Freeholder race really a referendum on Magazzu

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009.)

A unique Cumberland County freeholders race comes down Tuesday to a common end: A vote.

With three slates, 11 candidates and the independent ticket bringing the most experience to the table, it’s not the sort of race that happens every year.

The race has evolved largely around one person.

“The election’s been about me,” said Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu, who is up for re-election.

Few would dispute that. The Republicans pummeled him with criticism on an almost daily basis for much of the campaign. The independent slate came about largely because of their distaste for the way Magazzu does business.

But all the rhetoric aside, Magazzu said they are asking voters to vote against him and his Democratic slate in a year when a national recession happened and yet the all-Democratic board was able to cut the tax levy.

“In Cumberland County, in the same year, we cut the tax rate by 5 cents,” Magazzu said. “We didn’t raid the surplus. We used a responsible percentage of it. We had no layoffs, no furloughs.”

His critics say freeholders are pushing off the true costs by borrowing heavily and delaying big projects, such as a proposed $18 million new county administration building, until after the election. They recall 2004, when in the first freeholder meeting after Election Day, Magazzu informed the public that the next year would likely have a major tax hike.

Three former Democratic freeholders with nearly 30 years of total freeholder experience have broken ranks to challenge Magazzu because of such critiques. Jane Christy, Bruce Peterson and Jennifer Swift have dubbed themselves the “Independent Leaders” and run largely because of what they say is Magazzu’s abusive and unethical way of running county government.

“A government that’s not based in ethics will cost more money because they’re paying off their contributors in jobs,” said Jennifer Swift (formerly Lookabaugh).

Swift, Peterson and Christy say the race is about going back to basics: Good, efficient government that is not beholden to campaign contributors seeking jobs, does not abuse county employees and manages county finances responsibly, without heeding electoral politics. They stress their roots in the Democratic Party and say they have no plans to leave it, despite Magazzu’s dubbing them the “renegades.” (And they point out that, coincidentally or not, two Democratic Assemblymen from Vineland, Matt Milam and Nelson Albano, are running television ads and sending out mailers touting themselves as “independent leaders.”)

Lawrence Township Mayor Tom Sheppard, Vineland attorney Rick Tonetta and Vineland businessman Sam Fiocchi have built their campaign around a host of ideas for change and a fierce critique of Magazzu, who is also the county Democratic chairman. They proposed a series of major changes, including:

Requiring voters to approve any county borrowing of more than $7 million

Limiting tax increases and spending to the rate of inflation

Buying biodiesel-fueled, hybrid or other “green” cars when old county cars require replacement

Filming freeholder meetings to be aired live on the county Web site

And creating a searchable online database of all county spending

They say the all-Democratic freeholder board does not question enough important issues to balance out Magazzu.

“I think it’s really about changing the government from seven freeholders of one party to a mixture,” Tonetta said.

The Republicans point out the county tax levy doubled to more than $80 million under Democratic control from 2003 to 2008. Freeholders cut the tax levy this year, but that came only after Republicans proposed it during last year’s campaign. (Democratic Freeholder Bill Whelan also advocated the same during last year’s campaign, and freeholders voted unanimously for the tax cut this year.)

But during that time, the county also has seen massive growth. Magazzu was a key player in the creation of the Cumberland Empowerment Zone and a prominent advocate of the New Jersey Motorsports Park constructed in Millville.

Freeholder Nelson Thompson, a union official appointed to fill an open freeholder seat this year, and Bridgeton businessman Wade Sjogren are running with Magazzu. Two other independents are also running: former Vineland City Councilwoman Sheena Santiago and Vineland resident Jerry Sanford.

Thompson, Fiocchi and Peterson are competing for Thompson’s current seat, which would have one year left on its term. The others are running for three-year terms for Magazzu’s seat and a freeholder slot being vacated by Freeholder Joe Riley.

The Democrats have raised about $80,000 thus far, according to campaign finance reports filed over the past week, with more funding still possible from the state and county Democratic committees. The Republican slate has brought in just less than $70,000, while Christy, Peterson and Swift raised just more than $16,000.

In mailings to voters, the Democrats have criticized both of the other slates. While Peterson and Christy opposed Magazzu on a number of key issues during their shared tenure — most notably in their opposition to Magazzu’s efforts to take over and micromanage the quasi-independent Cumberland County Improvement Authority — they voted with him on most county budgets.

“Lou took all the credit for anything good that happened, and anything bad that happened was these other guys (Christy and Peterson),” Sheppard said with a chuckle, describing the ads.

Election Day will show just how much the ads resonate, as well as how much people stick to party lines or vote for big names or big ideas.

“It really gives voters in this race a choice,” Magazzu said. “Do they want to keep me, or do they want someone else?”