East Brunswick Interview: Mayor David Stahl

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David Stahl at home in East Brunswick Credits: TAP into East Brunswick
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EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ – David Stahl is ready to go back to school. Next week, he starts “Judge School” under the mentorship of the Honorable Edward H. Herman. “There’s always something new. When you think you have learned everything, you’re through, “ Stahl says. Stahl recently resigned as Mayor of East Brunswick and is moving forward to become a municipal court judge in Woodbridge. I will be “a non-political person,” says Stahl, 60. In an exclusive interview with TAP Into East Brunswick, Stahl reflected on his years of service as a coach, councilman, and mayor here in the home of the Bears. Though his father is originally from Philadelphia, Stahl was born in Seattle and later moved to Miami Beach before coming to East Brunswick 35 years ago. He is the first person in his family to complete a post-graduate degree – law school at George Washington University in DC – and he credits his middle-class roots with making him a realistic public servant. His strongest influence was that provided by his father who was a manufacturer’s representative for a women’s clothing line. He acknowledges his father as a “guiding force” and an active reader who took many opportunities to express his opinions and ideas. His father’s business experience – a salesman for a dress line that went out of style as women in the 60’s and 70’s became wearers of pants – taught him to be adaptable, creative, and contemporary as both a businessman and a politician. Long involved in sports groups in East Brunswick as a coach and parent and an active member of his synagogue, Stahl saw his entrance into politics as a “way to enlarge the circle of people I could help.” He was elected to the East Brunswick Township Council in 2002, serving for six years. He was later elected mayor in 2008, a role in which he has served until his resignation. Stahl’s greatest challenge was responding to the economic collapse in 2008 that had a huge negative impact on municipal and school budgets. He knows that, as an elected official who aspires to make decisions that best serve the broader community “the worst word to use is ‘No.’ Saying ‘Yes’ all the time isn’t doing anyone a favor, though.” Stahl, however, laments that people have “short memories” sometimes and have not seen the differences in the economy over the past 10 years. Restructuring a municipal budget of $64 million, reducing it to $56 million, and working to keep tax rates flat was the primary goal of the council during Stahl’s tenure. He worked with other members of the council to reduce or stabilize spending and taxation while still providing the high level of services expected by East Brunswick families. “I think that people have a better sense of how to spend their discretionary funds than the government does,” says Stahl. Stahl considers the restructuring of the municipal government one of his greatest accomplishments as mayor. He worked with the council and township staff to combine the water and sewer utilities into one entity, avoiding duplication of effort and expense, and allowing the township to make more efficient use of its own resources. “We have incredible leaders within our municipal departments including Public Safety, Public Works, Recreation, etc. who actually care about the people in town. The Governor tries to make scapegoats of teachers and other public employees, but they (EB municipal leaders and employees) care about their jobs and the people they serve. There is a real team spirit in East Brunswick shared by employees and residents,“ says Stahl. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by East Brunswick in the past few years has been the impact of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The storm devastated local infrastructure, left debris everywhere, caused destructive flooding that forced some residents from their homes and school closures, as well as stopping for a time the delivery of services to homebound senior citizens. Says Stahl, “People’s lives were at risk. When people have a problem, that’s the most important thing to them. You need to help them. However, some people don’t realize that the government can’t solve all of your problems.” Stahl was especially proud of the commitment of the East Brunswick municipal workers during this crisis: “ Every employee came to work every day for more than two weeks. Leadership would be out there with the employees, working both to provide moral support and to call in additional resources when needed.” Sandy showed “all that is right about municipal government. There were concerns for the elderly, so the Police Department and the Department of Aging worked together to check on people. We sent an officer and knocked on every door. It was a great example of people pulling together.” Stahl continued to acknowledge the importance of the commitment of township employees and first responders during Sandy, while