MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair mayoral and council candidates for 2020 appeared on April 22 in a candidates’ forum – online, per COVID-19-based restrictions – that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Aging In Montclair (AIM), and the Montclair Local newspaper.
The 2½-hour event was more of question-and-answer session debate, with the candidates generally agreeing on the major issues presented by moderator Michelle Boborow: the expected tax shortfall from the COVID-19 crisis, the need for a senior citizens’ center, and the need to ensure 20 percent of units in new residential development projects for affordable housing, along with hyperlocal issues involving each of the wards.
All of the candidates from the Your Voice, Montclair (YVM) and the Montclair 2020 Progress in Action (M20PIA) slates took part, as did independent councilor-at-large candidate Carmel Loughman. David Cummings, the YVM candidate for Fourth Ward councilor, was restricted to only making a personal statement for his candidacy due to the fact that he is running unopposed. He is certain to replace incumbent Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, the YVM mayoral candidate, short of an upset from write-in votes for someone else. For his part, Cummings, a former Board of Education member, said he looks forward to serving the Fourth Ward and said he was honored and grateful to be running on Dr. Baskerville’s slate.
The five candidates for the two councilors-at-large, elected by all of the people of Montclair, went first. The two M20PIA candidates, Robert Russo and Roger Terry, cited their years of previous experience on the council, with incumbent Councilor Russo including his past terms as mayor and Terry noting his experience as a Montclair police officer. YVM candidates James Cotter and Peter Yacobellis used more emotional appeals, citing their appreciation for the beauty and diversity of Montclair, and Yacobellis in particular, showing gratitude for being welcomed as a gay man by the community. Cotter, a community organizer who has been involved with efforts to establish a supermarket in the former Lackawanna railway terminal building, said he was well in tune with the issues residents face, and he wanted to bring a sense of inclusion to the council.
“Many [Montclair residents] feel divested of their local government,” Cotter said, “and I think we should be able to leverage the expertise of all [of them]; their experience, their values, to solve the big problems that were going to face in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.”
On the subject of a senior center, both Russo and Terry said they had advocated one for years, with Terry saying it would have to be conceived sensibly and Russo vowing that it would happen, noting the resources that the outgoing Jackson council has provided for senior citizens. Cotter said it was a good idea that would nonetheless be challenging to realize due to the pandemic. Yacobellis said that the lack of a senior center in Montclair underscored the need to help older people in Montclair age in place. His own parents, he said, had to move to Delaware because Montclair and New Jersey in general had become so unaffordable. Loughman stated that seniors needed to have more outlets to socialize to improve their quality of life.
The at-large candidates generally agreed on redevelopment, with Russo saying that future development had to be compatible with Montclair’s urban fabric and encourage more walking and public transit with less car use even as more parking decks are being added. Terry reminded viewers that Montclair was in the center of a major redevelopment area centered around Essex County and that the key to further redevelopment was be smart about what to build and where to build while staying true to the 20 percent affordable-housing standard. Cotter said that developers ought to be held accountable to satisfy the needs of residents. Yacobellis replied that the township has to be able to digest already approved developments slowing coming online while “flattening the curve” of development, borrowing a phrase used in dealing with COVID-19, which ironically dovetailed with the indefinite statewide ban on non-essential construction. Loughman said that too many development s have gotten tax reprieves, with none of percent of Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreements giving money to schools, and she noted her opposition to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment project on the Planning Board for the traffic it would cause.
On taxes and spending, Yacobellis said that cuts should be expected as the pandemic destabilizes the economy, and Cotter said it was “crucial” to manage the budget and not burden residents with tax hikes; Loughman said it was necessary to determine why county taxes were so high and look into the “black hole” of where the money was going and what it was going to. Terry advocated for more federal and state aid, while Russo was confident that the townships AAA bond rating would help stabilize things; he also brought up shared services with other towns as a way to save money.
Councilors Baskerville and Sean Spiller lead the respective YVM and M20PIA slates as candidates to be the twelfth mayor of Montclair since the 1980 establishment of the council-manager system, which limits the mayor’s powers to appointing school board and library board members, serving as a liaison on other boards, and running council meetings, with the township manager handling the bulk of executive duties. Councilor Spiller, for the record, has been steadfastly opposed to going to a mayor-council system that would make the mayor a full-fledged executive.
Both mayoral candidates strongly came out for more affordable housing, with Councilor Spiller saying that it is necessary to preserve the diversity of Montclair, citing the township’s push to meet its affordable-housing obligation by giving top priority to Montclair residents and municipal employees for affordable units. Dr. Baskerville noted her earlier efforts at rent stabilization that served as a forerunner to the rent-control ordinance, which she and Councilor Spiller were both instrumental in passing, which both played to their respective advantages. On development, Councilor Spiller thought there was a “real opportunity” to center future projects on transit stops and preserve Montclair’s small-town feel. Dr. Baskerville said that although she was proud of some of the projects that have been built in recent years she was against future construction of tall buildings like the MC Hotel that would make Montclair feel more like a city and obstruct people’s views. Both advocated saving lives and preserving and investing in what Dr. Baskerville called “human capital”, the work and contributions of residents – Dr. Baskerville added that the 30 percent reduction in debt under Mayor Robert Jackson should help. They agreed on the need for a senior center, with Dr. Baskerville unable to promise to get one built but seeing opportunities to further senior programs at the Edgemont Park field house, the Social Services building on South Fullerton Avenue, and the Wally Choice center. Councilor Spiller opined that a public-private partnership would likely be needed to get a senior center built.
