Montclair Votes 2020: At-large council candidates on the issues
Montclair's 2020 municipal election is underway right now, with voters asked to mail in their ballots by May 12. Voters will choose a new mayor and six Township Council seats in the town's nonpartisan elections. To help Montclair residents make an informed choice, Montclair Local asked all 14 municipal candidates a series of questions on some of the key issues facing the town going forward.
Five residents are running for two at-large Township Council seats. Candidates include incumbent at-large councilman Bob Russo, as well as James Cotter, Carmel Loughman, Roger Terry, and Peter Yacobellis. Incumbent Rich McMahon is not seeking re-election.
What do you see as the number one problem facing Montclair’s educational system? What would solve it?
JAMES COTTER: As a public school teacher for 22 years, in a district whose demographics, socio-economic and educational challenges mirror those of Montclair, I have spent my career in the trenches of education reform.
And as a Watchung Elementary parent, the excellence of our system is of utmost importance to me. We must start by finding permanent, progressive and transparent leaders for our BOE and for our superintendent. Stabilizing leadership at these levels will allow us to confront the critical issues that Montclair faces, including closing the opportunity gap, addressing inequities, ensuring school readiness and fixing our aging facilities.
Parents across our district are united in the belief that Montclair’s schools must confront the challenge of reaching every student to enable them to rise to their highest potential.
I look forward to giving voice to those parents and to working with Dr. Baskerville on securing the leadership our district deserves.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: The inability to hire and retain a school superintendent is leading to a lack of stable leadership of our school system.
The BOE is in the process of hiring a new superintendent. I expect the Board is examining why retention seems to be an issue so this can be addressed. Uplifting the achievement of all our students should be the number one goal of the new superintendent.
But as your readers may know, the mayor appoints the BOE; the BOE manages the school district; the rest of the town council members have no responsibility for overseeing schools. By law, responsibility for the schools vests solely in the BOE.
With respect to the school budget, however, the mayor and two town councilors sit on the five-member Board of School Estimate. As a councilor, I would be happy to be part of the BOSE, as I have a finance background.
BOB RUSSO: The health crisis we are facing right now has completely changed the way we teach and learn. I am dealing with it as an adjunct professor currently in a Public Administration class at MSU.
Our local teachers face the same struggle to communicate with students effectively and interact in the new online-only learning environment which we have had to adjust to at the university faculty level. The virtual classroom may make it even harder to address and correct the achievement gap issues in our public schools, as well as the always difficult issue of teaching special needs children.
More federal and state aid under the long underfunded Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can help address our financial shortfall, which has always been the major concern to me.
Having served as a past member of the Board of School Estimate and as mayor, fair school funding would solve much of our educational problems.
ROGER TERRY: Montclair has great public schools. The potential for overcrowding is a concern, so the Board of Education should plan for the possibility that new buildings will need to be added.
PETER YACOBELLIS: It’s unacceptable that our school buildings are falling apart and that our district, once the envy of the state, no longer enjoys that stature. This negligence is having a detrimental impact on the quality of our students’ education, their well-being and quality of life, and also threatens our property values.
Fixed costs over which we have little, if any, control comprise roughly 80 percent of the school budget. We have to have an honest conversation as a community and decide what kind and level of investment is appropriate to address capital improvements, fund our sports, music and arts programs, and prioritize equitable education programs.
I would support the town issuing bonds to repair and renovate our school buildings and I would look for other ways the council can work with the BOE to improve the quality of education.
We also have to consider the impact that declining state revenues may have on our town, resulting from COVID-19 and be prepared to deal with those.
What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Montclair? What specifically could be done to help keep Montclair diverse?
JAMES COTTER: There are many people who are new to Montclair, but Montclair is not a new place; nor is it a museum.
The challenge for our community is to balance the need for growth and change with respect and consideration for the residents who have made Montclair such a diverse and dynamic place to live.
People move to Montclair for its diversity, and paradoxically, their arrival often exacerbates gentrification. It would be disingenuous for any candidate to make promises with regards to housing prices; it is simply not the province of the council.
Still, if we value socioeconomic and racial diversity, as I do, we must find creative solutions. One such solution is to hold the line on municipal tax increases, so that more residents can afford to stay. We can also encourage new residents to explore our rich history so they can better appreciate what makes Montclair so unique.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: Gentrification changes the character of a town. I enjoy living in a town with a gorgeous array of humanity — teenagers on their skateboards, seniors in my library classes, musicians in the bars, gospel singers at church, ladies who lunch, bikers in their Spandex shorts, protestors on the corner, techies on their laptops in coffee shops, big men walking little dogs, the young, the old, the rich, the poor.
