HOPEWELL: Candidates face off for Township Committee seats

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Hopewell Township Mayor Michael Ruger (center)

By Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
On Nov. 8, residents will get a chance to choose who will join the Hopewell Township Committee for the next three years: either incumbent Republicans John R. Hart and Todd Brant or Democrat challengers Michael Ruger and Kristin L. McLaughlin.
Incumbent Todd Brant, 48, moved to Hopewell 11 years ago. He is currently serving his second three-year term on the committee.
Fellow incumbent John H. Hart is a long-time public servant in Hopewell Township with deep familial ties to the American Revolution, since one of his descendants was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He has three children and four grandchildren, is the business owner of Rosedale Mills Country Store and is a 10th generation farmer and owner of John Hart Farms and Stables.
Mr. Hart has been a member of the Hopewell Township Committee and the Hopewell Township Planning Board for a large portion of the last 22 years, having served on the committee from 1996-2000, with 1997 and 1998 as the mayor. In 2013, he sought reelection with Mr. Brant as his running mate.
Democrat Kristin McLaughlin, 50. moved to Hopewell Township in 2008 with her husband, Mike, who grew up in the township, and their three daughters. She is a political newcomer with no previous experience in public service.
Democrat Michael Ruger, 53, has been a Hopewell Township resident since 1998. His wife, Tracy Vogler, grew up in the township. Like his running mate, this would be his term as a public official, if elected.
In order to provide the candidates an equitable platform to discuss their plans for the future of the township, they were each given the same questions and the same amount of space for their responses. This article draws from those written responses.
For Mr. Brant, the choice to run primarily came from his experiences in office and a desire to assist township residents.
“I have been honored to serve the residents of Hopewell Township for the past three years, and enjoy working with our residents to constructively solve the issues we face together, ensuring Hopewell retains its high quality of life without overburdening taxpayers,” he said. “I initially ran to protect our township from high-density development; this fight is not yet over. There are individuals in our community who are pushing high-density development in areas such as the west side of Scotch Road, which I am against.”
Mr. Brant said he and his running mate, Mr. Hart, must be elected in order to keep complete control out of the hands of Democrats.
“If my opponents are elected, Democrats will have 100 percent control, and will be able to set the budget and make all fiscal and environmental decisions with no checks and balances, including re-zoning for development,” he warned.
With an eye on the future, Mr. Brant called the potential for unchecked development a major issue facing Hopewell.
“The most pressing issues facing our township are protecting it from single- minded entities trying to exploit our land, such as PennEast pipeline, developers under the guise of affordable housing and previous administrations that recklessly took on debt and passed these costs on to taxpayers,” he said. “The rising debt from these decisions, and the expense required to litigate and protect our township, needs to be brought under control.”
In order to combat those concerns, he said he would focus on the PennEast pipeline proposal and the process surrounding it. As for the debt, Mr. Brant said he had plans in mind as well.
“To address our debt issue, I have championed new initiatives such as requiring higher down payments on our capital expenditures,” he said. “For example, past committees would finance 95 percent of the cost, for up to four times the equipment’s life expectancy. Though legal, this was clearly a ‘kick the can down the road’ approach being practiced by previous elected officials.”
Ultimately, Mr. Brant said he hopes voters choose him at the polls for his experience and interest in increasing public input.
“As I work through the issues facing our township, I seek solutions through personally reaching out to the community, understanding their needs, and representing their voices. My opponents, and their party, endorse the use of social media and surveys, which will result in limited resident engagement,” he said. “I’ve been a business strategist for the past 20-plus years, focused on balancing short- and long-term needs and implications, and I bring that acumen as a committee member to ensure fiscal responsibility.”
Mr. Brant’s running mate, Mr. Hart, said his interest in seeking reelection stemmed from an incident that happened eight years ago while he was a private citizen.
“It was a snowy December evening … but was the perfect time for Mayor (Vanessa) Sandom to begin her first amateur foray into the real estate business. She proposed the purchase of the beleaguered Pennytown by the township,” he said. “I voiced my grave concerns that the property was grossly overpriced. Neither the mayor, nor the Democrat-led committee, had any interest in a dialogue, silencing all debate. That night they purchased Pennytown near the peak of the real estate bubble for $6.3 million — millions more than its value.”
To this day, township officials are grappling with how the municipality will handle the property, as well as the debt that came with it, he said.
