Without a local debate this year, MercerMe asked questions of candidates running for Hopewell Township Committee based on ongoing community issues in the vicinity. The answers in this article have been provided by Democratic candidate Michael Ruger.
What do you view as the most important issue facing the Township for 2016?
The single most important issue facing Hopewell Township is ensuring that our budget is kept in check. We want to encourage young families to move to Hopewell Township, and senior citizens to stay. If elected, I promise to look closely at our budget to ensure that we are operating as efficiently as possible. After all, it is not the Township’s money that is being spent — it is your money and my money. I do not want to see my money wasted. I want to make sure we receive maximum value from every dollar that we spend. “That’s how we have always done it” is an excuse, not an answer. For example, we are still digging out from the fire at the Public Works Building. We lost millions in equipment but received hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance. What vehicles do we need to replace? Can we lease or share some with other jurisdictions? Speaking of shared services, can we expand services for functions like animal control? And looking to the future, can we take advantage of new technologies such as solar to reduce the Township’s electric bill, which is currently over $250,000 a year? These are the kinds of questions I will ask.
Most importantly, I will review the budget not as a member of a political party with an ideological agenda, but as a fellow resident who wants to see taxes kept as low as possible while understanding that the Township provides needed services to the community.
It is unfortunate that my opponents look at the world as falling into two camps—Democrats and Republicans. They seem to think that any given Democrat will vote in a specific way solely because of party affiliation. Speaking for myself, that could not be farther from the truth. I will vote for what is right, not for what is politically expedient or in pursuit of “party unity.” There is not a Democratic or a Republican way to pick up bulky waste, for example, and I doubt residents who have been asking for this service to resume for almost two years care who gets it done, as long as it is done.
What do you view as special about Hopewell Township?
The rural nature of Hopewell Township makes this a special place. Our Township has thousands of acres of open space and farmland and miles of quiet country roads, yet is between two major cities. I have lived in Hopewell Township for eighteen years. It’s where my wife, Tracy Vogler, grew up. It’s also where we were married in 1992, at the old church next to Harbourton Cemetery. I will never forget the first time she brought me to visit Hopewell Township. We crossed the old bridge on Bear Tavern Road and heard it “sing” as we drove over it. If you lived here before the bridge was unfortunately destroyed, you’ll know the sound I mean—and that sound is gone forever.
The loss of the Bear Tavern bridge is a symbol of what we lose when we cannot protect it adequately. This is why I will fight to protect the rural nature of the Township. We have a master plan and I believe we should follow it. If a development proposal comes in, I will review it with a long term vision for the Township in mind. To suggest that I would rubber-stamp a “megadevelopment” proposal simply because I am a Democrat, as my opponents have said in a recent mailer, is absurd. “Party unity” clearly means far more to them than it does to me.
But it’s not just the land that makes Hopewell Township special — it’s also the people. Since I started my campaign, I have met hundreds of residents from one end of the Township to the other. I learned that Hopewell Township is surprisingly united. People want to protect our environment, to prevent uncontrolled development, and to keep taxes low. They want people who will represent their views, and they are smart enough to know when they are being fooled.
It’s unfortunate that my opponents do not seem to recognize this fact as they campaign on the false fear of a “supermajority.” Perhaps if they knocked on thousands of doors as Kristin McLaughlin and I have, and listened to residents, they would have something to say about the future rather than trying to revisit the past.
How does your personal and professional background make you uniquely qualified to serve as a Committee member?
I believe the most important quality someone on the Committee can have is a willingness to recognize that he or she does not have all the answers, and that you need to listen to others. Years ago, a good friend told me that the best way to make a decision is to learn the facts, study the law, and do the right thing. The first step — learning — requires listening.
I graduated from Penn State with a BA degree in political science and psychology. I then earned by JD at the Georgetown University Law Center. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. After graduating, I worked at the Federal Communications Commission, where I focused on regulatory policies for television, radio, and cable, and also served as an occasional press spokesperson. I then joined a large national law firm as a senior associate specializing in communications.