I want to see all Montclarians flourish and contribute to the uniqueness of our town. This pandemic has tested the firmness of the bond of all Montclarians. I believe we are a strong community that cares for each and every one of our members. I want to keep intact the ethnic, educational, income, and age diversity that is a salient feature of our town that makes it such a unique community.
Addressing housing affordability is vital to help sustain our diversity.
BOB RUSSO: The need now is to focus on rebuilding the small businesses, homes and lives of so many great Montclair families who have been impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Things have changed so drastically that we are in danger of losing our diversity to economic hardship, as well as gentrification. I have supported state and federal policies that would assist families with income support and businesses with resources to rebuild and stay in Montclair during the coming years.
This is a national emergency which can only be met and won with extensive help from the federal and state governments.
Diversity has been Montclair’s strength and attraction over the many years I have served on the council, and I would not want to see us become a town of only those from outside who can afford high taxes and rents.
ROGER TERRY: A lot of people move to Montclair because of the diversity and our public schools. Beyond Montclair, many areas in the region have become more difficult to afford, particularly for minorities.
We will continue to press for affordable housing, rent control and other ways to preserve what makes Montclair special.
PETER YACOBELLIS: Gentrification by definition does mean improvement, but that improvement should be a rising tide that lifts all boats. It is one thing to restore an abandoned or dilapidated property to its former glory; it’s another thing to level a property and build something that is out of proportion and character for the neighborhood and is prohibitively more expensive than neighboring properties. We have to use our zoning laws to ensure a ratio of home size to lot size that fits the scale and preserves the character of the neighborhood.
Maintaining Montclair’s diversity is partly accomplished by preserving an affordable housing stock and increasing public transportation options. But we must also ensure Montclair is a safe place to live, learn and work by revisiting and challenging the effectiveness of policies that are intended to address racism or discrimination in the student, worker and resident experience.
Many recent developments have not set aside 20 percent of new residential units as affordable as required by a township council ordinance. Do you believe in the 20 percent set-aside? How can more affordable housing be created? Are you for or against rent control?
JAMES COTTER: I have lived in all four wards of Montclair, as a renter, a landlord, a multi-family and a single family homeowner. I am intimately familiar with issues of affordability, spiraling rents and the need for landlords to make ends meet.
In the past decade, Montclair has been a desirable place for developers to build, and it will continue to be in the foreseeable future. Hundreds of market-rate units have been built over the past 10 years, few of which are designated affordable.
We should abide by the existing ordinance and require developers to adhere to the 20 percent allocation. I am proud to be running with Dr. Baskerville, whose leadership on affordability, and particularly on rent control, has finally come to fruition.
Her common-sense approach, which I subscribe to, has protections for renters facing steep hikes, for landlords to maintain their properties, and for seniors to age in place.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: Yes, I strongly believe in the 20 percent set-aside for affordable housing in new development. If developers knew that 20 percent was non-negotiable, they would build that percentage into their pro forma calculations of land and building cost and manage their balance sheets accordingly.
There has been a lack of support by the town for HOMECorp, the in-town, non-profit that works on affordable housing issues. I would support HOMECorp.
Zoning ordinances need to be rationalized to spread out lower-scale development to all wards. The wards that do not have development benefit from the taxes that the development brings in but do not suffer the daily congestion, construction disruptions, traffic, pollution, pedestrian safety, etc. issues that those of us who live in the Third and Fourth Wards suffer. Montclarians need reasonable housing options throughout town.
I support a carefully crafted rent stabilization ordinance that takes into account both landlord and tenant views.
BOB RUSSO: I would like to see more affordable housing for seniors through more developments like we have in various locations throughout Montclair, not just in the downtown area or in the Fourth Ward.
This will require creative approaches, such as purchasing older apartment complexes along Valley Road and gaining federal and state resources to rehabilitate and repurpose them for seniors who would like to remain in Montclair.
Any new developments should have a 20 percent affordable housing set-aside whenever possible and rent control should be passed and implemented fairly and effectively, so not just senior but all tenants can remain in Montclair to preserve our diverse housing and creative population.
I have been an advocate for rent control programs since the time I was Mayor in 2000, and I am glad to see that we are finally passing an ordinance which will make Montclair more affordable!
ROGER TERRY: I believe our 20 percent affordable housing requirement is reasonable.
Unlike many communities, Montclair has met its state-mandated affordable housing requirements through 2025, but we will continue to find additional ways to create affordability.
