Hopewell Borough Council seats up for grabs in general election

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Hopewell Borough voters will determine a contested race for two open seats on Borough Council when they cast their ballots in the November general election.

This is the only contested race in the Borough as Councilman Ryan Kennedy (D) is running unopposed for a four-year term as mayor.

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Incumbent Republican Charles Schuyler Morehouse is seeking re-election to Council and is facing off with Democratic candidates, Sheri Hook and Heidi Wilenius.

Hook and Wilenius seek to secure their first three-year terms on Council.

Democratic candidate Sheri Hook

Hook has been a resident of Hopewell Borough since 2014. She lives in the borough with her husband James and sons Fitz (10) and Quincy (7) who both attend Hopewell Elementary School.

She is involved in several community organizations, including co-host of the Hopewell Boro Block Party, contest chair of the Hopewell Harvest Fair, service learning coordinator for the Hopewell Elementary PTO (parent teacher organization), and head coach of the Let Me Run program for boys.

Before leaving her professional life to stay home with her kids, she worked in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries. Originally from the Chicago area, Hook went to school at the University of Michigan and lived in Colorado and New York before finding her way to Hopewell Borough.

Incumbent Republican candidate Charles Morehouse

Morehouse currently serves as borough council president. He and his wife Liza moved into Hopewell Borough from Tucson, Ariz. in 1986. Their two children were born and raised in Hopewell.

He is the owner and president of Morehouse Engineering, a process control/electrical engineering company, founded in 1990. The offices are in the borough.

Morehouse has served on the Borough Board of Fire Commissioners since the early 90’s, the board of the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority since the early 2000’s, and Borough Council since 2003. If elected, this will be his eighth consecutive term.

He was born in Morristown, New Jersey and attended the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated with BS in Mechanical Engineering. 

Democratic candidate Heidi Wilenius. Photo courtesy of Heather Raub.

Wilenius has lived in Hopewell with her family since 2006 and is the owner of dandelion wishes. She grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1994. Soon after graduation, Wilenius got a job with Jim Henson Foundation, eventually becoming the general manager of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater.

She served in leadership roles in Real Food for Thought, Family Breastfeeding Association,
and Hopewell Valley Girl Scouts and was an active member of the HES PTO (Hopewell Elementary School) for many years.

Having served as chairperson of the Hopewell Harvest Fair from 2018 to 2022, she is currently the president. Wilenius also co-founded Hope Rises Up, a small local non-profit which helps make political and social advocacy accessible, bringing the community together to champion progressive and inclusive causes.

She was appointed to serve on the Economic Development Committee in 2020 and has served as chair since January 2022. Wilenius spearheaded the Downtown Hopewell initiative, designed to connect the many small merchants in the town.

What do you see as the most pressing challenge facing Hopewell Borough? How would you seek to address it as a member of council?

Hook: “Our biggest challenge in the next few years will be to remain fiscally healthy while completing urgent infrastructure repairs and capital improvements.”

She noted examples such as a recently discovered water leak that needs to be located and repaired; the borough potentially being required to update its water system to meet more stringent federal regulations; and the Department of Public Works facilities need updating.

“Several of these issues are currently under analysis to determine what makes the most economic sense for the borough,” Hook added. “I would look forward to joining those discussions and ensuring that residents were kept in the loop during the process.”

She spotlighted careful planning over the years by Morehouse and members of the current council that has maintained the borough’s high municipal bond rating.

“As a member of council, I would work to preserve this rating, manage the debt load through responsible fiscal practices, and investigate additional revenue sources, such as increasing tax ratables through redevelopment areas, applying for federal grants, and saving money with more cost-effective municipal recycling.”

Morehouse: “The most pressing challenge is funding. Our town’s capacity to fund required projects is very limited. At the end of the day, the Borough only has so much capacity to carry the ever-increasing costs imposed by forces beyond our control.” 

He noted that the latest two examples relate to stormwater management and drinking water.

“Both issues though good in intent cause the Borough to incur costs.  We as taxpayers are obliged to pay those costs,” Morehouse added. “As a governing body we have four mechanisms to deal with the day in and day out costs of breathing in and out: Reduce costs (services), increase taxes, bond dept, and grants.”

He explained that the Borough Council currently balances all four to maintain our town to the residence expectations.

“The next Bond retirement is in 32 years. A large chunk of that debt is impeded in the green space we enjoy every day,” Morehouse said. “That investment is worth more to us than wasting our time and money on trivial tail chasing.”

Wilenius: “Water is our most pressing challenge — and is the problem we are all facing globally, which is the level of PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) in our water supply. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is expected to tighten the standards for PFOS contaminants in our water, and we will need to make significant upgrades to our current system to stay compliant.”

She expressed that the borough still has critical research to do to be able to assess the best course of action – “if we make the upgrades to the system ourselves, at great expense; or if we instead choose to sell our water system to a private company who would manage it.”

While my instinct is to keep a public utility owned and controlled by the municipality – because of the magnitude of the work we will be facing to make the necessary improvements, and our limitations as a small municipality, we need to consider both options fully to determine what is in our community’s best interest, she added.

