The method of voting has changed, but the responsibility of voting for good leaders has not.

We live in unusual times. So many things we are used to have changed, and you can count the way you vote – at least in the May 12th Town Council election – among those changes.

Mail-in ballots have reportedly been sent out to voters this week, and by time you read this, your ballot may be waiting in your mailbox. Vote-by-mail is for many reasons a poor substitute for the traditional method of going to a local polling place to vote, but it is, alas, one of many safety measures the governor has put into place as the nation fights the COVID-19 pandemic.

So yes, the method of how you will vote has changed. However, the importance of voting for good candidates who will act in the best interests of our dear Belleville has not. Voters abandoning this crucial responsibility do so at their own peril and that of their town.

We at Belleville Watch aren’t shy in stating what we stand for: an engaged community that takes an active interest in its town and the political decisions that affect it; an open, local government that prizes ethics, accountability and transparency; and responsible, small-scale development that is respectful of, and aligned with, Belleville’s character as a suburb with a rich history. We write and publish news and commentary with these values in mind.

We are also vocal in our reservations about the redevelopment and gentrification agenda being pursued by the current administration — apparently seeking to make our town “Hoboken on the Passaic.” Also, despite promises of a “Better Belleville,” we see little difference from how things were done in the past.

With all this said, Belleville Watch chooses not to endorse candidates. We strive to hold our local politicians accountable to what we value and what we believe is best for Belleville, but it is ultimately up to the voters to decide who occupies Town Hall or the school board. We, of course, hope that Belleville voters make good choices in whom they vote for.

Which candidate is most likely to resist political influence, whether from campaign donors or political bosses, and serve the needs of Belleville — a small, suburban town?

The four incumbents – Notari,(4th Ward,) Rovell (2nd Ward,) Cozzarelli (3rd Ward) and Strumolo-Burke (1st Ward) have been on the Town Council for years, and in measuring their track records against what we value, they all come up short in many ways. Mr. Cozzarelli is the only ward councilperson not facing a challenger this election.

The three challengers – Mattia, (1st) Velez (2nd ) and Martinez (4th) — newcomers all – haven’t truly distinguished themselves in their campaigns. This, however, can be overlooked when you factor in the COVID-19 restrictions affecting public assemblies and other activities that are traditional parts of a campaign.

One thing we do object to is Mayor Michael Melham managing Mr. Mattia’s campaign. Mattia has told us he asked Melham for help, as Melham had been successful in winning his own election and that of the “Better Belleville” slate for the Board of Education last year (as an interesting side note, a big part of Melham’s election/campaign strategy relies on vote-by-mail.) Despite Mr. Mattia’s explanation, we believe that a mayor managing campaigns in the same town in which he holds office is inappropriate, and Mayor Melham setting high standards for a “Better Belleville” should know better. It smacks of rule by political bosses and machines – something Belleville has suffered in the past, and we hope is gone forever from our town.

Although Belleville Watch does not endorse candidates, we do urge voters to ask themselves questions before filling out a ballot.

In your ward, which candidate:

– Will best represent the best interests of Belleville, which inevitably coincide with your interests as a resident?

– Will be a leader, upholding the best values of an elected official and avoiding even the mere appearance of impropriety in their votes and conduct? (Note: this is an ethical tenet common to just about any political or legal code of ethics.)

– Will think critically, and will follow their own values and conscience, and not be influenced by special interests, campaign donors or other forms of political influence?

– Will strive to get residents involved in the process, making every effort to get input from people in the ward and creating opportunities for residents to serve?

– Will fulfill their responsibilities, using the considerable power each council member has? (We have a “weak mayor” council-manager form of government, where the mayor is one vote among seven and much of the power is shared.)

– Will review each and every development proposal, keeping in mind that high-density residential development could mean more traffic, more stress on our services and infrastructure, and potentially more children in our school system?

– Will strive to bring in sustainable businesses to generate tax ratables to help ease the property tax burden on property owners (and ultimately tenants for those owning rental properties?)

– Will, when voting on budgets and expenditures, weigh how it will affect the tax burden on residents, and how it will benefit residents?

– Will honor Belleville’s character as a suburban town, with a rich history, and will not cast votes that will result in Belleville becoming something it isn’t?

Belleville is a special place that has been victimized by political deals, ever-increasing property taxes with little to no relief or at least better value for the tax dollar and ill-conceived proposals for development. Belleville voters have the power to put an end to that, and with apologies to Thomas Jefferson, eternal vigilance is required by all residents to ensure that dear Belleville remains a great, small town.

Please vote – it’s your civic duty – but please carefully consider whom you choose to vote for.