also crediting citizens’ groups like the Boy Scouts, and the congregations of Trinity Lutheran Church and St. Mary’s Coptic Church for their service at a time when it was most needed. “The Board of Education opened their schools and sent their buses to help,” says Stahl. Longer-term concerns for the township include the ongoing redevelopment of the Route 18 corridor through the township. The Golden Triangle – the area that includes Wal-Mart, the Transportation Center, and new housing between Route 18 North and the Old Bridge Turnpike – was “developed at great expense,” says Stahl. “It is a misconception and a disservice to the community” to view the new luxury apartments as “Section 8” or low-income housing. “Affordable housing in Middlesex County in general is hard to come by. Residency is full. East Brunswick has been a leader in diversity, offering different opportunities for people to live here.” Stahl continues, “Our student population is the lowest it has been in years. We live in a ‘collective society’ now. Young people and older people need to work together to create a supportive community.” Stressing the importance of inter-connections between people and how those inter-connections weave together a cohesive fabric of identity within the township, Stahl credited schools Superintendent Victor Valeski for his efforts toward unifying residents. “The Board of Education has done a great job over the years. They have also had to go through tough (economic) times. Dr. Valeski has rebuilt trust between the Board of Education and the Township. He has done a tremendous job. His approach has been the right one,” says Stahl, referencing some concerns about housing, population growth, and their impact on the public schools. “Everybody has the right to live somewhere,” says Stahl. The Mayor also discussed the need for 1-, 3-, and 5-year plans for growth along the Route 18 corridor, which he describes as “an incredibly difficult situation.” “Each property has a story behind it, “ according to Stahl, noting that the redevelopment of the area is not a one-size-fits-all deal. “There is a shift in retail generally away from brick-and-mortar stores to the internet. Retail is changing. Amazon does more business than Wal-Mart. The whole business model is evolving.” Stahl asserts that ”Mid-State Mall is in good shape. Stores are always rented out. When an owner cares about the property, it’s obvious. The goal of redevelopment should be to incentivize owners to sell or redevelop their properties. It is a long-time process.” When discussing the bi-partisan nature of municipal politics, Stahl points to the “spilt councils” that have long been part of East Brunswick political life. Since he has been involved in government, “there have always been Democrats and Republicans serving on the municipal level. Bi-partisanship exists in the last 3 or 4 elections.” According to Stahl, a Republican, people tend to vote for the individual who is running, rather than the party to which that person belongs. That paradigm changes, he asserts, when social issues become part of party politics at the state and national levels. Whomever succeeds him as mayor, Stahl feels that it is important to remember that East Brunswick is a “town of neighborhoods,” each with varying concerns. He states that it is “absolutely necessary” for the next mayor to continue the projected redevelopment. “Ideally,” says Stahl, “ Millenials want to live and work in the same environment.” That is, they want to live near where they work, and planning requires both business and residential development that serve each other. “Planning needs to evolve and involve the least informed and the most professional planners.” Mayor Stahl also hopes that a new mayor would continue the strengthening of the relationship between the township and the schools that has been fostered by Superintendent Valeski and his administration. Though he considers himself a “sports guy,” Stahl celebrates the success of the art and music programs in the East Brunswick Schools and notes that they “distinguish” the district for excellence. As his tenure as mayor wound down, Stahl recalls reflecting on what made the job fulfilling and worthwhile for him. “I am proud of the continued renovations in our parks. This has always been a group effort. The Parks and Recreation programs have been outstanding.” He is also pleased with the improvement of the water and sewer lines in town, both heavily impacted by Sandy and Hurricane Irene. “The financial situation is much better in 2016. As the Golden Triangle becomes occupied, there will be a growth in revenue when it ‘kicks in.’” Stahl is satisfied to have restored programs, supported the police, and augmented the Department of Public Works. So, now it’s time for David Stahl to learn how to do something new. His father taught him how to adapt to change. His experience in municipal government has likely improved his judgment. Is he content with the work he has done in East Brunswick? Says Stahl, “The portrait is still unfinished, but I am happy with the picture.”

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