Why I’m excited for Essex County in 2021 (Town Square)
As we move forward under the leadership of our new president, Joe Biden, I feel a palpable sense of optimism with respect to the direction of our country. While leading a nation has challenges on a larger scale than leading a county, I feel the same sense of optimism for Essex County as our legislative body — the Essex County Board of Commissioners — transitions to the leadership of our newly sworn-in president, Wayne L. Richardson.
I am excited for the future of Essex County, and extremely humbled and honored to have contributed to the many outstanding accomplishments of the board during my time as president over the last three years.
First and foremost, the historical significance of changing our name from the “Board of Chosen Freeholders” to the “Board of County Commissioners” cannot be overstated. The term “freeholder” harkens to a time when only men who owned land “free” of debt were qualified to serve in the role. For all intents and purposes, this excluded every demographic of American, with the exception of white men, from serving as representatives of county government. That name will now be a part of history, as opposed to a present-day title of distinction. The elimination of this term was long overdue, and I am happy to be a part of the board as we move away from this term and put it behind us.
Without question, 2020 was a year that presented us with unprecedented challenges. We were confronted with the coronavirus pandemic, which we are still battling today — and we experienced a rekindled call from the American people to end systemic racism and make justice a reality for all people.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, there was an outpouring of emotion on a national scale that had not been seen in over 50 years. Our leaders in local government, members of law enforcement and the people of Essex County came together and showed a new determination to move forward together and put the legacy of racial division behind us. I was especially proud to witness our younger generation take to the streets and demand that all of us embrace the position that systemic racism and bigotry will not be tolerated.
This awakened call for justice was happening against the backdrop of the pandemic. Tragically, Essex County has been hit extremely hard and has tallied more COVID-19 positive cases and deaths than any other county in the state. In an effort to provide relief, federal and state agencies marshaled their resources to aid Americans in need – but it was local government at the county and municipal level that played the largest role in delivering said relief to the people.
Through the hard work of this board and our administration, led by county Executive Joe DiVincenzo, we were able to establish weekly food distribution events and easily accessible COVID-19 satellite testing sites for Essex County residents. Additionally, we established five COVID-19 vaccination sites, which are currently administering the vaccine to all eligible residents.
I am proud of the aforementioned initiatives of 2020, and equally proud of the board’s tangible accomplishments over the last three years.
Since 2018, this board has worked with the City of Newark and the state of New Jersey in an unprecedented partnership to finance the replacement of lead water lines in Newark; installed voting machines utilizing hand-marked paper ballots at all Essex County polling locations; allocated over $1.6 million of Essex County funds for the legal services of ICE detainees held in the Essex County Correctional Facility, and implemented a groundbreaking initiative by establishing the Essex County Correctional Facility Civilian Task Force. The task force is the first independent citizen oversight board of a county correctional facility in the entire country not mandated by court order.
These initiatives would not have happened without the hard work and dedication of the board and our county administration — along with groups such as SOMA Action, Faith in Essex and the residents of Essex County who advocated on behalf of their communities.
As we move forward into 2021, I will continue to passionately advocate for initiatives that improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve; promote the preservation of open space; educate us on the importance of environmental responsibility, and improve our quality of life.
I am confident Essex County will continue to keep the health and welfare of our citizens a top priority while delivering tangible results we can be proud of as county legislators and community leaders. We have every reason to be proud of our past, and optimistic for what our future holds.
Brendan W. Gill is a lifelong resident of Montclair and commissioner at-large on the Essex County Board of Commissioners. He is the father of a 12-year-old and 9-year-old and lives with his wife in Montclair.
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