“This was my turning point. I realized the opinions of the intelligent and hard-working residents of the Valley were being stifled and dismissed by the Democrat majority,” he said. “I vow never to marginalize the opinions of Hopewell’s citizens, as mine were that night. I see my role as an advocate for the citizens of the Valley, giving careful consideration to your valuable recommendations and insights”
For Mr. Hart, two key issues stand out for Hopewell Township: the “potential 6,000-unit mega-development on Scotch Road” and the proposed PennEast pipeline.
In regard to the former, he said the township’s character would be altered permanently by the development, causing a “required increase in service spending; creating gridlock on an already traffic-jammed Route 31; necessitate the construction of a second high school; and inevitably decrease property values while increasing property taxes.”
The pipeline, he said, would also “undeniably create the risk of deadly gas leak-related explosions and unhealthy contamination.”
“But let us not be financially naive. The pipeline may cause a drastic drop in property values, while simultaneously burdening residents with increased taxes and insurance costs,” he said. “The pipeline will cross and destroy organic farms, rip through fragile conservation lands, and pollute the Delaware River. Many residents rely upon wells for their primary sources of drinking water. PennEast has failed to quantify the possible potential poisoning and contamination that might be caused by polluted wells from a pipeline leak.”
“We cannot permit PennEast to steamroll our open space for personal profit,” he continued.
Mr. Hart said he would fight development and the pipeline, despite how he said Democrats have “laid down the welcome mat for insatiable developers” from out of state.
“Big box ‘supercenters’ like Walmart would snarl traffic and cause immeasurable safety concerns,” he said. “Todd and I have fought against the proposed urban sprawl, railing against out-of-state developers with no vested interest in the community. The residents of Hopewell are our top priority.”
With Election Day fast approaching, Mr. Hart made a particular plea to seniors and veterans, citing his interest in helping build up services catered to them in a more satisfactory location than previously considered.
“The seniors and veterans of Hopewell Township deserve a new community center, but it should not be located in the traffic-snarled area surrounding the Pennington Circle, which lacks sewer services,” he said. “Neither should it be on the outskirts of the township, requiring a 30-minute commute, both of which our Democrat opponents are proposing.”
Citing a need for action before grant funding from the state goes away, Mr. Hart said he would push for the project to get off the ground.
“As a former mayor and current committeeman, I believe we need action, not doubletalk. Hopewell’s seniors and veterans deserve a facility that is accessible to all,” he said.
As for their Democratic opponents, Michael Ruger said he wanted to seek public office because he wanted to “help make our community the best place that it can be.”
“Our community faces challenges. Some issues should be resolved quickly, like resuming bulky waste pickup. Other challenges are larger and will shape our future,” he said. “For example, we need to keep property taxes down and we must continue to oppose the PennEast pipeline. We should also move forward on a community and senior center.”
In order to address those concerns, Mr. Ruger said keeping a close eye on the budget is key.
“I will look closely at our budget to see how we can operate more efficiently. ‘That’s how we have always done it’ is an excuse, not an answer,” he said.
Though his opponents said they were staunch opponents of the PennEast pipeline, Mr. Ruger charged that they were not doing enough, while also regularly raising taxes in the township.
“John Hart and Todd Brant voted for an average increase in property taxes of 4.6 percent over the past three years,” he said. “While I marched against the PennEast pipeline earlier this month and filed comments with FERC in September, they did not. They have had years to move forward on a senior center. I do not think their actions — or inactions — are in line with Hopewell Township’s needs.”
Though Ms. McLaughlin is a relative newcomer to the local political scene, public office is nothing new to her family.
“I am running for Township Committee to protect our unique valley and build our community by applying reasonable and logical thinking to the challenges Hopewell Township faces,” she said. “My mother served in the Kansas Senate for 16 years. I know that a leader who studies the issues, prioritizes residents’ needs, and thoughtfully responds, can affect positive change.”
Like the others, Ms. McLaughlin said the PennEast pipeline is a major concern for the region, as well as the management of affordable housing requirements.
“We must work harder to reduce spending and cut taxes,” she said. “I will continue to fight the pipeline. I will find a way to bring back the bulky waste service that is missed. I will partner with the boroughs and other organizations to responsibly fund and manage a senior and community center. I will examine any possible shared service option to lower our costs. I will scrutinize every spending decision.”
Come Nov. 8, Ms. McLaughlin said she hopes residents will vote for a “strong leader.”
“A strong leader studies the issues before making a decision. A strong leader listens to all sides. A strong leader understands financial decisions affect all taxpayers and examines each expense,” she said. “I promise that if elected, I will be a strong, careful and inclusive voice for the future of our Township.”
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 8. 