state Board of Public Utilities and previously worked as the director of public affairs and government relations for the AAA New Jersey Automobile Club. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Douglass College, Rutgers University.
Lewis serves on the board of N.J. Bike Walk and the Southern and Central New Jersey Girl Scouts. She volunteers with her daughters’ Girl Scout troops and has been room mother at Eldridge Park School. In the past, she was a member of the Zoning Board, the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Newark Regional Business Partnership and the Governor’s Highway Traffic Safety Policy Advisory Committee.
Pluta, 44, grew up in Lawrence Township and is a graduate of Lawrence High School. He and his wife Magdalena jave two children Eric (12) and Bob (19 months).
Pluta has been the owner of Leonardo’s Restaurant for the past 12 years. His community activity includes currently serving as chairman of the Growth and Redevelopment Committee.
He is a fourth degree member of Knights of Columbus and the Kiwanis Club.
Powers, 51, and his wife Nancy have been residents of the township for 45 years.
A 1986 graduate of Lawrence High School, Powers received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Emory University in 1990 and a law degree from Catholic University of America Law School in 1993. Powers currently works as general counsel of the GOG Foundation. He was previously in private practice with the national law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney in their Princeton office from 2010-2016. He also worked as counsel to PharmaNet Development Group.
His community involvement includes the Lawrence Knights of Columbus Council #7000, where he was a past grand knight; a Building One New Jersey board member; and the Lawrence Chapter executive committee of the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
Ryan, 63, has lived in south Lawrence with his wife, Linda, for 34 years.
A high school graduate, Ryan is retired from the UPS Tractor Trailer Division and a union member with Local 177.
His community involvement includes being a member of the planning board; patriotic committee; the 112th Field Artillery Association in Lawrence; and the Sons of American Legion Post 458.
Vinch, 26, grew up in Lawrence and has lived in town for 23 years. His community involvement includes membership in the International Order of DeMolay.
A 2013 graduate of Lawrence High School, Vinch owns a pawn shop in town called Honest Stu and holds a real estate license. While in high school, he worked at Home Depot and Dick’s Sporting Goods. After he graduated, he was a heavy machine operator for two years before opening his business.
Vinch III, 55, and his wife, Brenda, have lived in Lawrence for the past 13 years, and on and off for more than 20.
A graduate of the Pennington School and Nasson College, he works as a realtor. For most of his life, he has been in the construction, environmental and asset management fields. He is the former owner of the Old Glendale Inn restaurant. Vinch III is a Mason and a member of Tall Cedars of Lebanon.
The Lawrence Gazette asked each of the candidates to answer a series of four questions. Their responses are printed below.
Why do you feel you are the best candidate for council, and what differentiates you from the other candidates?
Lewis: Lawrence is a great community in which to live and work but there is much untapped potential. Many community members continue to feel disconnected. Throughout my tenure, I have worked to encourage more interaction with the township. I hosted the first town hall open house and encouraged more groups to participate in township activities. I advocated for the township to have a presence on social media.
We also need to attract more businesses, encouraging sustainable, multimodal infrastructure enhancements to make businesses more accessible to residents who are biking and walking. I have worked on these issues across the state and continue to advocate for them on a local level.
Lastly, this town continues to grow and the next generation of Lawrence residents need to connect to this township in new ways. As a young mother, I bring a unique perspective to the council and to this effort.
Pluta: I was raised in Lawrence, live in Lawrence and own a business in Lawrence. Most days I can be found in my restaurant which gives me the privilege of talking to Lawrence residents every day. I want to be your public servant.
Powers: I believe my 15 years of experience on the township council and two terms as mayor of Lawrence Township uniquely qualifies me with the institutional knowledge that we need on the governing body.
As mayor, I launched the community wide Diversity Day celebration that is still going strong 14 years later. During my time on council, I have always been an advocate for our township businesses and have been an active member of the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
As chair of the township redevelopment committee, I initiated the annual Lawrence Township Business Awards program that will be taking place on Oct. 23 at Green Acres. I am responsive to constituent concerns and hope to earn a continuing vote of support from Lawrence residents.
Ryan: Coming to politics and township council later in life has allowed me to see the town and its issues through the eyes of an average citizen. I’ve lived here, raised a family here, and I know what needs to be done to make sure that Lawrence keeps its charm while also growing into an even more vibrant community.