I am for common sense rent control.
PETER YACOBELLIS: I believe in an enhanced set-aside, better enforcing the 20 percent, and including an additional 10 percent at a higher tier so that some residents, who may fall between current affordability thresholds and market rate, have options. This is another way we can preserve the socioeconomic diversity in our community that we cherish.
I support smart rent control that deviates a bit from the ordinance currently under consideration. We should address succession. The current ordinance does not protect young adults or roommates from vacancy decontrol if those primary leaseholders move but they want to remain.
Additionally, we should provide a discounted rate schedule for multi-year leases. An independent body should set single-year, multi-year, vacancy decontrol and senior rates each year, based on market conditions and inflation.
Lastly, I do believe there should be rent control with a higher cap for three- and four-family units. Dr. Baskerville’s ordinance included this stock whereas Mr. Spiller’s does not. These make up a significant portion of rentals in town.
What ideas do you have to solve parking problems in Montclair? Are you for or against lifting the overnight ban and should residents get priority on lot permits?
JAMES COTTER: Our commercial districts are a regional magnet, great for our restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues. Yet visitors put stress on our parking capacity. To provide relief, two large parking decks have already been approved and will come online in the near future: one next to the Wellmont Theater and another on Glenridge Avenue.
I am not in favor of lifting the overnight parking ban. But we need to find solutions for residents who don’t have access to a driveway or have overnight guests.
We can leverage technology to streamline the permit system through the use of apps to track lot usage and overflow. We should require developers to provide adequate resident parking for any new buildings. We can encourage businesses to utilize valet services. And finally, we can all help by using rideshare services and by walking as much as we can. It’s healthier and better for the environment.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: After this pandemic is over, all hands-on-deck will be needed to get our small businesses and arts venues back on their feet. If there is a slump, parking may not be an issue initially but let’s look to the future and be ready.
Establish a jitney bus to run on a frequent schedule, from one end of the town to the other, at a reasonable fare, using smartphone technology to alert users when the bus will arrive. Look into Clifton’s Spanish bus operation.
Use available technology. Transition to smart parking meters which can facilitate demand-based parking, change pricing by location, alert enforcement to overdue meters, escalate meter rates for extended use, adjust price for special events or holiday seasons, and allow data-based decisions.
Develop a Montclair parking app to alert drivers to parking lot availability.
Eliminate the ban on overnight parking in certain areas. Residents should get priority for permits.
BOB RUSSO: Parking can only be solved through the building of more low-level decks that blend in with the surrounding neighborhoods, such as the Crescent deck, which was developed when I was mayor.
I have advocated the similar placing of smaller and maybe largely underground decks throughout our business districts in locations close to our train stations. These past efforts have been rejected partly because of a lack of input by local neighborhood residents and businesses in the planning of such parking facilities. Short of such structures, there is only one other solution: fewer cars, more mass transit, carpooling and greater use of bicycles, skateboards, and good old-fashioned walking!
We need to rethink all of our parking regulations in light of the COVID-19 crisis, encouraging and developing more and safer bike lanes, walking paths and access to mass transit. I certainly think residents should get priority now on lot permits.
ROGER TERRY: Parking is a challenge throughout the region.
I would work closely with the police department and the township engineers to find solutions, including continuing to create public-private partnerships to add new spaces.
We can also explore solutions like ride-sharing and continuing to strengthen infrastructure to support bicycles and pedestrians.
PETER YACOBELLIS: We need a 21st-century parking plan for the township that considers the needs of residents, employees and patrons in an increasingly challenging environment.
We must limit parking variances on big development projects. These variances are granted on careless assumptions about car ownership and how people behave. Many residents do not live a reasonable walking distance from the services they need in and outside of town.
We need to explore creative ways to leverage private parking lots that are empty and located in high-volume areas during peak times when our dining, retail and entertainment locations would benefit from additional customer parking. I would also look at train station lots on the weekends for additional relief for business districts.
I do not support lifting the ban on overnight parking altogether. But I do think we need to make changes in specific neighborhoods to provide relief to residents who need a place to park overnight.
Does the new demolition oversight law go far enough in preserving Montclair’s history and character? What else would help?
JAMES COTTER: I have great respect for the history and architecture of Montclair, and as the owner of a rambling, 110-year-old house, I see what time does to our aging beauties. Mercy!
Replacing windows, fixing porches, and altering facades all require consideration for both preservation and price.
Owners need flexibility in the maintenance of their properties and the community needs protections against radical alterations of neighborhoods.
