MORRISTOWN — The smoky skies overhead were surreal, so it's no surprise a town council race seemed to take a page from "The X-Files" this week.
Unofficial results after Tuesday's Democratic primary showed Chris Russo, a member of the Morristown Planning Board, defeating Town Council President Sandi Mayer for the nomination to represent the Fourth Ward. If the numbers hold up, Mayer will have lost a shot at re-election to the seat she first won in 2019.
Russo will go on to face Bruce Meringolo, who ran unopposed as a Republican, in the November general election.
Russo, 43, is the co-owner of Superhero Events, an organization that stages running races for local communities and charities. He's said he hopes to act as a liaison between residents and commercial owners in the downtown business district where he lives and also wants to be an advocate for affordable housing.
"The process was fantastic," he said of the primary on Wednesday. "I'm glad that many of them believed in me and cast their votes for me."
Mayer, however, wasn't quite ready to end the dispute. She pointed to a bizarre episode from the past to challenge her fellow Democrat's fitness for office.
In an emailed statement to the Daily Record Wednesday, Mayer criticized Russo for his role in a 2009 UFO hoax in which he and a friend attached lit flares to helium balloons and released them into the skies above Morris County. Their actions prompted several reports and investigations of unidentified flying objects and a mini-media storm.
Russo and his friend later admitted, in an April Fools' Day article in "The Skeptic" magazine, that they were behind the prank. They said they wanted to debunk UFO reports and make a point about the public's willingness to accept wild claims.
"We brainstormed the idea of producing a spaceship hoax to fool people, bring the charlatans out of the woodwork to drum up controversy," they wrote, "and then expose it as nothing more than a prank to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs."
Both men were later fined $250 and ordered to serve 50 hours of community service by the Morris County Prosecutor's Office.
Mayer said the hoax was an example of what she deemed Russo's poor character. She also alleged he'd received tickets for not wearing a seat belt.
"It's a sad day for Morristown when someone with Mr. Russo's background is going to represent the citizens of the Fourth Ward," she said. "He's shown a lack of good character, judgment and decision making but it was up to the few people that came out to vote to make that decision."
Unofficial totals from the county Clerk's Office show Russo prevailed in a lightly contested race: He received 217 votes, or 54%, to Mayer's 187 (46%).
Mayer said she is proud of her work on the council and will continue her efforts until the end of the year. A resident of Morristown's Parsons Village community for 32 years, Mayer works for an accounting firm, co-chairs the Morris County Democratic Committee Elected Caucus and is a member of Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for "sensible" gun legislation.
"I will always operate with honesty and integrity," she said.
Russo declined to respond to her comments, saying his focus has always been to run a positive campaign. He said he enjoyed talking to residents in the ward throughout the election season and hearing their concerns and suggestions to improve Morristown.
The primary results, posted by the Morris County Board of Elections, have yet to be certified. County clerks have until June 19 to certify the vote totals, including late-arriving mail-in ballots.
Other Morristown council results
Another council contest was still too close to call on Wednesday. Steven Pylypchuk led Robert "R.J." Bell by 13 votes, 127-114, in the race for the Democratic nomination to represent the Third Ward. Both are attempting to replace incumbent Stefan Armington, who is not seeking re-election.
Bell said Wednesday his campaign is waiting to ensure every vote is counted. Regardless of the outcome, he took pride in his effort to advocate for underrepresented communities on the council.
"As a gay man, one of the reasons I decided to run for Morristown Council is because representation in leadership is important, especially in the current political environment," Bell said. "I hope to see more diversity in local government, not just here in Morristown, but across New Jersey."
Pylypchuk, who ran unsuccessfully for the Third Ward nomination in 2019, took the time to commend Bell for running as a first-time candidate — a stark contrast to the animosity in the Fourth Ward race.
"Putting oneself out there in the public eye takes tremendous bravery, and I respect his dedication to making a positive impact in our community," Pylypchuk said. "It is encouraging to see more residents taking an active role in shaping the future of our town, and I commend Mr. Bell for his commitment to serving the community."
Tina C. Lindsey, a Democrat, ran unopposed in the Second Ward after Tawanna Cotten, another sitting council member, announced she would not seek another term.
Kyle Morel is a local reporter covering Morris and Sussex counties.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KMorelNJH
This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Morristown council president loses primary, hits foe for UFO hoax