In 1998, Tracy, who is also an attorney, was offered a job in Philadelphia. Accepting the position meant we could move to Hopewell Township and live in her childhood home. But it also meant that I would be without a job. There are not a lot of people who will leave a position at a large law firm voluntarily without another job in mind, but that’s what I did. Instead of going to an office each day, I spent several years working out of our home as a consultant while staying with our young son. When I took Teddy to the store with me on a weekday, or took him to swimming lessons, I would often be asked if I was babysitting him for the day. More than one person was surprised when I said that I was a stay-at-home father. I learned it is not always easy to stay home with a young child — a lesson that not many men have personally experienced but I will always be grateful that I made the choice I did.
In 2001, I began consulting for Comcast in Philadelphia. I joined the company in 2003 and am now Vice President for Government Affairs. Every day I get the chance to work with experts in many different disciplines, so I am always learning.
As I look back at my professional career and personal life, I am happy with the decisions I have made. Next year Tracy and I will celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. Our three children are happy at their schools and my mother is thrilled to be a Hopewell Township resident actively supporting my campaign.
I have the right temperament to bring order to a process that can be, at times, conducted by some in a disorderly manner. I have learned a lot in my professional career, including the importance of keeping a close eye on budgets and the bottom line. I know there is always something else to learn, and another voice to listen to. If elected, I will always learn and listen before taking action.
What is your plan to increase community engagement with the issues before the Committee?
Few Township residents attend Committee meetings. In fact, it is usually the same handful of people in the audience. That is unfortunate because when the five people on the dais see no one in front of them, it may make them think that no one cares about the actions they are taking or that they are unaccountable until an election. Community engagement is critical to holding elected officials accountable.
We live in a time when the printed word is disappearing in favor of the digital world. There are sources such as Facebook pages managed by community members, but too often they are overrun by misinformation and bias. For example, the cancellation of the League of Women Voters debate led to unfounded rumors fanned by a handful of people on Facebook that we did not want to debate. Despite a clear statement from the Hopewell Valley League of Women Voters that all candidates wanted to debate, that same handful of people continued to fan the flames — even people who should know better spread rumors for partisan purposes. That’s not news and information, and that does not serve the community. Fortunately, sites such as MercerMe help to fill the critical information gap.
To be engaged, people must be informed. The Township must do a better job of letting people know what is going on. For example, in September Elm Ridge Park residents said that communications about a road paving project were inadequate. In October, there was a gas main rupture on Route 31 that disrupted traffic and caused a potential public safety issue. Again, Township communications were inadequate.
The Township needs to revamp its website so people can find information quickly and easily. Residents should be encouraged to sign up for all Township social media accounts so information can be widely disseminated, no matter whether residents may be. And there should be a push to teach residents who are not familiar with social media to learn how to use it.
We also need to demystify the Township government process. A Township agenda includes a list of ordinances, resolutions, first readings, consent agendas, public sections, and executive sessions. To a newcomer, this is confusing and intimidating. We need to provide a citizen’s guide to local government that educates everyone about the process. Residents attending a meeting should feel welcomed, not intimidated by an unfamiliar process.
In addition, we need to be thoughtful about the number of standing committees. Currently there are fourteen. While having a number of committees may seem to increase opportunities to participate, I believe it does the opposite. No one can keep up with a constant stream of meetings. I want to see where we can reorganize and consolidate committees to make it easier for everyone to follow what is going on in the Township.
What is your thought about the future plans for a senior center and/or community center?
Hopewell Township has waited too long for a community and senior center. Our seniors deserve a new center, residents deserve a community center, and there is money available. Recently, a plan for a combined community, senior and aquatics center located near the Pennington Circle was raised by Mayor Kevin Kuchinski and Committeewoman Julie Blake. It is a plan worthy of consideration. There are, of course, challenges to the plan that must be addressed. One is traffic. We are all concerned about traffic around Pennington Circle and on Route 31, in general. Any proposal that increases traffic in that area must take into account the legitimate concerns of local residents. A second is location. Some will advocate for a community and senior center to be more centrally located. While other sites should be considered, there are only a few places in the Township that are suitable.
I am pleased Mayor Kuchinski and Committeewoman Blake put forth a plan for discussion. I look forward to discussing that plan as well as other options, but we have to make a decision and get shovels in the ground. That would be more than my opponents have done, despite their promises to do something.