What also makes me unique is my time as a shop steward for Teamsters Local 177. It was there that I learned the necessary skills of negotiation, consensus building and making critical—but also measured—decisions.
Vinch: I offer a unique perspective on issues facing our town because I own a small business in Lawrence. Also, my age helps me to better relate to the younger residents while encouraging them to become active in our community as it grows and matures.
Vinch III: I think that my life experiences bring a unique perspective to council. As a Republican in a heavily Democratic town, I offer balance to the board.
How should the town encourage construction of more commercial ratables and also attract more businesses?
Lewis: The town needs proactive leadership to reach out to businesses and showing them why Lawrence is a great place to work and establish a business. That’s why I have fought for years to have a position dedicated to that pursuit, and I am pleased that this year we have been able to establish a position for that purpose.
Additionally, finding a way to offer local restaurants the ability to serve beer and wine is an important way to boost the local economy and create stability for community-based restaurants and shopping centers. For the last six years, I’ve chaired a statewide task force looking to create comprehensive change to the statewide laws to provide ways to invest in local businesses without devaluing current licenses.
Pluta: As chair of the Growth and Redevelopment Committee, one of the initiatives we sent for review was a revision of the land use ordinance to allow for a-frame signs in the Lawrence Shopping Center and Mercer Mall. Taking a look at unnecessary regulations such as these will help create a business-friendly climate. I support creating a township business coordinator to attract businesses and help them get situated in our town. Business ratables reduce residential property taxes.
Powers: Rather than focus on new development in Lawrence, we need to focus on redeveloping our existing commercial properties, such as the Lawrence Shopping Center. Attracting businesses that are appropriate for the surrounding neighborhood and serve the needs of our community is a top priority.
When a hotel project was proposed last year in south Lawrence that would have had a detrimental impact to a wooded area surrounding Colonial Lake, I opposed it and joined with my council colleagues in acquiring the land from the developer with Green Acres funding to further enhance Colonial Lake Park.
The township’s continuing partnership with organizations such as the Greater Eldridge Park Neighborhood Association, Eggerts Crossing Civic League, Lawrenceville Main Street, Mercer Chamber and County Economic Development Office is another way to keep and attract businesses in our town.
Ryan: Development of new businesses is a vital part of keeping taxes low and maintaining a high quality of life in Lawrence Township. However, being judicious in our approach is important.
Making sure we take community input early on in the development process is a vital step in ensuring that new businesses that come into town are both desired by the local neighborhood and the town at large. Every business wants to be a positive presence in the community and every successful Lawrence business has had the support of township council and the community. I’ll make sure new business are welcome and supported.
Vinch: Planning is the key to success. We need to work smarter to develop the Route 206, Princeton Pike and Route 1 corridors for more commercial ratables. Technology and pharmaceutical-based firms should be heavily marketed and encouraged to transition to our area.
Vinch III: First by not buying usable commercial ratables properties for open space. There is a place and a need for open space. Properties on Route 1 and Route 206 are not the places.
What are some challenges facing the township that you believe deserve more attention?
Lewis: Our township has a growing and changing population, we need to find new ways to connect to them. We also need to find ways to provide more efficient services, we have a long legacy of strong services but we need to find new, sustainable, cost effective ways to provide them to our residents.
We need to invest in our community business areas—the Lawrence Shopping Center, Eldridge Park, the Business Route 1 corridor. Not only do we need to be proactive about attracting businesses but also in creating infrastructure that encourages biking and walking, which encourages residents to access these local businesses more often.
Pluta: If you trace the path of the Shabakunk Creek, which feeds in to Colonial Lake, you will see a mile-long stretch that runs along Olden Avenue past many heavy industrial sites. After heavy rains, the garbage flowing into the creek ends up in our lake. I would like to see a litter trap placed where the creek feeds into the lake, capturing all the garbage that washes down.
Also, I am opposed to the placement of housing next to our beautiful historic Brearley House. The local, county and state government spent nearly $800,000 to restore this gem. Let’s not ruin it by placing multifamily housing next to it.
Powers: One of the challenges facing not only Lawrence Township, but also the world is global warming. We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and utilize renewable energy sources whenever possible. Township government is doing our part through a private-public partnership with Eznrgy to install a solar panel carport in our municipal parking lot in 2020 that will help to meet the energy needs of town hall.
