Harry Walker is the latest in a string of contenders vying for a seat on the Willingboro Township Council, even though the political scene in the town has become known as being quite nasty.
Residents boo at council meetings when discussions break down, and complain that the town is being forced to foot escalating legal bills when council members go to court to settle scores with each other and oust those who fall into disfavor.
Councilman Chris Walker, who was named mayor by the five-member council in January, is the latest casualty. He resigned abruptly last month, opening the door for Harry Walker — they are not related — to go to court to lay claim to his seat.
“I just hope to be an advocate to bring change on council so that council will start thinking about what’s best for Willingboro and the residents and not what’s best for their personal agendas,” said Harry Walker, 40, a real estate broker who grew up in the Democratic-leaning town.
Superior Court Judge Ronald Bookbinder is scheduled to hold a conference next week on Harry Walker’s lawsuit, which he filed himself.
Chris Walker, 49, an unemployed youth counselor, resigned as mayor June 12, less than one week after he and his running mate, Councilman Nat Anderson, won a contested Democratic primary race for two open seats on the Township Council. The incumbents were endorsed by the town’s Democratic committee despite their personal animosity. They were challenged by Harry Walker and Arrington Crawford, both newcomers to politics.
In making his resignation announcement, Chris Walker said he would leave office within two days and would withdraw from the November ballot. He cited health reasons, but one day earlier he settled a suit challenging his residency, and it required him to resign his $15,000 post as mayor and his $10,000 post as a commissioner on the town’s Municipal Utilities Authority.
Former MUA commissioner Dennis Reiter filed the suit alleging Chris Walker had lived outside the town since January 2016 and therefore was not qualified to be on the council. The settlement agreement was reached on the eve of the trial.
Reiter said that Chris Walker had listed as his address a home in Willingboro that went into foreclosure; its utilities were shut off in December 2015.
Michael J. McKenna, a Cherry Hill lawyer who represented Reiter, said that Chris Walker later claimed in depositions that he had moved in with a friend in Willingboro. But McKenna said he ordered 26 days of surveillance and it showed Walker actually was living in Camden County. “I told him he could either commit perjury on the stand or resign,” McKenna said in an interview.
Chris Walker said last week, however, that he still lives in the township. “There was no court determination of my residence. My stepping down was due to my health,” he said.
Harry Walker is asking the judge to issue an order placing his own name on the November ballot to replace Chris Walker. Harry Walker was the third-highest vote-getter in the race and cites state law suggesting he won the ballot spot because Chris Walker was not qualified to run in the primary.
“Title 19 requires a candidate for local municipal office to actually be a valid and legal resident of the municipality that they are seeking to run for office in,” his 10-page lawsuit states. He also cited a law that says if a candidate files “any false statement, the nomination or election of such candidate … shall be null and void.”
After Chris Walker’s resignation, the town’s Democratic committee chose Rebecca Perrone to fill the council vacancy. Bill Carter, the committee chair, said the committee had not yet decided whose name should replace Chris Walker’s on the November ballot. “As far as the residency, I have nothing to do with that,” he said. “We went under the premise that Chris Walker still lives in Willingboro and I have no knowledge of him not living in Willingboro.”
After the primaries, Chris Walker and Anderson were expecting to be easily reelected in November because the Republicans didn’t field any council candidates.
The council, all Democrats, has not appointed a new mayor yet.
Harry Walker named Chris Walker in his lawsuit and also named Carter and Joe Andl, the chair of the Burlington County Democratic Committee, to ask the judge to prevent them from naming someone besides him to the ballot.
Carter said that he had not yet received that lawsuit and could not comment on it. Andl did not return calls for comment.
Chris Walker said that the lawsuit was “sour grapes” and shows a lack of knowledge of how government works.
Chris Walker is also being sued by his running mate, Anderson, for defamation. The Township Council voted to pay for Chris Walker’s legal bills, which are more than $20,000 so far, because the allegations stem from his actions on council.
McKenna said that Reiter’s lawsuit aimed to have Chris Walker resign, not to have him return his stipend. But since the settlement, Reiter has asked the council to consider taking action to recoup the money.
McKenna also said that Harry Walker’s lawsuit “presents a very interesting question worthy of research.”