Government

New Livingston Township Manager Barry Lewis, Jr. Looks Ahead, Reflects on Time in South Orange

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LIVINGSTON, NJ — Three months into his position as Livingston’s township manager, Barry Lewis, Jr., an attorney by trade with more than 20 years of municipal government experience, is sinking his teeth into providing top-notch customer service for Livingston residents and businesses by ensuring that all township departments are working hand-in-hand to do so.

Officially appointed to the position on March 1, Lewis had a challenging first month after Livingston was without a permanent manager for more than a year and a half. The task was made even more daunting with the added pressures of budget preparation and back-to-back winter storms that left more than half of the population without power—but Lewis said becoming acclimated with the township employees more quickly than expected worked to his advantage.

“To Russ [Jones’] credit, he did the best he could, but at that point he was trying to do two jobs—he had his own job as deputy and was still doing this,” said Lewis. “So jumping in, there was a lot of pressure to get the budget wrapped up, and then of course we got hit with all the snow storms and I didn’t really expect that. But at the same time, it was good because I really got a firsthand look at how our police, volunteer fire, rescue squad and public works departments respond to adversity. All across the board, they did a great job in responding to immediate emergencies and then cleanup in the aftermath, so that’s always encouraging.”

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Having only met the elected officials prior to his appointment, Lewis didn’t know what to expect from the department heads, but said his early exposure to them was extremely promising. In the month since completing the budget and putting storm cleanup behind him, Lewis said he is finally feeling like he can catch his breath, settle in and “get up to speed on each department, what they do right, what they do wrong, what their strengths are and how they can improve.”

“The level of citizen involvement has also been encouraging,” he said. “We have this resource of an incredibly talented, incredibly intelligent and diverse population of people with diverse expertise who are willing to volunteer their time and that’s priceless. I’ve seen that in many of the different committees—the passion and commitment that they bring to it—and that’s encouraging for the long haul because now you know you have that resource out there to draw upon if we want to look at a project.”

Born in Texas, Lewis’ family moved to Chicago when he was eight months old, and then to Florida for his high school years as well as college at Florida State University. Following his graduation from law school, Lewis practiced privately for about nine years in Florida.

“I was always interested in government, the law and kind of the combination of both,” he said. “I was student body president in high school and all that and then I was a political science major in undergrad, so that was the government end of it.”

Lewis married his wife, Liz, in 1986, and moved to New Jersey in 1995 when their middle of three children was diagnosed with autism in 1995.

“We were looking for the best opportunity for him and it wasn’t Florida, which has a lot of programs for seniors, but not much for kids,” said Lewis, whose wife has family in New Jersey and graduated from Randolph High School. “I continued to practice law here for about three years working with my brother-in-law, who has a big firm and did a lot of municipal work representing a lot of towns. In the beginning of ’98, the administrator of one of the towns we represented was gone rather suddenly, and we went in to help the mayor clean it all up. The mayor said I had a knack for this and asked if I was interested in becoming the administrator.”

At the time, when Lewis had three very young children including a son with autism, a Monday-through-Friday job was more appealing than a 78-hour week as an attorney, he said. He took the job not knowing if he would like it at the time, but found he had a passion for management and has been doing it ever since.

Lewis worked first in the Morris County township of Mine Hill before becoming the administrator in Spring Lake, where he had intended to relocate his family until the market crashed in 2007 and the 75-mile commute each way became unsustainable. His next position was in the small town of Mountain Lakes, where he stayed until the village administrator position became available in South Orange in 2012.

“I had a great six years in South Orange,” he said. “I love the town and I wasn’t really looking to go anywhere, but then Livingston approached me and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.”

Lewis said he initially took the job in South Orange because he had been looking to bring his expertise to a larger town. He added that an administrative position in a town like South Orange or Livingston is typically perceived as one of the most prestigious jobs—and once it’s filled, it might not be available again for many years.

When the search began in Livingston, Lewis did not apply in the first few rounds. But when the position opened up again, he knew he needed to take advantage.

Lewis noted that his experience in South Orange, a municipality significantly larger than his previous towns and one that has been very active with development and re-development projects, gave him the knowledge and experience to be successful in the similar township of Livingston.

“My first three stops were smaller towns, around the 5,000-people mark, which was good because you have to be very hands-on and it gave me exposure to all facets of government,” said Lewis. “When you don’t have as big of an organization, you don’t have all the department heads and you can’t delegate as much, which was good because it gave me a good working knowledge of public works and a whole host of other things. Stepping up in South Orange—a bigger town environment with a lot more people, a much bigger police department and paid fire—helped me transition to delegating and relying more on department heads because I had a stronger organization to take advantage of. Livingston is even bigger, so that will be helpful.”

He said the two Essex County municipalities have relatively similar demographics, are equally diverse and have highly educated professionals who live and work there. He also explained that higher taxes in both of these communities cause more citizens to become involved and volunteer on committees because they come to expect good services and customer service, which he said is a benefit to the entire town.

As the township manager for Livingston, Lewis said his overriding goal is to continue to deliver as good or better services with minimal tax increases, and he believes that the municipality accomplished that in its recently adopted municipal budget.

Additional priorities include developing a stronger relationship with the board of education, including exploring opportunities for shared services, and specific projects such as securing a new site for the public works department that is “functional and utilitarian” as well as tackling the challenge of the township’s two community pools.

“There are two pools, one built in the 50s and one built in the 60s, and not much has been done to either one of them since then,” said Lewis. “They’re both very important assets to the community that people want and care deeply about, but they’re very expensive. The committee is looking at options, but do you re-do both pools; do you fix the pools that are there; do you tear them down and build two ‘okay’ pools; or do you consolidate them and build one really killer aquatic complex? That’s going to be a challenge and then funding it obviously is another challenge.”

Although he is still in the process of assessing the functionality of each department, Lewis also said he always strives to improve customer service to all residents as well as businesses in order to make the township more appealing for both.

“I hope thus far the residents have found me and will continue to find me approachable,” said Lewis. “I’m very open-door and I’m all about finding solutions, so if we do something wrong I want to hear about it because that’s the only way we can correct things and improve. I want people to know that I insist upon excellent customer service and I try to lead by example to create a good, positive, upbeat atmosphere and good employee morale.”

Lewis also said he was immediately impressed with Livingston’s elected officials throughout the interview process and becomes more impressed every day by their “level of commitment” to the township and its residents.

“They study all of the issues and commit to solving them—but at the same time, they have fun,” he said. “They’re also very supportive. They’ve been supportive of me, they’re supportive of the employees and so far it’s been great.”

Outside of his duties as township manager, Lewis is a big sports fan and loves to do anything outdoors. As the summer quickly approaches, Lewis said he looks forward to golfing with colleagues and friends.

He also enjoys spending time with his wife and their three kids: Danielle, a 27-year-old graduate of Fordham who is currently working as the deputy clerk in Denville; Barry, 25, the third of his name; and Kristin, 23, who graduated in December from Kean University with a degree in mathematics and is currently contemplating either teaching or going back to school for a Master’s Degree.

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