Government

Communications, Safety, Downtown’s Future Dominate Millburn Township Committee Forum

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Stephen Thomas and Robert Tillotson discuss the issues at the Short Hills Association forum. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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Cheryl Burstein and Matthew Lipp reply to a question. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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MILLBURN, NJ—The Short Hills Association hosted a forum on Wednesday featuring the four candidates seeking election this coming Tuesday for the two seats on the Millburn Township Committee.

The candidates are: Incumbent and current mayor Robert Tillotson and Matthew Lipp, a medical doctor specializing in pain management, both Republicans, and Democrats Cheryl Burstein, an attorney and zoning board member, and Stephen Thomas, a long-time writer and reporter.

A 20-year township resident, Tillotson said he became involved in township government seven years ago, He cited his fiscal responsibility and advocacy of covering many costs of township services by user fees rather than raising taxes. As an example, he pointed to the recently-opened township parking garage.

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The candidate said the township committee, under his watch, last year raised taxes 2 percent only to cover the cost of necessary capital projects.

Among other achievements he pointed to narrowing of intersections and re-striping of streets near South Mountain School for safety, advocacy of the Complete Streets Program and installation of 40 security cameras around the business districts—partially in reaction to the carjacking and murder of a motorist in the parking lot of the Mall at Short Hills.

Lipp, a Millburn-Short Hills resident for more than 10 years, noted he has lived in the township’s Glenwood, South Mountain and Deerfield sections, at one time serving as a block captain in South Mountain.

He became involved with township government while advocating for flood control measures in his neighborhood after Hurricane Irene three years ago. He emphasized his ability, as a pain management specialist, to analyze patient needs and communicate with people so he can work toward solving their problems.

Burstein, a 27-year township resident, cited her experience as a board of adjustment member for the last seven years, chairing the hearings on the Stop & Shop supermarket proposed for the former Saks location on Millburn Avenue, and as a member of the executive committees of her law firm and her temple and a member of the board of trustees of her temple.

She said this year’s election, for her, centers around who will protect the township’s assets and its residents.

Thomas, who has resided in the township 21 years, has coached a number of sports in which his two sons have been involved and he became active in the township while serving as a member of the parking taskforce in 1994. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the governing body in 2011.

The candidate said that one of his major reasons for running this year is that many of the issues that the township faced in 1994 and again in 2011 still have not been resolved.

When asked about how they would deal with empty storefronts in the township’s three business districts and plan for the future development of the downtown, all the candidates said the districts have to become more business and user-friendly.

Lipp said he moved to Millburn from Long Island partially because of its excellent location and partially because of its small-town feel.

Because of this, he said, the township does not need malls, but should attract more small businesses,

He also advocated more traffic-calming devices such as a center island on Millburn Avenue, and increasing the opening of Taylor Park to the Millburn Avenue area and more access through the Courtyard to the riverfront.

Thomas said not enough has been done to make the business districts more pedestrian and traffic friendly and speeds need to be decreased and speed limits more strictly enforced on Millburn Avenue.

The candidate also said the Downtown Millburn Development Alliance does not get a good reception when it advocates programs to the township committee.

Tillotson, on the other hand, said the governing body works with the DMDA, but sometimes finds itself at odds with suggestions from the DMDA. For example, when he advocated traffic-calming ideas for a farmer’s market on Saturdays and closing Main Street in conjunction with that idea, the DMDA opposed it because they said it would decrease availability of parking.

Burstein said the township should work more closely with county and state officials to obtain grants to help with business district improvements.

She said motorists need to be stopped from travelling at unacceptably high speeds on Millburn Avenue and perhaps again allowing two-way traffic along the area of Millburn Avenue currently routed only one-way should be considered.

More events, such as Girls Night Out, which encourage people to come into downtown, need to be scheduled, the candidate said.

All four candidates agreed, although Millburn-Short Hills is a safe area, more needs to be done both to better protect residents and promote, for example, more holiday shopping.

Thomas said the township committee has not done enough since the mall carjacking. While it is difficult for a public body to do in a short time, he said an increase in police presence would help. He added that the governing body should do a better job of communicating information on items such as safety to the public, citing the fact that the township website has not been updated in about 18 months.

The mayor, noting that the 40 security cameras have been installed in the nine months since the murder at the mall, said more needs to be done on public safety. Although the cameras do not stop crime, Tillotson said, they discourage potential criminals who know their movements are being watched.

He also cited a number of statistics saying that Millburn-Short Hills has far fewer incidents of crime than many neighboring communities.

Millburn residents do not want to be known as coming from a community known for its carjackings and home break-ins, Burstein said.

She said police should be deployed in the most effective ways in the areas where they are needed the most, and repeated that county and state grants can help in funding enforcement efforts.

Lipp thanked police chief Gregory Weber and fire chief J. Michael Roberts for their efforts in keeping residents safe. He also said the township was best equipped to fight crime and pointed to the security cameras as aiding in that effort.

The candidate added, however, that safety could be increased by a more visible presence of police patrols and institution of more block captain programs that would enable residents to work with police in protecting their neighborhoods.