“A comprehensive study of the options has already been approved by the current council, and as a council member, I would take the necessary time to review the options and ensure that the community was included in the discussion.”

Has the borough done enough to help businesses thrive? Are there changes you would seek to push for as a member of council?

Hook: “The Borough has established a wonderful downtown setting, which is one of the reasons my family and I moved to Hopewell. I believe the town has the best interests of local business in mind and has recently approved exciting new developments such as the renovated Hopewell Bistro. But there is always room for improvement.”

Hook added that the prosperity of the downtown is the main reason she is running for council.

“I’m concerned about the number of empty storefronts in town. There are steps we can take to increase the economic viability of starting a new business in town in terms of rezoning and assistance navigating the planning board approval process.”

I believe we can attract more foot traffic by helping visitors better understand where to park, and enacting the smart ideas generated by the PBSAC (pedestrian, bicycle and safety advisory committee) to keep our business district safe and walkable, she added.  

Morehouse: “I am a small business owner in the Borough. The Borough governance has very little power to affect the success or failure of a private market. The Borough’s tax burden is only 16% of the total property tax load. Landlords set their rent.”

He said the Borough can promote itself through such events as the Harvest Fair, which could bring people into the town. 

“The Borough government can work to structure the zoning ordinances to make developing a business an easier fit without requiring a rigorous land use review,” Morehouse added.

“Has the Council done enough to promote business, probably not, but what can it really do; slow traffic down on 518, manage parking hours in various areas of the town, give clear direction on land use ordinances, examine land use ordinances to make sure they are current and serve the community.” 

I believe we are constantly pushing to improve, he said. Morehouse noted, “We attempted to be progressive and open retail cannabis sales in the Borough with the idea that the business would bring people to the Borough. That idea has done nothing but hurt the Borough.”

He added that the singular force that could open the town to a more active social life would be for New Jersey to examine the liquor license laws and allow more licenses for special applications like the State did for public theaters.

Wilenius: “I believe that we need a council that is more receptive to the needs of small business owners, especially the merchant community. I have served as chair of the Economic Development Committee for close to two years, and during that time we have made progress – but there is still much to be done.”

As the owner of a local shop myself (dandelion wishes), my presence on council is an important next step – as we do not currently have the voice of any local merchants on the council, she added.

Wilenius explained that Broad Street should be made much more inviting and safer through street beautification projects and improved lighting – with careful attention to stay within dark sky guidelines so as not to negatively affect wildlife.

“Because we have a county road cutting through the heart of our town – it brings us a lot of through traffic. For merchants, this means a lot of potential customers. We need to make our downtown more inviting, so that more people stop as they pass through.”

She added that the borough should also pass regulations to ensure that the town charm is not challenged by chain merchants. Suggesting it can be done through formula business restrictions and successful passage of an ordinance.

Why should borough voters vote for you in this general election?

Hook: “It is exciting that voters have a choice in this election. A vote for me means a vote for someone who cares deeply about this town and its future; who believes strongly about representing the voices of our residents; and who brings a positive, collaborative approach to this position.”

She noted that she offers a fresh perspective in managing the challenges to come.

“Extensive corporate and volunteer experience has prepared me to successfully manage both the financial issues facing our municipality and the partnerships needed to thrive as a community,” Hook said.  

“My priorities include maintaining a robust downtown by filling empty storefronts and ensuring a sustainable community by improving municipal recycling and enhancing green spaces.”

In addition to creating new channels of open communication with residents, collaborating with township and county officials, and keeping a close watch on residents’ tax dollars, she added.

Morehouse: “I have been involved in the workings of the Borough since my wife and I moved here in 1986. Ray Cox at my first haircut in the Borough told me the path to becoming helpful was through the Firehouse.” 

Being an engineer, Mayor Walker then Bouhgner appointed me Zoning Officer, he added. 

“I served Council in the 90’s took a break and stepped up to serve again in 2000. I have not stopped serving the Borough since,” Morehouse said.

“I would like to continue my work, help get the Department of Public Works facility rehabilitated, the water system on track either to remain a Borough function or sell the asset to a large water utility and continue to watch and manage the Town’s capital projects and dept bonding.”

Wilenius: “I will be a truly independent voice on council – my only allegiance is to our community. I am willing to ask hard questions and call attention to issues in borough governance when they are not handled transparently.”

If we keep the status quo, inappropriate actions will continue not to be questioned, and residents will lose faith in the governing body, she added.

“We also risk subjecting ourselves to additional unnecessary legal action. Hopewell is a wonderful community full of amazing people,” Wilenius said.

“Specific issues that I would like to tackle include: 1) improving communication with residents, both on and offline, 2) supporting small businesses by promoting Hopewell as a destination, 3) encourage more sustainable land stewardship on public and private property, 4) improving traffic and pedestrian safety, 5) reducing our waste, improving our recycling options, and adding composting.”

Story has been updated to include Council President Charles Morehouse responses.

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