Aside from continuing to advocate for lower affordable housing numbers, what is your solution for satisfying Hopewell Township’s affordable housing obligation? Where would you advocate for the development to be centered?
Until we have a final court decision and know how many affordable housing units must be built, it is premature to propose solutions. The number of new affordable housing units proposed for Hopewell Township makes no sense. A community with 6,500 homes and one high school simply cannot support an additional 1,000 new affordable housing units and the 4,000 market rate housing units that could come with it. We need to push the New Jersey State Legislature to clarify the law and affirm there is no gap period envisioned in the affordable housing legislation. That step alone would cut our potential obligation in half.
We need to keep fighting in the courts. In contrast, John Hart publicly suggested that we do not need to participate in litigation. I do not understand how you can say you will protect the rural nature of Hopewell Township unless you fight this battle. Losing this fight could open up Hopewell Township to a “builder’s remedy” suit, which would then lead to unchecked development. But this would fit the Republican track record on development. Republicans have voted to support sewer development twice, one in the 1990s under John Hart and then again in 2012 in the ELSA expansion.
How could Hopewell Township be made more affordable for its residents?
To me, affordability is about property taxes. None of us like to pay property taxes, but they are a fact of life. The Township retains a little less than 14% of each dollar paid in taxes, which the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education receives 57% and Mercer County receives about 25%.
As I noted, I believe the most important issue we face is our Township budget. The changes we can make at the Township level are a small, but important, part of keeping our budget in check. It is a duty I will take seriously. I note that when my opponents were in the majority, the 2015 tax increase was 5.8% and the 2014 increase was a whopping 7.4%. Compare that to 2016, when my opponents were not in charge, and the increase was a modest 0.5%. That’s what taking the budget process seriously means—making sure that you are not voting for enormous tax increases.
Selling Pennytown will help the bottom line. Proceeds will go towards reducing debt, which currently accounts for almost one in four tax dollars. And, with respect to Pennytown, I note the purchase was a bipartisan decision made nearly ten years ago. It is time to close the book on this chapter of Township history and move on. Constant harping about the past does not help us move towards the future.
While the Township does not have control over the Mercer County budget, this is one place where party affiliation can matter. As a Democrat, I would have more credibility in speaking with the Freeholders and offering constructive criticism of their budget proposals than would my Republican opponents.
What solutions would you suggest for managing traffic through Hopewell Township, in particular on Route 31?
One step we can take immediately is improved enforcement of all traffic laws, not only on Route 31 but on Route 579 and on some of the smaller roads in the Township that are used as shortcuts such as Diverty Road, as well as in front of schools. This is a quality of life and a safety of life matter. Our Hopewell Township police force does a great job, but somehow we need to get the word out—particularly to truckers—that if you violate the rules, you will be caught.
We also need to consider our options for the Pennington Circle. Are more signs the answer to promote safety? Can lanes be better marked to direct traffic, especially for those who are not familiar with the roads? If there is construction in the area in the coming years, can we take advantage of that opportunity to improve traffic flow in the area? I do not have all the answers, but I think these are questions worth asking.
One step we should not take is increasing truck traffic on Route 31. But that’s just what John Hart advocated for last month during the hearing on Pennytown. Shockingly, he proposed that a filling station for large trucks be allowed under the plan. He also noted how this action would save his drivers a trip to Ringoes. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and that will not happen. It is difficult to imagine a proposal that is more out of step with Township residents.
What is your position on the PennEast Pipeline and what is your suggestion for combatting its impact on Hopewell Township?
My position is easily stated: Never give up, never give in, and never surrender. I am very concerned about the effect the pipeline would have on our preserved open space and on our water supply. These are community resources that are not to be sold or traded away. Like the Bear Tavern bridge, once they are gone, they are gone. That’s why I marched against the PennEast pipeline last month and filed comments in the FERC proceeding in September, while my opponents sat still and failed to file. I will fight the pipeline using all available options. Kristin and I have pledged that we will never negotiate, or propose to negotiate, with PennEast. That is not a pledge all candidates can honestly make. I have not met a single Hopewell Township resident who is in favor of the pipeline and doubt that I ever will.