As a councilman, I have supported energy audits of our firehouses, senior center and other municipal buildings and the installation of LED lighting to further reduce municipal energy consumption and save taxpayer dollars. Now that 26% of Lawrence Township has been permanently preserved as open space, another local challenge is making sure our public works department has the resources that it needs to properly maintain the many wonderful parks that our residents enjoy.
Another challenge to address will be the impact from the number of police officers expected to retire in the next few years. Making sure the public works department and the police department are adequately staffed is something I will continue to monitor as a member of the council.
Ryan: The biggest challenge this town faces has always the same: Keeping our taxes stable while maintaining the superior level of service that our constituents have come to expect—streets plowed on time and efficiently; keeping the parks in shape; and making sure our emergency services are necessarily equipped for whatever they may face.
Yes, smaller problems will come and go. But, at the end of the day, it is that overarching approach that will enable us to weather any storm that comes our way.
Vinch: Keeping residents here in Lawrence needs to be a definite focus. Businesses and families are leaving New Jersey at an alarming rate. This needs to stop. We need to help our seniors stay and enjoy their retirement here, rather than fleeing to a state they can afford.
Vinch III: We need to maintain a balance between raising taxes and keeping the value of property. This is a balancing act, as taxes go up, it limits what people can afford to buy, thus lowering the value of homes and commercial property.
When the value decreases, so does the ratable income to the town. We need a program to reduce the taxes to our senior citizens who are now on fixed income. More attention must be given to the poorest sections of Lawrence that for too many decades have had little or no change to the community. We must support the local volunteer fire companies and police that protect our citizens and properties. They both must have the adequate tools, resources and funds to properly do their job.
How would you work to help control municipal taxes? Are there any areas of the budget you feel need to be looked at?
Lewis: The first duty of any council member is to maintain a responsible tax rate. Lawrence is fortunate that we have a long history of great services and reasonable taxes. The first goal should always be finding additional ways to share services. Second, we can work to encourage more commercial ratables in our town. Third, we evaluate our services, ensuring they are efficient and effective. Lastly, we continue to find ways to encourage sustainable practices that are not only good for the environment but reduce costs.
Pluta: As a fiscal conservative, I am a firm believer in zero based budgeting where every item is reviewed and justified each year, regardless of how much has been allocated in previous years. Since the 2% limit on raises for Local Police and Fire unions has expired, the town needs to successfully negotiate contracts which both compensate the hard work of our local Police and Fire while at the same time keeping the tax rate in check.
Powers: As mentioned above, being “green” is just one way that I have helped to reduce the tax burden on our residents. Another way is to make sure tax-exempt organizations such as the Lawrenceville Prep School that utilize municipal services and send children to our public schools pay their fair share.
As mayor in 2010, I successfully negotiated the first five figure financial contributions from the tax-exempt Lawrenceville School and Rider University to annually support our municipal budget. Although the township budget already contains many shared services programs with Mercer County and surrounding townships, we need to continue looking to add more shared services opportunities to our budget to save tax dollars.
Ryan: I’m no stranger to town hall. I’ve been on the Lawrence Township Planning Board since the beginning of this year and have attended every single council meeting for the past 2.5 years. All of this time and effort has adequately prepared me to hit the ground running on day one while also being a new face with fresh eyes.
As for areas of the budget that need attention: A municipal budget is something that must be looked at as a whole. Every cut or addition to one line item affects the others. And through all of that, my number one priority has always been the safety and security of our residents. Maintaining our quality of life means nothing if our emergency services don’t have the resources they need to keep our residents safe. If elected, it will be my priority and mission to see that through to success.
Vinch: The township’s management needs to be put on a financial diet. The current administration is spending money like it’s theirs to spend. It’s not. These are taxpayer funds and need to be looked upon that way.
Vinch III: I would want an aggressive active marketing plan for the Route 1 and Alternate Route 1. They are woefully underutilized. We must keep the tax income strong in the business sectors, relieving the burdens from the residential home owners and seniors.
We sit in the hub of technology alley. Big tech firms can benefit from our central location as a bridge between Trenton and the Princeton Corridor. This is our strength, we must be more proactive in attracting business here.
Better wages for the poorest of the poor of Lawrence will be the primary benefactors to long-lasting well-paying stable employment. New Jersey now ranks in the top five for people, business and millionaires leaving. This must change or we will perish.