The current ordinance providing a pause on the demolition of certain residential and commercial structures is a fair compromise between the rights of property owners and the protection of neighborhoods. It was designed to close a loophole and to clearly lay out the responsibilities of the planning board, zoning board and the Historic Preservation Commission.
Adding additional properties to the list of significant structures, initiated by the homeowner, would help to identity unique buildings and to protect historic homes in perpetuity.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: I believe the new demolition ordinance will be effective. But this demolition ordinance is just a small step to preserving Montclair’s history and character.
There is always tension between property rights and what may be seen as government overreach. But these two clashing concerns can be managed successfully with understanding and cooperation.
It both uplifts our town and enhances property values when construction blends with the surrounding properties, employs good design principles, and is of lasting quality.
Houses and districts of documented historic value should receive extra protection under town ordinances. It is important to safeguard the unique heritage of Montclair by preserving resources which reflect elements of its cultural, social, and architectural history. We are very fortunate to have members of our Historic Preservation Commission and other dedicated people in town with specialized knowledge of preservation principles who are willing to act as stalwart stewards of our town heritage.
BOB RUSSO: The new demolition oversight regulations are certainly a step in the right direction to prevent what happened over the last year to privately purchased and destroyed old structures, which were a loss to Montclair’s history and character.
The planning board, zoning board of adjustment and the planning department must work together with the township manager and staff to prevent such actions by private developers in the future, and I would support further regulations and restrictions to protect Montclair’s historic structures, up to the maximum limits of the law.
ROGER TERRY: The mayor and council took action to create a new safeguard to provide better oversight of historic property.
I understand after speaking with my colleagues that with the assistance of the township manager and attorney the ordinance has addressed the situation to the extent that the law allows.
PETER YACOBELLIS: Moving the authority to approve demolition permits for historic structures to the Historic Preservation Commission was well-intended, but should have been preceded by a systematic and comprehensive inventory and cataloguing of historic structures that ensures each property has the correct designation sourced from the historic preservation element of the township’s master plan.
We need to take this step immediately to eliminate the confusion and loopholes that cause much of our problems in this area. This would allow the commission to expedite some applications that should not be delayed while the commission addresses those that need to be subjected to a longer process.
Preventing demolition of historic structures is not the only tool for preserving the history and character of our community. We need to institute more rigorous development standards and oversight to insure builders are adhering to the approved plans. We cannot allow the dramatic deviations from approved plans that we currently see.
Montclair has undergone a huge redevelopment boom in the last five years. How do you see this affecting Montclair, both good and bad?
JAMES COTTER: Over the past decade, Montclair has experienced significant development, sometimes for the greater good, but more often for the benefit of developers, whose projects have placed undue burdens on our township. We must ensure that developers are held accountable to residents and that any new projects do not overwhelm the town’s infrastructure, threaten pedestrian safety or are out of character with our neighborhoods.
Our master plan provides guidance on the kind of town Montclair aspires to be; walk-able, sustainable, and vibrant. Our growth has to be smarter and residents must have a voice in the process.
The proposed Lackawanna project is an example of development gone awry. The density was massive, the parking plan was ill-conceived and the projected supermarket tenant, Lidl, wouldn’t serve the basic food needs of the Fourth Ward.
We can do better. I will continue to advocate on behalf of residents and protect neighborhoods from overdevelopment.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: The good: We can all conjure up pictures of sad, dying, derelict towns. Montclair is the opposite of this. In the last several years, millions of dollars have been invested in Montclair to build retail and residential projects. This development has increased municipal tax revenues, provided new jobs, improved retail choices, upgraded and added to housing stock, revitalized fading areas, and contributed to a lively arts and entertainment scene.
The bad: This development has not been consistently focused on the wishes of the community for open space, activated sidewalks, buildings in scale with the neighborhood, outstanding architecture that blends in and complements its surroundings, on-site parking and, most importantly, 20 percent affordable housing.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are as yet unknown, but it is highly probable that the pace of development will be curtailed as banks, developers, contractors, and potential tenants are impacted by the projected economic downturn.
BOB RUSSO: The attraction of Montclair to outsiders who want to live here is a great thing, and the new development over the past decade has been very helpful in stabilizing our local property taxes.
However, I would like to see us wind down some of the development, with completion of projects now on line, so we can refocus on retaining our long-time residents and businesses, many of which are now hurting from the unexpected health crisis impacting all communities.
My experience over the last few years has been that redevelopment must be balanced by preservation, with stable taxes, rents and affordable housing for our growing senior population, hard-working families and the many middle- and lower-income residents who want to stay in Montclair.
