Warren Township Committeemen Michael Marion, left, and George Lazo are seeking their third terms on the committee.
WARREN TWP. – Six years into their respective tenures on the Warren Township Committee, Michael Marion and George Lazo are excited for their opportunity to serve residents for another three.
The Republican incumbents are seeking to retain their seats on the committee come election day on Tuesday, Nov. 7. They face challenges from Democrats John Fahy and Rick de Pinho, both first-time candidates.
Marion and Lazo sat down with the Echoes-Sentinel on Friday, Sept. 29 at Town Hall to discuss their campaign and reflect on their time on the committee.
“Getting through our first term was a big learning curve because you have to observe a lot, it’s not a full time job,” said Marion. “It takes that full three years of processes to kind of learn what’s going on, and in your second term you really kind of know everything.”
Lazo said he and Marion came to the decision to run together in 2011 after working together on youth sports programs in town. Once they were welcomed by their veteran committee colleagues, Mayor Carolann Garafola, Deputy Mayor Victor Sordillo and Committeeman Gary DiNardo, they said they knew they were in good hands. Both Marion and Lazo have since served as mayor.
“We said let’s go in softly and our business plan was to learn from Carolann, Gary and Vic, who aggregately have 60 years worth of political experience in this township, and they’re very strong leaders,” said Lazo. “I know folks look at us sometimes and see us on the dais, you see us vote and agree with one another, but behind the scenes in executive session we have some very strong debates. It’s very different, but it’s healthy.
“We all walk out from those sessions in unity. We support each other and we learn from them.”
The two are seeking re-election, said Marion, because of the passion they have for the township.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that we are guys that are simply passionate about our town,” he said. “We are not really politicians, we’re not out there to be political. We don’t strive to sit on the dais, we don’t strive to cut ribbons. We only want what’s best for the township.”
The candidates agreed the biggest challenge facing Warren is ongoing affordable housing litigation.
“This (affordable housing) effort started years ago when I was mayor, and having that jammed down our throats by Trenton and by judges, having them say they’re going to handle this is damaging,” said Marion. “It’s damaging to the municipalities in general, but it damages the residents and it’s a costly item that we look at all the time.”
Lazo said it’s been a difficult process, but he’s glad he reacted to it by appointing Marion to the township’s affordable housing committee.
“When I was mayor I had to create a committee, and there was no better person to put on that committee,” said Lazo. “We’ve gone through four years of this now. We’re hardened and this guy (Marion) knows what he’s doing.”
Both committeemen agreed that affordable options should be available for those looking to move into Warren because it is a great town, however, the current residents need to be protected from the difficulties that come with hundreds if not thousands of additional residents.
While the process has been trying for the entire committee, Marion said, the most frustrating part to him is not being able to divulge everything he can with the residents – including the township’s plan moving forward – due to litigation with the Fair Share Housing Center.
“At this point right now there is not much we can do until we are told by the courts what our number is,” said Marion. “What is worse about this too is that we can’t speak as transparently as we would like to because of ongoing litigation. When you have these big parties against you and you have one hand tied behind your back because you can’t speak transparently with your residents, it’s really frustrating.”
Another central focus for the two is, of course, budgeting.
“There are budget issues that we face within a year or two that our tax levy bank caps basically require us to raise taxes, in a nutshell,” said Marion. “Do you know how we dealt with that? We bought a new ambulance…”
“The committee did unfortunately raise taxes, we had no choice. But what we did do was spread that tax money over three years to protect residents, and what we did do is buy that new ambulance for the township so that we could make sure our tax dollars are being spent on the very people that are paying their taxes, and the services come back to them.”
Marion said annualized budgets will always be an challenge given different factors like state aid and tax levies from the state, however, he and Township Administrator Mark Krane begin the process early enough each year to overcome any possible obstacles.
Lazo praised their ability to do so.
“You want Mr. Marion and Mr. Krane managing this township budget, they do it very well,” he said. “This is where our yin and yang comes into play; we have to protect services for our community and we will get into debates as to how to reduce taxes for the residents and put together a fiscally responsible budget.”
Two Terms In
Marion and Lazo said they are proud of what they have been able to accomplish, whether it be the preservation of the land that is now East County Park, or the township’s strengthened relationship with the school district.
Both noted their efforts on affordable housing are also heavily focused on making sure the school system isn’t impacted beyond repair by adding too many housing units and changing the landscape of Warren.
Lazo praised the volunteer work that he said has put Warren on the map. Unfortunately, he said, volunteership is declining in Warren.
“We have a community where our volunteer engagement is dropping, our registration in recreational activities is dropping, our school enrollment is dropping,” he explained. “(In light of that) I’ve been working very hard on a park-and-ride in town… we’re very close to getting that done.”
The bus service, he said, will include three morning routes to New York City, and two returning from the city in the afternoon.
“We hope that that brings and attracts families here along with our education and safety. Maybe this will allow us to bring more families in, maybe that will allow us to fill up our volunteer spots and fill up our baseball fields. Those are the things we are concerned about.”
Working Together Again
In addition to the policies and initiatives they’ve enacted, the two point to their working relationship as one of their greatest sources of pride.
“It’s dynamic with George and I, and that’s why we decided to run again, because we know we can have a positive impact on the township and the things we’ve learned will push us towards that, which is important to us,” said Marion. “We were welcomed by the committee with open arms… they embraced our ideas and us completely and they helped us along with their knowledge.”
Lazo echoed Marion’s comments. While the committee members may not always agree, he said, the respect is always there. At the end of the day, he said, committee decisions always come down to what’s best for the residents.
For the running mates, the decision-making process goes well beyond the Township Committee, however.
“We’re going to continue to engage our town in all of our processes, because the volunteers and the departments run this town,” Lazo said. “We’re like a board of directors in our roles. Our department heads and staff in these buildings, as well as our volunteers and residents, are very important to us.”