ELECTIONS: Candidates discuss Montclair issues at League, Local, AIM forum
BY KELLY NICHOLAIDES
for Montclair Local
Montclair council and mayoral candidates discussed responding to the economic impact of COVID-19, development, a senior activity center, and more in a candidates forum April 22.
Michelle Bobrow of the League of Women Voters of Maplewood-South Orange, moderated the forum.
The mayoral candidates are Sean Spiller and Renee Baskerville. The five at-large candidates running for two council seats are James Cotter, Carmel Loughman, incumbent Bob Russo, Roger Terry, and Peter Yacobellis.
Council ward candidates are John Hearn and incumbent Bill Hurlock for the First Ward; incumbent Robin Schlager and Christina Thomas for the Second Ward; Maggie Joralemon and Lori Price Abrams for the Third Ward; and, for the Fourth Ward, David Cummings, who is running unopposed did not participate in the forum as required by league bylaws, and instead provided a statement.
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Baskerville and Spiller responded to questions regarding potential conflicts of interest if elected mayor, since Montclair’s school board members are appointed by the mayor. Spiller is the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association; Baskerville was employed by the East Orange School District; she was recently laid off.
Spiller said he would bring leadership to the mayor role and would appoint board of education members who have a shares vision with the best interests of the students in mind and who support the staff. Regarding a senior center, Spiller said the town can utilize existing resources and find creative ways that don’t add to the tax burden by looking for private-public partnerships.
Regarding development, he called for balance and said that parking will be alleviated with new parking decks to get an additional 400 cars off the street. He introduced the rent-control ordinance and supports keeping tax increases to 0 percent and rents affordable.
Spiller’s pandemic focus is establishing a coronavirus task force with the retail, nonprofit, and government sectors working together. He wants a local office of recovery so residents can understand assistance options. A small business task force can do a full analysis of the town’s pandemic response, he said.
Baskerville said she brings integrity to the mayor role and will continue to fight for struggling communities. She said her work with East Orange schools is not a potential conflict of interest and looks forward to providing early childhood healthcare-related services.
As the town goes through the pandemic, its leaders must prioritize services for all age groups, she said, noting that she served on the senior advisory group. She would not promise allocating funds for a senior center, but said that programs are available at the Salvation Army, and that there are opportunities for shared services.
Regarding redevelopment, she said it brought in revenue, but the town should now focus on growing more trees and preserving a suburban feel as well as boosting arts, entertainment, and restaurants in downtown areas. The 20-percent set-aside should be enforced to maintain the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of Montclair, she said.
Regarding pandemic cuts, she wants to maintain public safety and human services, protect small businesses, look at green stimulus plans and work with economists. Rent stabilization would help preserve the town’s living history, she said.
Cotter has lived in every ward, as a renter and homeowner. He advocates for a diverse community and said he wants to collaborate to solve problems as he does in his neighborhood association. He noted that Montclair has seen much construction for a decade, and developers need to be held accountable to provide residents with walkable, sustainable communities.
Hope is not a policy, he said, adding that the “north star” guide is holding the line on taxes. He wants to help the town’s small businesses and work with the BID to find creative solutions to help them survive the pandemic.
Loughman called herself a fiscal conservative and noted that financial expertise and analysis of funding cuts, alternative revenue sources, and grant opportunities are needed in a pandemic world. She sees the at-large position as a support role of research and policy guidance, and a first line of defense for each ward.
She said the town’s 2017 plan to build a senior community center for Montclair’s 7,000 older adults was a great idea, but loss of revenue due to the pandemic makes it an incredible challenge. She noted that the town can’t curtail development if it wants affordable housing, as it’s a supply-and-demand issue.
There are no “sacred cows” in budgets, she said, and she’d like to focus on how the county spends the municipal portion it gets from Montclair. She believes that multi-year contracts for Montclair employees are not a good idea, and that the fire department should be part of shared services with Verona and Bloomfield.
Russo touted the township’s AAA rating and debt reduction over the past eight years. He promoted a progressive agenda to protect seniors, families, and students. He said he serves in a general capacity to support the mayor and council, and noted that the council earmarked funding for senior activities at the Salvation Army.
Russo said that the town addressed parking needs with the Crescent Deck and others under construction. He promoted biking and walking. Montclair holds the line on taxes due to ratables, he said, and suggested consolidating and regionalizing services as the only way towns will survive the coronavirus’s economic impacts. Cuts will depend on what state and federal governments provide, he added.
