NJ Pen 2019 Election Coverage: Meet the Candidates for Haddon Heights Mayor


We invited the Democratic and Republican candidates for borough mayor to tell voters a little about themselves ahead of Election Day. Here’s how they responded.

By Matt Skoufalos | October 22, 2019

On November 5, Haddon Heights voters will choose from among two balloted candidates to replace outgoing Mayor Jack Merryfield: Zach Houck (D) and Michael Valvardi (R).

We invited each candidate to respond to the same set of prompts, telling voters about themselves, their priorities, and their views of the current state of the community. Here’s how they responded. Answers were edited for clarity and length.


Haddon Heights Mayoral Candidate Zach Houck. Credit: Zach Houck.

Zach Houck, 34 (D)

Zach Houck is a lieutenant and 13-year veteran of the Cherry Hill Fire Department (CHFD) who is running for Haddon Heights mayor on the Democratic ticket.

In addition to his career service, which includes mitigating hazardous materials and managing the department’s grant writing process, Houck is a fifth-generation volunteer with the Barrington Fire Department.

Houck also coaches cross-country and track at Haddon Heights High School.

He has an MPA from the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government and a passion for family history.

What is your philosophy of local government?

Government too often seems like a giant bureaucracy where ideas come to get lost or twisted around until they don’t resemble anything they set out to be.

Part of the problem is leaders 1) failing to check their egos, 2) failing to set expectations, and 3) micromanaging their people instead of trusting them.

My philosophy is simple: invest in your people, and great things will happen. As a small unit leader in the CHFD, I know first-hand the value this plays in a team’s success, especially while operating in dynamic environments.

My approach to government embodies just this. Place the right people in positions to lead your teams, set expectations, and empower and guide them, but ultimately trust them and their decisions.

Why would you like to serve on the borough council?

My passion for community and government service began long ago, with my family being pillars of the towns. The Houck family settled in Barrington around 1910, helping to develop the area, and playing a lead role in the forming of the local fire company, church, business association, Barrington Band, and so much more.

My grandfather, Harry Stone, was the Mayor of Barrington, and his father before him helped found the VFW, and served as the town’s first business administrator. Over 20 members of my family spanning five generations have served these communities proudly.

Their actions have always inspired me and served as lessons in leadership and service. They are the inspiration behind my coaching of 3HS cross-country, kindergarten soccer at HHSC, volunteering at my hometown fire department, and ultimately running for mayor. I hope to be able to live up to their legacy and make them proud while serving the residents and families of Haddon Heights.

What are the biggest challenges you foresee the town facing in the next three years? How do you propose to address them?

The constant rise in taxes here in New Jersey continues to make it tough on working families. This is especially true in Haddon Heights, with a limited commercial footprint to offset the burden on our residents. We have to find a way to continue to offer exceptional services while not raising taxes to the point where no one can afford to live here.

In turn, we cannot forgo vital services like street repairs and public safety. Right now, 75 percent ($4.9 million) of the taxes we levy go towards employee and retiree salaries, wages, and benefits. Our success requires looking at our budget closely and getting smart with our money.

Thankfully, I have years of experience doing just this for my labor union. I have spent hours in the CHFD’s $27-million budget looking at cost drivers and projected expenses that are coming down the road, like retiree healthcare costs. I have experience in working through contract negotiations and educating employees on their benefits so that everyone saves.

As mayor of Haddon Heights, first and foremost, I will know our budget inside and out. I will have a thorough knowledge of our employees’ contracts and benefits. I will require department heads to implement long-range planning and budgeting, so as a whole, we can better manage our assets and expenses year to year.

Finally, the public works department continues to come up in conversations I have with residents. The shared service agreement with Audubon is a step in the right direction. However, we need a plan forward that works not only for the residents but the public works employees who care deeply about our community and serve it tirelessly.

The solution here goes back to my philosophy of government: give your team expectations, guide them, but trust them to find the answer. Our public works superintendent won’t be able to do this alone. He will need input and buy-in from his team.

What are the biggest strengths of Haddon Heights?

One of our biggest strengths here in Haddon Heights is that families return generation after generation to raise their families. My girls will be the fourth generation of Houcks to attend Haddon Heights High School. Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than watching my girls visit John’s Friendly Market as I did as a young boy.

The town is rich in tradition, which draws people back and attracts new families moving to the area. This is the key to Heights continuing to thrive, by both holding onto the traditions that have made it so great, and ushering in new, progressive ideas from organizations like Heights in Progress.

If elected, what can voters expect from your term of service?

The residents of Haddon Heights can expect from me first and foremost professionalism. I hold the job of mayor with the utmost regard. I would be remiss to say I am not nervous, only because of how important I see this job being. I plan to spend my days listening to the residents and working tirelessly to answer their concerns. I will set expectations for my department heads, and will hold them accountable.

I cannot promise that I will always make the perfect decisions. However, I can guarantee you that I will hold myself responsible, admit when I am wrong, and then work to correct my mistake.

Haddon Heights Mayoral Candidate Michael Valvardi. Credit: Michael Valvardi.

Michael Valvardi, 51 (R)

Retired Haddon Heights Police Captain Michael Valvardi is running for borough mayor on the Republican ticket.

A 25-year officer, Valvardi volunteers with the Knights of Columbus and serves on the parish finance council at St. Rose of Lima Church and School.

He also volunteers with the school track and cross-country teams.

Valvardi’s interests include design, engineering, carpentry, and spending time with his family.

What is your philosophy of local government?

Local government should serve the residents of the community, but should not be its sole provider of services.

Local government should empower the residents and give them the ability to make changes. Residents need to be vested in their community.

Just as mayor and council are unpaid volunteers, so are the residents who run all our local sports and community organizations. We need to work together to enact change when needed, and grow with the best interest of the town placed first.

Why would you like to serve on the borough council?

Being employed by the borough for 20 years and serving on numerous volunteer committees, I believe there is room to improve services, enhance safety, respond better to resident concerns, communicate more efficiently, and prompt government officials to streamline the way our town functions.

What are the biggest challenges you foresee the town facing in the next three years? How do you propose to address them?

There are certain costs that the town cannot control, but many that we can. We always have the opportunity to shop out professional services to get the best bang for the buck. All too often, government settles for the status quo.

One of the biggest challenges is keeping up our own town identity, and not giving into the temptation to copy other towns. Whether the discussion is about consolidating services or shared service agreements, we need to place the best interest of the town and residents first, while maintaining our identity.

What are the biggest strengths of Haddon Heights?

  • We have superior public safety services, great schools, and a public works department filled with conscientious employees.
  • Wonderful volunteers in our youth sport associations and clubs, and all the other volunteer organizations in town.
  • Haddon Heights is fortunate to still maintain a two-party system of government. Residents in most Camden County towns do not have an option of candidates to choose from on Election Day, where Haddon Heights always offers residents a choice of strong candidates from both political parties.


If elected, what can voters expect from your term of service?

Transparency of government matters, and crossing party lines to do what is best for our town. While we declare political party affiliation when we run for office, after Election Day we must act in a non-partisan manner.

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