This time of crisis makes me more committed to preserving the town we all love and restoring the small businesses and families impacted by COVID-19.
ROGER TERRY: As someone who was born and raised here, I have mixed emotions on some of the new development in the township.
As an elected official, your job is to balance the needs in the community to create the best possible outcomes for residents. I have realized that time changes everything and Montclair is no exception.
Montclair’s finances are on strong footing, due in part to smart management and targeted development in the downtown area.
We have a lot of great restaurants, theaters and clubs. I do think we should be smart not to over-stress our resources — police, fire, DPW and schools.
All of the communities around us, like West Orange and Bloomfield, are growing. People want to live in a wonderful community like Montclair.
This team has shown a lot of leadership and I look forward to working with them to address challenges.
PETER YACOBELLIS: If development is accompanied by the commensurate investment in infrastructure necessary to support it and appropriate planning for the increased stress and demand for township resources and services, and protections are in place to preserve the character and charm that makes Montclair a desirable community to invest in in the first place, then the increased number of residents can be good for our tax base, for foot traffic for retailers, restaurants and other local businesses, and will continue to boost home values.
However, much of the development that has occurred has been hasty and proceeded without input from residents and the appropriate commissions and committees. The result has, in many cases, been architecture that is aesthetically displeasing and out of character, unbalanced density, and unsustainable pressure on our already over-stressed and insufficient roads, parking and schools. Too many high-priced rentals in town also puts pressure on our existing stock of rental housing, challenging the affordability of Montclair.
What is an issue in town (not otherwise addressed) that you feel strongly about, and how would you approach it if elected?
JAMES COTTER: Inclusion and citizen engagement are central to healthy local government. I came to the political process through my neighborhood association and I will encourage others to form similar, hyper-local groups to empower Montclarians to voice concerns directly to the Council.
No one should feel left out of the process or ignored in the face of bureaucracy. At every level of government, I will serve as a bulwark and an advocate for issues that impact my neighbors and my community.
I will work with our county leaders to explore shared service agreements. I will work with our congressional leaders to finally push for better train service from NJ Transit.
In this time of great challenge, we must all work in collaboration to solve problems and I am committed to enlisting new residents to volunteer their time and vast expertise to keep Montclair a thriving, diverse and inclusive place to live.
CARMEL LOUGHMAN: The dire issue of our time will be the aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Immediately upon taking office the leadership ability of the new council will be tested on these questions:
Is our hospital fully supplied and staffed to handle the diminishing crisis? How will the town monitor events to watch for any uptick in cases? Can our children go back to their classrooms? Should shops reopen? How can business be supported? Are large gatherings safe? Should our municipal office workers be back at their desks? Are parks and playgrounds safe?
Montclarians will receive guidance from medical authorities, and common sense will be called for, but leadership from town government will be needed to provide reassurance that all measures within the power of local government will be taken to assure Montclarians that it will be safe to resume normal life and that government will be a backstop to help.
BOB RUSSO: The biggest issue we all face right now is how to live safely through this unexpected but perhaps preventable crisis which is taking a toll on our seniors particularly, both physically and fiscally, and our young people through the curtailment of their educational and recreational lives and opportunities.
Also impacted are our many creative small businesses and restaurants, who will need our attention and support to recover.
A mini-Marshall Plan for our own town is what I want to see in conjunction with the governor’s efforts on the state level, the county level and the federal level, where most of the resources must come from if we are to all be made whole again.
Montclair will survive this crisis. We are resilient, we support each other and we will come back out of this time of crisis stronger and more united together!
ROGER TERRY: I want to focus on developing new programs to help seniors and youth and create interaction between all of our residents.
PETER YACOBELLIS: Strong leadership and clear communication hasn’t been as prevalent in this crisis as it could have been. I’d like to see us update our emergency alert and e-newsletter system (Swift911) to an opt-out vs. opt-in, ensuring that all residents receive vital information. I think we also need reinvigorated social channels to reach more residents.
We should be a model for how towns adapt to a changing climate and lower their carbon footprint. We need to invest in more bike/walk friendly infrastructure; replace fallen trees; incentivize the switch from single use plastics to eco alternatives; partner further with other jurisdictions on clean energy sourcing; and expand our plastic recycling collection beyond 1, 2 and 5.
Lastly, the Human Rights Campaign recently scored Montclair a 71 out of a possible 122 points on their municipal equality index. There’s a lot more we can do to extend protections and benefits to our most vulnerable – seniors, at-risk youth, transgender and people living with HIV/AIDS.