Fort Lee council candidates debate

Approximately 70 residents packed into the Lewis F. Cole Middle School for the United Home Owners of Fort Lee mayor and council candidate on Oct 11.

Participants from the Democratic Party included incumbents Mayor Mark Sokolich and councilmen Michael Sargenti and Armand Pohan. Republican candidates included Judith Fisher, Martha Cohen, and Alfred Norton.

Norton, a newcomer to the local political arena, jumped into the race at the last minute after Nakdeem Akda, a previous Republican candidate, dropped out. The debate was moderated by Alex Floratos.

Sokolich said he and the council introduced first-time initiatives, such as hiring freezes and reduced the borough's workforce by 15 percent.

"We cut bond debt by over $20 million, which is a historic high in this borough," he said. "We've introduced innovative income-producing programs such as the ambulance co-pay program, which has generated upwards of a million dollars."

Sokolich said it could have been easy to eliminate programs and deplete the quality of life residents have grown accustomed to, but instead found a way to be fiscally prudent while adding programs for residents.

Fisher, who runs the Lodi Department of Motor Vehicles Department, which generated more than $11 million in revenue this year, said the major issues in Fort Lee are the declining quality of life, excessive development, overcrowding, traffic and crime.

She also added schools that fail to meet the educational needs of children, and an inefficient and opaque government that charges more and more for few services.

"These were the problems the last time I ran and they are still our problems today," said Fisher. "Time passes, nothing changes. Last time I sat and debated with the mayor and council the big issue was the failed Centuria project. Now its Redevelopment 5 and it remains an issue."

Pohan said in addition to preserving existing programs, the current administration implemented a state-of-the-art communication system for all the emergency services. He added that parks are in immaculate condition, and recreational programs are the most extensive in Bergen County.

"We created a sign and facade review committee, which has slowly transformed the commercial base of the town," said Pohan. "We continue to explore green initiatives to reduce energy costs and protect the environment.

Pohan added "the team" has conducted a thoroughly open public inquiry on the potential uses in Redevelopment Area 5 and selected the plans of two developers with whom they are conducting arduous negotiations to create a downtown area all residents can be proud of.

It's Cohen's second time running for office. She said things have worsened since she ran last year with more empty stores, higher taxes and fees, an increase in municipal bonding, and the lack of development at the Redevelopment 5 property.

"Our council has remained asleep at the wheel while Fort Lee is dying," said Cohen. "It hurts me, and I know it hurts you."

Cohen said she wasn't planning on running again, adding that it takes a lot of time and fortitude, "especially when you're up against an entrenched machine where my opponents are running for their fourth term and I'm a working mom."

Sargenti, before serving as a liaison to several departments in the borough, coached youth sports over the years and watched the children grow up to become police officers, coaches and business owners.

"I can't express how proud I am to see the transformation in these people," said Sargenti, who highlighted the construction of the community center, and programs such as Dancing Under the Stars and films.

"We have a police department which is second to none, and our first responders are in a class all their own," Sargenti added.

Norton, who moved to Fort Lee in 1995, said he has not seen a betterment of the Borough since then. He said walking down the streets today he continues to see excess traffic, lack of pedestrian traffic, empty storefronts, and the highly touted Redevelopment 5 "still nowhere."

"The second reason I'm running is property taxes. In 2000, Fort Lee collected roughly $7 million in taxes," Norton said. "Most of it went towards the municipality, county and schools. In 2010, those taxes became $150 million. Say what you want, but that's a 6.2 percent annual increase over a ten year period."

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