Terry is a former deputy police chief who previously served on the council. He wants to advocate for residents on issues including affordable housing, renewable energy, safe streets, rent control, and bridging class divides. Montclair is in the middle of an urban and suburban region and needs smart development that considers impact on schools, fire, police services and traffic, he said.
The township is fortunate that many developers live in Montclair, Terry said. He supports the 20-percent affordable housing set-aside on new construction and advocated for shared services and the creation of a pandemic task force to work within town and with governments in Verona, West Orange and Bloomfield.
Yacobellis said he knows how to innovate, collaborate, and lead, and sees his role as “everybody’s councilman,” accessible via text, email, and social media. He said that aging in place is a priority on his platform. With a budget surplus, the council should have addressed affordability, mobility, and transportation issues, he said.
Montclair needs to “flatten the development curve” that has put pressure on the town’s water, sewer, and other services, he said; development needs to be in line with the character of the township, and more rigorous standards should be applied.
Budget cuts due to COVID-19 loom, and he wants to look for relief from the Federal Reserve and efficiency in the town budget. Montclair should use its budget surplus and take on some debt to avoid draconian cuts, especially to library, arts, and sports programs, Yacobellis said.
Hearn advocated for progressive values and cited the creativity and ambition of residents. He said the town needs to coordinate community organizing of nonprofits and community groups to sustain Montclair with a fund to help small businesses.
The core of the affordable housing issue is valuing the diversity of race, religion, and gender and protecting rights, Hearn said, adding that rent control is not enough to maintain diversity, as he believes it diminishes the number of units available.
He favors a tax credit to help residents stay in place. He suggested a 10 percent to 15 percent cut for each unit of town government, layoffs, privatization, new revenue sources and subsidies to address COVID-19’s economic impact.
Hurlock is a former Board of School Estimate member and former prosecutor. His focus is pandemic recovery and stocking of masks, gloves, and gowns for public health, and a system for the finance committee to defer water and sewer bills.
Hurlock noted that the affordable housing set-aside is enforced at both the Lackawanna and Seymour developments. He said the town finance committee worked for weeks to get the numbers right for no municipal tax increase, and that historically the town has seen increases at 1 to 2 percent overall.
Schlager pointed to the need for school safety assessments on infrastructure, parking, and Edgemont Park maintenance as main issues. She wants a new engineering report on the area of Watchung Plaza and Park Street to address hazards. She recommended a community center to be used by teens in the evenings and by seniors during the day.
Schlager suggested getting a developer and Essex County to chip in and subsidize some costs. The developers’ trust can be used to spread out affordable housing, she said.
For pandemic relief, Schlager wants to set up a long-term economic support foundation task force to look at the budget and subsidize portions of taxes, hire a grant writer, and help businesses and tenants.
Thomas cited the economic crisis, education, safety, parking, public school infrastructure and geese control as the main Second Ward issues. She questioned why the town has had an interim town manager for six years. She said it’s great that the Edgemont Park House exists for the seniors, and would recommend a combined senior center and pre-K facility as a way to facilitate a new center. Combine with the Y and make it bigger so they can stay in Montclair, she said. She owns 15 units in Montclair and supports rent control and enforcing the affordable housing set-aside. Thomas suggests to alleviate pandemic financial burdens, pay cuts in administration salaries of town employees.
Abrams said she wants to serve with an experienced team that has reduced debt and supports local businesses. She would set priorities with citizens from the Senior Advisory Council. She wants to focus on the housing element, new senior living residences and opportunities for more affordable units.
Another possibility, she said, is special zoning to allow for shared housing and accommodate aging in place. She supports rent control and the set-aside for affordable housing townwide. One possibility would be public-private partnerships to build new affordable housing in creative ways, she said. Sustainability is another focus that she wants to pursue, including opportunities for solar energy and electric vehicles.
Joralemon said overdevelopment fallout is a major Third Ward issue. She wants to reduce the speed limit on Bloomfield Avenue from North Mountain to Maple, and look at improving crosswalks.
She cited her work at senior spaces at the Y and library, and said the suggestion that the town combine a senior center with a youth center as an intergenerational enterprise is the best option.
Joralemon supports the 20-percent set-aside for affordable housing and said the housing stock for seniors and zoning laws should be looked at, with the possibility of retrofitting older homes to accommodate seniors. Montclair will become a segregated community without rent control, she said, adding that stabilization is needed to preserve the town’s economic, cultural and racial diversity.
On the pandemic, she said she would appeal to county and state resources and said that she would “suck up” a tax increase if needed to maintain the town budget.
Watch the forum here: