We spoke with Haddonfield Commissioner-elect Colleen Bianco Bezich and Haddon Heights Mayor-elect Zach Houck about their respective races and their plans for office.
By Matt Skoufalos | November 11, 2019
After hard-fought and tightly contested campaigns in Haddonfield and Haddon Heights, challengers Colleen Bianco Bezich and Zach Houck emerged victorious in their respective local elections last Tuesday.
Bianco Bezich will join the nonpartisan Haddonfield municipal government, filling the unexpired term vacated by John Moscatelli, who resigned his post this summer amid an out-of-state relocation.
She outlasted three other challengers, including Robert Marshall, who had been appointed to fill Moscatelli’s seat.
In Haddon Heights, Houck emerged from a dogfight in a partisan election that saw the margin between his opponent, Republican Michael Valvardi, as close as a handful of votes when the final results were being tabulated.
Both are political newcomers taking office amid a changing landscape of local issues like land use, redevelopment, diversity, and inclusion.
Both have been handed challenges that will require a great deal of leadership to address, and both have cited a desire to build consensus quickly in communities that need it.
‘Whether you live here for 50 years or five years, you deserve representation’
Bianco Bezich expects to be sworn in by the end of the month, and wants to “hit the ground running.”
That means acquainting herself with department heads and staff, “and reading a ton.”
Among her early priorities, Bianco Bezich wants to establish dialogue with a number of the stakeholders with whom she met during the campaign, including the Board of Education, those participating in the Haddonfield Encouraging Responsible Development (HERD) lawsuit, and families whose homes were damaged in the storms that ripped through town in June.
The new commissioner also wants to establish daytime office hours in borough hall and hold evening community forums she’s tentatively calling “neighborhood nights,” the better to get ahead of resident concerns before they worsen.
“I’m excited to seek citizen engagement,” Bianco Bezich said.
That’s in direct response to feedback she received during the race: that Haddonfield residents most frequently critiqued their borough government for “a lack of transparency and a lack of leadership in a meaningful way.”
“I had supporters in their eighties telling me that, and moms at preschool drop-off telling me that,” Bianco Bezich said. “All neighborhoods, everyone I talked to, it didn’t matter.”
The commissioner-elect said she heard from many voters who were excited to have the perspective of a working mother of a young child in office. Others encouraged her to run again in 2021 if she didn’t win the unexpired term.
Given that feedback, Bianco Bezich considers her election to be “a mandate for more diverse representation and to a future that is more open to outsiders and not [only] Haddonfield lifers.”
“I’ve been rolling up my sleeves since I moved here,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter whether you live here for 50 years or five years, you deserve representation.”
In a community the demographics of which are overwhelmingly white and wealthy, Bianco Bezich said she’d also like to see greater diversity among the candidates for the 2021 municipal election, the better to create a more representative local government.
“The number one thing we have to acknowledge is that things can change and that can be a positive,” she said. “I think it would do wonders for our community and our kids to see the population representing varying types of community members.”
‘You’ve got one job to do, and that’s represent everybody’
In Haddon Heights, mayor-elect Zach Houck was still pinching himself the day after polling results showed him victorious by a slender, 160-vote margin.
Once the borough government reorganizes in January, Houck will lead a Democratic supermajority for the first time in years.
His chief concern is making sure that constituents know their councilpeople are there to be stewards of the community, and not to push any partisan agenda.
“Politics are local here,” Houck said.
“People are voting on who you are, not so much what party you represent.
“Having a supermajority makes things easier to get things done, but we do need to be cautious that we’re not just getting things done for the sake of getting things done,” he said.
While Houck was picking up his campaign signs the days after the polls closed, he chatted with many people along the way. The best tip he got came from former Haddon Heights mayor Auggie Longo.
“He said, ‘Just remember, after Election Day is over, you’ve got one job to do, and that’s represent everybody,’” Houck said. “‘You’ll get pulled in 100 different directions. Not everybody in town is going to agree, but you’ve got to do what is best for the town.’”
Among the challenges that his administration will face are questions about the potential regionalization of the borough department of public works, which already shares a superintendent (David Taraschi) with neighboring Audubon. As someone who has experience with organized labor and contract talks, Houck said it’s important to bring all stakeholders together to handle such a delicate issue fairly and productively.
“The only way to break that [emotional reaction] down is to bring people to the table and engage them,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to do more with less, but that doesn’t mean we do it to union-bust, or to cut services or the quality of services.”
Houck also wants to help attract new business to the Haddon Heights downtown.
He views his mayoral responsibilities as a liaison among organizations like the Haddon Heights Business and Professional Association and Heights in Progress “to increase the quality of life and draw people in who are going to want to live here.
“We have an awesome downtown,” Houck said.
“How do we fill the vacant buildings? Part of that’s being accessible,” he said.
“My goal is to be meeting with the business owners weekly, recruit businesses that are going to help support each other, and fill that vacant space.”
Houck also said he’d like to review the borough master plan, which is due for an update, as part of his work to revitalize the Haddon Heights downtown while maintaining its historic character.
“We’re just like any typical town that was built 100 years ago, so now we’re kind of handcuffed,” he said. “I think we will have to carefully look at the master plan, revise the current one, and some of that is going to involve not disturbing the historic quality of our town.”
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