All residents, he noted, need to be better educated on their responsibilities concerning safety.

On another topic, the candidates were asked what made them, or would make them, a productive member of the township committee,

Tillotson, although a relative veteran on the governing body, said he was learning more every day. Other governing body members were very helpful with major decisions, he pointed out.

He also said he frequently seeks out advice from business administrator Timothy Gordon and chief financial officer Jason Gabloff.

Burstein cited her experience as a seven-year zoning board member, which, she said, helped her get a handle on many major township issues, although she conceded there would be a “learning curve” when first joining the governing body.

As an attorney, she said she is very familiar with the litigation process, adding that this would be helpful because the township is involved in many areas of litigation and there currently are no attorneys on the governing body.

Also, as a member of the executive committees of her law firm and temple, the Democrat said she has demonstrated her ability to listen and compromise.

Lipp noted that, when he was training to be a physician he was taught to “see one, do one and teach one” and he would apply this model to his work on the township committee.

He said he already has immersed himself in many issues in the township, attending every governing body meeting in the last few months. He also said he often meets with Gordon on issues which concern him and, as a member of the planning board, he has learned much about township governance.

The GOP candidate said, as a doctor he has demonstrated the same skills which he will bring to the township committee—being a good listener and being caring and compassionate.

Thomas, as a former reporter, noted he learned to listen carefully, investigate and make sound decisions, while understanding what people want and possessing excellent communications skills.

All the candidates agreed the township could do a better job of communicating with residents.

Burstein said the township needed to keep the website updated. She also advocated use of a reverse 911 telephone system to notify residents of important matters and not just be limited to emergencies.

She also said the governing body members should meet with township residents outside of their regular business meetings.

In addition, she called for televising of meetings by Hometowne TV and the use of Facebook by the township.

The first thing he would do, according to Lipp, is educate residents better on township affairs. Many he met during his campaign, he said, did not know the difference between the township committee and the board of education.

He would create a pamphlet outlining all township services, showing residents where to get help and how to volunteer on township boards. He also said he would push for more use of Instagram and Code Red.

The candidate added he was for openness and inclusion and would call for open township committee meetings where residents could express their concerns.

Thomas said a township Twitter account would be helpful, for example, in keeping residents updated on progress on reopening the Hobart Avenue bridge connecting Summit and Millburn after it was closed due to damage from an accident.

He added that the township committee should increase oversight over such agencies as the police, noting that an elderly woman told him she  called for help for her handicapped husband and did not get a return call from police.

Tillotson said the township got on the social media bandwagon later than it should have. He added that residents should be made aware when Twitter and Instagram messages from the township will be available to them—by postcard if necessary.

During questioning by the audience, resident and township volunteer David Harrison said Gordon often acts with impugnity, especially regarding township employees, and he wanted to know what the candidates, as members of the governing body, would do about it.

Lipp said he had worked with Gordon on a number of occasions, especially on South Mountain concerns, and found him to be open and honest. He added, however, that as a governing body member, he would practice transparency and would report back to residents frequently.

Although Thomas said his dealings with Gordon always had been pleasant and respectful, he added he had heard about the complaints expressed by Harrison. He said perhaps the solution lies in having new voices on the governing body.

Tillotson denied the administrator acted with impugnity. He noted Gordon reported to the township committee and township employees reported to him. He also said his relations with Gordon had been open and pleasant and the administrator was very helpful in steering him to the right people in the township to consult with any of his concerns.

Burstein agreed with Thomas that perhaps new voices on the governing body would help the situation.

Asked by resident Tom Hillman about how they would deal with specific projects and implement improvements, Thomas said the narrowing of Millburn Avenue was not as hard as reported, noting the fact that West Orange did it with its section of South Orange Avenue and New York City successfully implemented pedestrian malls near Times Square.

He said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. told him it could easily be done, as could re-timing of a traffic light on Essex Street.

Tillotson noted his support for better parking in the Millburn Avenue area. He also said he would push for opening Taylor Park more to the business district. However, he said, bump outs would not work on Millburn Avenue.

Burstein called for more enforcement of Millburn Avenue speed limits, and possibly hiring consultants to help lay out township street grids more efficiently.

Lipp, also supporting traffic calming in the business districts, called for more marketing of the district and “polishing up” the downtown and its image.

When asked by resident Lucinda Mercer about their relationship with the county executive, the candidates said they found him very helpful.

Tillotson—I have met and talked with him at many ribbon cuttings. He helped with our concerns about South Mountain flooding. However, we send a great deal of money to the county and would like to see more come back.

Burstein—Believe the executive wants to have good relations with everyone, but perhaps our relations with the county would improve more if we had Democrats on the township committee.

Lipp—There should be no partisanship on the local level. That is what is wrong with Washington. However, Millburn-Short Hills residents send 25 percent of their taxes to the county. This should give us a greater voice.

Thomas-Agree partisanship has little place at the local level, but I agree with my running mate that having Democrats on the township committee could improve relations with the county.

On another matter, all of the candidates agreed the township could get help on improving its website by either using the talents of the assistant business administrator, other township employees or even volunteer high school or college interns.

 

 

 

 

 

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