They both had to answer questions of conflicts of interest with positions in schools. Dr. Baskerville said that her employment with the East Orange school district was restricted to giving physicals to children, and Councilor Spiller said that he was “committed” to appointing independent Board of Education members with a “general shared vision” to move the school district forward, sidestepping his history as secretary-treasurer of the state teachers’ union.
First Ward Councilor
Incumbent First Ward Councilor William Hurlock (M20PIA) and challenger John Hearn made the cases for their respective candidacies, with Councilor Hurlock citing his eight years on the council and his involvement with the Yancataw Park Conservancy and efforts to keep after the Bonsal Preserve, while Hearn said he brought fresh ideas and fresh voice to the discourse. They both agreed that the pandemic was the biggest issue facing their Upper Montclair-dominated ward, and Councilor Hurlock said the Health Department should get as much personal protection equipment (PPE) as it needs to fight COVID-19. Hearn said that not enough has been done, advocating for more state and federal money to be found.
On the senior center, Councilor Hurlock said that he has been working hard with the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee to get it established and looking at it with the Council Finance Committee to look for an appropriate space. “There has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work that has been done.” he said. Hearn focused more on making the town more affordable for seniors, saying that a senior center could be “a very valuable thing worth pursuing.” Both candidates favored the 20 percent affordable housing standard, and Councilor Hurlock said the he supported the rent control ordinance. Hearn said that deliberate moves to protect diversity should come in the form of tax credits in the middle of the pandemic to give renters a break from landlords. He said that rent control allows people to stay in place 20 percent longer but diminished the number of available units by a similar percentage.
On taxes and spending, Hearn replied that the township manager needed to talk to his department heads to look at how possible cuts would look and bring the results to the residents for their evaluation. Councilor Hurlock cited his experience with the Council Finance Committee in keeping costs down. On the capital side, he said the council brought a $223 million deficit down to $160 million, saving $1.5 million every year in debt service and allow more spending on capital projects.
Second Ward Councilor
Robin Schlager, the incumbent Second Ward Councilor running for re-election on the M20PIA slate, is being challenged by YVM candidate Christina Thomas, a lifelong township resident and a member of the Edgemont School PTA. Councilor Schlager, a three-term member of the council, pointed to her work in improvements to Edgemont Park and her efforts in pedestrian safety; she added that the Second Ward still needs dramatic improvements for the Watchung Avenue/Park Street intersection at Watchung Plaza to make it safer for foot traffic. She has endorsed an engineering study for this intersection. Thomas said that taxes and education were the ward’s biggest issues, and she called for greater improvement of the schools. On the senor center issue, Councilor Schlager suggested getting help from the county in building one, as Cedar Grove had recently done f or its own senior center. Thomas called the lack of a center shameful.
Both candidates enthusiastically endorsed maintaining the 20-percent standard for affordable housing in new projects, with Thomas speaking as a landlady and voicing her support for rent control. Councilor Schlager said that the resources of HOMECorp should be used more to provide more affordable units. Expecting a COVID-19-related tax shortfall, Councilor Schlager called for a municipal task force to manage the contraction of revenue and played up the need for a grant writer to help get more revenue. Thomas said that Montclair should see what can be done to ensure tax payments and also called for cuts in administration salaries and greater support for local businesses.
Third Ward Councilor
The Third Ward Council seat is the only contested ward seat without an incumbent running. Both candidates are women: Maggie Joralemon of the YVM slate and Lori Price Abrams of the M20PIA slate. The two women focused on the state of Bloomfield Avenue, which anchors the ward. Price Abrams, having had experience on nonprofit boards, said she would take the opportunity to work with federal state and county officials to bring more aid for the downtown areas. Joralemon, meanwhile, focused on what overdevelopment has wrought on the ward, especially the Western Gateway redevelopment area, which she says still needs improvements, such as a bus shelter for the Valley Road/Bloomfield Avenue intersection and improved crosswalks. She also called for greater enforcement of the speed limit on Bloomfield Avenue.
On the senior center, Joralemon noted the many places for senior activities and said there should be a combined senior/youth center, while Price Abrams said she would set priorities with senior groups for a center and focus more on providing affordable housing for older people and making zoning changes to accommodate such options. Both supported rent control, with Joralemon chastening developers who managed to escape the 20-percent affordable housing standard. She also opined that the township relies too much on the same developers for new projects. Joralemon hoped that Montclair can appeal to the federal, state and county governments for financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis and that she was willing to “suck up” a local tax increase. Price Abrams said that the crisis could provide an opportunity to create an economically sustainable, less wasteful living pattern, with investments in more recycling, renewable energy through aggregation programs, and electric vehicles for the municipal fleet.
The forum concluded with the mayoral candidates making pleas for their own candidacies and respective slates. Dr. Baskerville said there was much work done to preserve the character and the quality of life in Montclair, saying “We can be the place where we want to live,” while Councilor Spiller emphasized the importance of leadership. “We are getting through this together,” he said. “We are community of unlimited potential. I want to be the person to bring us together and lead us into this time and into a brighter tomorrow.”