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Filling Vacancy on Freeholder Board

On Wednesday September 5th the Mercer County Democratic Committee held a convention and selected Nina Melker from among seven candidates to fill the unexpired term of Freeholder Anthony Verrelli on the Board of Freeholders. Verrelli (Hopewell) stepped down from the seven-member Freehold Board when selected as the Party's replacement to fill the unexpired Assembly term of Reed Guscioria who was elected Mayor of Trenton on June 12th of this year.

The impressive and diverse candidate pool included: Roberto Hernandez, Kamal Khanna, Lance Lopez, Nina Melker, Sasa Olessi Montana, Michael Powers, and Joseph Zalescik. Unfortunately, two other excellent candidates, Jennifer Keyes-Maloney and Tennille McCoy, withdrew from the race when the Governor's Office urged them not to run because of potential conflicts between their position in state government and serving as a Freeholder. This action was unexpected since various current Freeholders hold positions in state government.

Back in March of 2016, I wrote a column entitled "What it Takes to be a freeholder" in which I outlined various criteria that the party should consider in picking Tony Carabelli's replacement (which was Anthony Verrelli). They included: (1) understanding the various levels of government and where funding for each level comes from, (2) demonstrating a long-term commitment to community service, (3) having a job that affords time to be a freeholder, (4) possessing the intelligence and vision for the role, (5) having the fortitude to buck the system/party when necessary, (6) understanding the interplay between urban/suburban issues and (7) possessing an understanding of the interplay between politics and policy.

The candidate selected, Nina Melker, appears to meet the role requirements. Nina carries herself in a thoughtful manner and is able to walk the fine line between being a loyal Democratic and not being overly partisan. She has extensive banking experience and a ubiquitous record of community service ranging from serving as Director of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Hamilton, President of the Hamilton Education Foundation, Treasurer of the Hamilton Area YMCA, member and former Chair of Mercer County Community College Foundation Board, Board Member of the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton and Chair of the East Windsor chapter of the Mercer County Chamber of Commerce. She is also the recipient of various awards including Volunteer of the Year for the Mercer County American Heart Association and Community Compassion Award by Contact of Mercer County.

Nina's selection did not address a concern I mentioned in my column, "While I do not feel there should be a litmus test for any political office, I think both political parties should aggressively seek out Hispanic and Asians who have the attributes set forth above to run for county-wide office in the near future." The very strong showing by Lance Lopez (he received 119 votes to 137 for Melker in the third round of voting) and the strong showing by newcomer Sasa Olessi Montana (making it to the second round) is a further indication that the time has come for a qualified Latino to be on the Democratic Party ticket for a legislative role.

The current six members of the Freeholder Board are: Ann Cannon (East Windsor), John Cimino (Hamilton), Pat Colovito (Lawrenceville), Sam Frisbee (Trenton), Andrew Koontz (Princeton), and Lucyelle Walters (Ewing). Nina Melker is from Hamilton Township.

Nina's selection failed to address an issue that has plagued the Freeholder Board for a long time - a lack of geographic diversity. Two of Mercer County's fastest growing communities, West Windsor and Robbinsville, have lacked representation on the Board of Freeholders during the bulk of the forty-five years I have resided in Mercer County (they have 11% of the county's population). West Windsor has not had a representative since the 1990s and Robbinsville has not had a representative. One reason that these communities have not been represented in recent years is because both of these towns have strong Republican Parties and Republican Mayors (West Windsor municipal elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, but this is in name only).

The ethnic and geographic imbalance on the Freeholder Board might be mitigated to some extent, if all local Democratic Committees mirrored the action taken at this year's convention by the Lawrenceville Democratic Committee of not endorsing any candidate. This was done because there were two candidates from the township seeking the Freeholder seat). Banning block voting might encourage a little more scrutiny of individual candidates.

Mayor Janice Mironov, the chair of the Mercer County Democratic Party, feels that "while geographic diversity is good and should be a consideration, it should not trump qualifications when it comes to candidate selection. The party should rely on merit-based decision making when it comes to picking candidates. The key criteria should be whether the candidate has relevant experience, competent decision-making skills, admirable personal qualities and has participation in the support of the party organization." Further, she suggested that the Democratic Party "needs to create a bench of highly qualified potential candidates in all municipalities and promote these folks county-wide."

Many years ago I was the Democratic Party's candidate for Freeholder from West Windsor. I was able to capture the nomination because I developed strong ties with individual committee men and woman from throughout the county. Candidates on the bench should keep this in mind.