BEDMINSTER TWP. – Having fallen short in their bid to unseat two Republican Township Committee incumbents last November, a pair of Democrats are giving it another try.
The Democrats, Uttara Patla and Giuseppe Zaccagnini, will be on the Tuesday, Nov. 8 general election ballot for two, three-year committee terms. Their opponents this time are Republican incumbents Doug Stevinson and Gina Fernandez.
Last year, Patla and Zaccagnini lost to GOP incumbents Larry Jacobs and Renee Mareski by a margin of more than 3 to 2. It was the Democratic Party’s tenth consecutive defeat for committee after scoring an upset victory back in 2011.
In separate phone interviews with the four candidates on Friday, Sept. 30, Patla and Zaccagnini took the Democratic Party’s traditional stance that the five-member, all-Republican governing body needs different voices and does not adequately address the needs of The Hills housing development, which comprises a majority of Bedminster’s population.
“When you have everyone on the same side, there’s a herd mentality that comes into play,” said Patla.
Stevinson and Fernandez rejected those charges and cited numerous committee actions that they said have benefited the greater community, including efforts that benefited The Hills in particular.
“Our message is positive,” said Stevinson.
Stevinson, 51, of Ski Hill Drive, is seeking his third, three-year term on the committee. A township resident for 18 years, he is an attorney, specializing in commercial, real estate and financial litigation.
Fernandez, 42, of Deer Haven Road, is seeking her second, three-year term on the committee. She has lived in town for 16 years, and is a teacher of elementary grades in Union Township.
Patla, 53, of Smoke Rise Drive in The Hills, is a native of India who has lived in town for 23 years. She is a corporate communications professional for Prudential Financial.
Zaccagnini, 73, of Stone Run Road in The Hills, immigrated from Italy as a teenager to Peekskill, N.Y., and has lived in Bedminster since 2016. He is a retired attorney and educator who has worked and lived overseas.
The Republicans each spoke about accomplishments and challenges.
Fernandez, noting that she once lived in income-restricted housing in The Hills, said her priority it is to “reduce spending and keep taxes low to keep Bedminster affordable.”
“The cost of living is a challenge everyone is facing,” she said.
Stevinson said the committee also “looks for opportunities to enhance the quality of life in Bedminster while keeping the cost as low as possible.”
An example, he said, is the effort to create a community garden at River Road Park. He said the committee chose a location relatively close to The Hills because residents there have limited opportunities to do gardening. This summer, the project was boosted by a $300,000 Somerset County grant.
Another effort was to address dilapidated buildings in the Pluckemin and Bedminster villages, Stevinson said. The adoption of a stronger property maintenance code led the owners to remove those buildings, making the properties more marketable for redevelopment, he said.
Residents do have questions, he said, about an approved project on Burnt Mills Road that will add retail space and 160 housing units to help meet an affordable housing mandate.
He said the township “made the best of a situation we had to comply with” by getting the developer to fund needed traffic improvements at the intersection of Route 202/206 and Washington Valley/Burnt Mills Road.
Town hall staffing challenges were noted by Fernandez.
She said the committee hired a new township administrator and a new recreation director, and is now in the process of seeking a new police chief and a permanent public works manager. Each vacancy was triggered by a retirement.
“We try to make sure they provide a certain level of customer service,” Fernandez said.
In terms of township activities, Fernandez said the Recreation Department has taken over the annual Fall Fest festival from the Seven Charities group, and has taken over the Halloween Trunk or Treat from the school district.
Stevinson, calling himself a “big-time recreation guy,” said the Pluckemin Schoolhouse Park facilities were recently improved to provide better basketball courts, more “usable grass” and potentially pickleball courts.
Fernandez also cited communications upgrades, saying that after the pandemic hit, the committee had the township create a resource guide providing information on recreation, health, finance and food resources.
Also adopted was the county’s Stigma Free Initiative, which led to another resource guide focusing on mental health resources, she said.
Checks And Balances
On the Democratic side, Zaccagnini suggested that the township purchase more open land if county funding is available.
But the challengers focused mainly on criticism of the committee.
“I think you need checks and balances – diverse points of view,” said Patla.
She said she perceived a “tone deafness” and lack of “transparency” on the committee and saw a need for “voices that can question things.”
“With consolidation comes arrogance,” Patla said. “What I see is a lot of arrogance on that committee.”
Zaccagnini expressed a similar view, saying there is “a dire need in Bedminster to have some diversity represented on our Township Committee … making sure there is transparency and accountability in decisions that are made.”
Fernandez said she didn’t understand the transparency charge.
She said committee meetings allow viewing and commenting via Zoom and are videotaped; residents can subscribe to get township information emailed to them; the municipal web site has numerous links; and listings of township programs are enclosed in tax bills.
“The information is out there,” she said. “We have gone over and above to get the word out and communicate.”
Stevinson said the question of political balance is determined by voters.
“What we do at the local level is not partisan,” he asserted. “The only question we ask is, ‘Is it good for Bedminster or is it bad for Bedminster?’ I view myself as a public servant.”
Any notion of “the five of us on the Township Committee ramming down a Republican agenda” is not the case, he added.
Patla also said she would “love to see a representative of The Hills” on the committee.
When it was noted that Committeewoman Renee Mareski resides in The Hills, Patla replied that in the meetings she’s watched via Zoom, “I have not seen a lot of participation from Renee.”
She said she has not seen The Hills on meeting agendas, and she maintained that power outages in The Hills are longer than in other parts of town.
The committee “seems more aligned with the west side” of the township, she said. “The Hills is a forgotten entity, in my opinion.”
Stevinson countered that Committeeman R. Colin Hickey has worked with Optimum Altice to bring Internet fiber connections to The Hills, which will increase speeds and better enable Hills residents to work from home.
“We pay particular attention to The Hills,” Stevinson said. “You’ll find us predominantly walking in The Hills, finding out what’s going on.”
Fernandez said that in The Hills, management companies handle certain maintenance services and when those services aren’t delivered, some residents mistakenly fault the township.
“All services to the west side of the township are the same services we provide to The Hills except where we can’t overstep our bounds,” she said.
As they did in last year’s campaign, the Democrats criticized the committee over the past resale of income-restricted housing units, which allowed some rentals to lose their affordable status.
As a result, the committee in 2021 replaced the Bedminster Hills Housing Corp. (BHHC) – which for years handled low-cost home sales here – with CPG&H, LLC.
Patla also said the committee should do more to address maintenance problems at the privately owned Pluckemin Park senior citizens housing complex off Route 202-206.
Stevinson agreed that conditions at the complex are “unacceptable,” but said the township has succeeded in getting the property owner to fix some problems and will continue its efforts.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Bernardsville News.