Though in previous years the Toms River fire district elections have been a broad spectrum of uncontested and multiple contested races, the incumbents this year said the scope of this race is different than previous.
"It's become political," said District 2 incumbent Ken Taylor. "I've never seen anything like it."
Contested Seats in Both Districts
In District 1, there is one seat for a three-year term. Incumbent Doug Foley faces challenger Raymond Latshaw. District 1 is comprised of residents served by East Dover, Ocean Beach, Toms River Fire Co. No. 1 and No. 2 fire houses.
In District 2, there are three seats: two seats are a three-year term, and the third is the unexpired term created by the death of Gary Licknack. District 2 is comprised of residents served by Pleasant Plains and Silverton fire houses.
The District 2 unexpired term candidates are incumbent Thomas McCann and challenger Richard Heroy.
In the three-year term, five candidates are vying for two seats in District 2. Incumbents Ken Taylor and Roger “Joe” Brown face challengers Jason Wallace, Don Lombardi Jr. and Alexander Wyatt Earp.
The commissioner's annual election is considered a nonpartisan contest, but both challenger and incumbent accused their opponents of being aligned with local politicians.
Taylor said for the first time he's seen candidates buy lawn signs and distribute mailers. Now for this election nearly all candidates have participated in campaigning materials.
Taylor and McCann said it's not something they are used to.
"We're not politicians. We're fire fighters," McCann said. "Our motivations are to serve the taxpayer and provide the best fire service. That's it. We're not here to get rich, be misleading or anything like that."
District 2 challenger Wallace said he believes challengers are at a disadvantage in getting a campaign message out, as they have the hurdle of often being lesser-known than an incumbent that might have been serving for years.
"We're using our own money, and are pooling our resources to try and get the information out there," Wallace said.
Wallace said the issue is not politics but simply the improvement of fire district operations.
"We want to get people thinking: 'Is this the best way to get things done?'" Wallace said. He's calling for more transparency in the fire commissioner operations.
The four incumbents said they were concerned about the messages they've seen in mailers, in letters and otherwise being passed around.
McCann, Taylor and Brown — the District 2 incumbents— said they are being lumped in with District 1, which is the first discrepancy they see. The districts have separate budgets and commissioners voted on by the public.
But they and Foley said they were also concerned by accusations saying the commissioners are overspending or being misleading.
“I’m here to answer any questions the public may have,” Foley said. “We’re open.”
Taylor said “every dime is accounted for.” Instead of padding the budget, the District 2 budget is instead efficent and also lower than last year.
The criticisms the commissioners have faced are what challengers Wallace, Lombardi and Latshaw said were high salaries for district staff, and unnecessary spending on travel.
For example, the three challengers are circulating a bill that claims Foley spent more than $900 on a meal during an out-of-state conference. Foley said it’s not true, that reimbursement is limited to $65 a day.
Wallace said there’s also been some misinformation about him. “I don’t have a vendetta. I’m not hoping to go in and slash and burn and cut services.”
He said he doesn't esteem to use the fire commissioners as a stepping stone to a political office elsewhere.
"I'm trying to strike a balance between the taxpayers and the firefighters," he said.
District 1 Versus 2
McCann, Taylor and Brown are campaigning as incumbents for District 2. In District 1, incumbent Foley has created his own campaign materials.
There's also three candidates running on one set of campaign materials although they are in different districts: Wallace and Lombardi in District 2 and Latshaw in District 1.
Taylor and McCann took issue with the campaign materials of Lombardi, Wallace and Latshaw, saying it was confusing to create one message for races only open for one district. There's a separate ballot whether you are in District 1 or 2, so the combined material is confusing, they said.
Silverton Fire Department Chief Bob Sinnott said that the managerial style between the districts is different.
"We have a different history, we have a different way of doing things," Sinnott said. "We are one brotherhood, out on calls together, but the commissioners do disagree on business."
For example, McCann and Taylor said District 2 did not hold a December referendum and instead opted to hold appropriation questions for this weekend's vote.
Impact of December Referendum
Saturday’s election day comes just about two months after a December referendum in District 1 asked voters to approve a land buy for a new firehouse. The move was overwhelmingly vote down by residents of District 1. The referendum saw a much larger turnout than the annual election.
The challengers said there is certainly a spillover from the disapproval of the referendum into this election.
“After seeing that, it’s clear people want to get more involved, know what is going on in the fire districts,” Wallace said.
But having these sentiments spill over into District 2 is an unfair comparison, incumbents McCann and Taylor said.
"It's a jet wash," McCann said. District 2 had nothing to do with the December referendum. It was an issue for District 1, as the new firehouse would have served residents in District 1. District 2 is comprised of Silverton and Pleasant Plains.
Wallace said the turnout for the December referendum could lead to increased voter participation Saturday.
"People are just mad they don’t get answers to their questions," Wallace said. "People get frustrated, and they'll come out to vote."