NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The two Republican Candidates, incumbent Dr. Robert Robinson and Nadine Geoffroy, faced off with the two Democratic Candidates, Jamie Baer Peterson and Keith Doll, at the debate facilitated by the League of Women Voters on Wednesday, Oct. 18. The well attended debate was moderated by Diane Gallo of the Summit League of Women Voters.
The Nov. 7 election marks the first time for many years that New Providence has a contested race for the two available council seats. All candidates reflected upon their conversations with residents as they went from door to door listening residents’ concerns, suggestions and desires for the future.
In his opening remarks Robinson, who has served on the Borough Council for 10 years, emphasized the positive development that has taken place in the borough in recent years. “Buildings are going up, businesses are coming in,” he said. The borough has a AAA bond rating, has been named the 8th best place to live in New Jersey, and is one of the safest places to live in the nation. He also touted the outstanding recreation programs that the town has to offer and its envied summer enrichment program. New Providence is “a very special place to live” and it would be even better if we all worked together, he said.
Doll said that he and his wife were attracted to New Providence because of its “small town feel”, safety and a good school system. Doll, a new father who works as an oncology nurse, said that he is dedicated to serve others. In his work and personal life he demonstrates commitment, clear and concise communications skills and leadership in a team environment, he said. Elected officials have to be held accountable for issues that affect all families in New Providence, he stated.
Peterson said that she shares the same vision for New Providence as Doll, including a transparent local government. Peterson, who is a former opera singer and a current small business owner, moved to New Providence 20 years ago. She has been a volunteer in the public schools that her three children have attended. She served on the Music Booster Club for 10 years. Currently she serves on Sustainability Committee as well as the on boards of the Fiends of New Providence Library and Light Opera of New Jersey. “Service is in my DNA.” “I have the skills to lead, motivate, communicate and organize,” she said.
Geoffroy, a New Providence resident since 1997, has a degree in accounting and finance. She worked in the investment banking for 15 years. Geoffroy has three children all of which attend New Providence public schools. Geoffrey has volunteered in PTA’s, as sports team manager and a scout leader. She was appointed to the Planning Board in 2010 and participated in formulating the borough’s Master Plan. “I want to give back to the community that has given us so much,” she said. She said she is a hardworking team leader and a mother and she would like to continue the successful development of the borough and its services.
As to the question of how to make New Providence a greener community Geoffroy explained that the borough “has a great history” in energy saving efforts, such as energy efficient and motion detection lights. Safe routes to schools also promote green living. Robinson explained that he has been the Chairman of the Sustainability Committee and mentioned the Community Garden as a green initiative. Generators and LED lights are other means of reducing energy use.
“It is an important question,” Doll said and advocated energizing young people to participate in the environmental issues on the path to a greener future. He also suggested moving towards “walkability” and encouraging non-vehicle use. Peterson would like to bring the Earth Day celebration to town. Scout groups have cleaned up green spaces on Earth Day and this could be extended to the entire town, she said. She also suggested that more recycling bins be placed in town and train stations.
All candidates were in favor of a dog park.
The candidates exchanged their views on how to slow down property tax increases. Robinson explained that the best means to reduce tax increases are by generating more income to the borough, utilizing shared services agreements and applying for grants. The joint dispatch center between New Providence, Summit and Millburn could house two other municipalities. Doll agreed with Robinson but said that “we need to reach out to the county and see what services we are paying for but not receiving.” He also suggested a senior property tax freeze program to help senior citizens afford to stay in their homes.
Peterson noted that during the 20 years that she has lived in the borough property taxes have risen by 40 percent. “Let’s cut some wasteful expenses,” she said. As an example she said that the borough spent $150,000 on tennis courts a few years back and now the borough is planning to spend another $40,000 to fix the cracks on them. Robinson replied that it would cost up to $2 million to completely renovate the tennis courts. Patching them up will make them last longer, he said. Geoffroy noted that most residents understand that the borough’s portion of the total tax bill is only 21 percent, while 57 percent go to schools and 22 percent to the county. Most borough spending is due to fixed cost items. She was also in favor of applying for grants whenever possible.
The candidates were also asked about the road work as well as about downtown traffic and parking issues. “It is good to see our money spent on infrastructure,” Doll said but added that the work schedule should be made public and that there should be more transparency and better communications so that the residents know what to expect. Peterson agreed. She noted that she would rather get a phone call from the borough notifying residents when a major road is closed.
Geoffroy noted that roadwork is scheduled on a yearly basis. However, this past summer utility companies had to get their pipe work done. She added that the work schedule was on the borough’s website. “I am proud what we went through this summer – the summer of hell,” Robinson said referring to the gas and water line upgrades and road paving. Now our roads are good and infrastructure better, he said.
Robinson explained that pedestrian safety is on the top of the downtown Master Plan goals. The borough has recently added 100 parking spots in the downtown area. Doll said the downtown parking lots are “disjointed” and that the downtown should be more walkable. When it comes to downtown traffic “we can use a dosage of kindness and patience,” Peterson said. She advocated better planning in order to solve the parking issues. Geoffroy pointed out that the borough has seen 40 new businesses come to town during the past five years. The borough is trying to come up with a solution for parking. She asked residents to let borough officials know what doesn’t work so that those problems can be addressed.
All candidates agreed that the affordable housing mandate is troubling and “unfair” to New Providence. “We got a bad deal,” Peterson said. The issue needs to get out of the courts. The council and Board of Education should work hand in hand to address the issues, she said. Geoffroy noted that affordable housing is not a new issue. The borough’s new mandate is 316 affordable housing units and the potential population growth of up to 2000 – should be an issue for the legislature, not courts. However, Geoffrey said that based on the mandate the borough’s proposed zoning is “sound”.
Robinson said that the affordable housing mandate “was thrust upon us.” He agreed that the borough’s plan for housing projects is sensible and the area is accessible to mass transit, shopping and schools. He noted that without the borough’s zoning changes high density housing could end up in any of the borough’s neighborhoods.
Doll said that he agrees with all the other candidates on affordable housing issues, but added that the borough should continuously pressure its state legislative representatives to ensure that affordable housing will be taken out of the courts. “We should actively fight it,” he said.
Next, the candidates were asked how they plan to attract more volunteers. Doll explained that he is a representative of the next generation and that he hopes that his example of seeking a council seat will encourage other young New Providence residents to get involved in their community. Peterson said that she has been active in many community organizations. The reason why she became a volunteer in those entities was that she was asked to. It doesn’t have to be the same ten people that do everything, she said.
“Residents are our top assets,” Geoffroy said. She noted that many young people are involved in volunteering, for example various PTAs offer younger parents an opportunity to volunteer as does the youth group of the Community Service Association. “New Providence is built on volunteerism,” Robinson said. He pointed out that the borough saves $2-3 million annually because of the volunteer fire department and emergency medical services.
Geoffroy, Robinson and Doll named the affordable housing mandate as the most important question affecting the borough. Peterson said that NJ Transit is the most important issue to New Providence. “If the Gladstone line fails, property values will go down,” she said and noted that an operational rail system is a key to our property values.
During closing statements Geoffroy said that campaigning has been a great opportunity to meet residents, those who have lived here a long time as well as those who have just recently moved here. “I want to make a difference” and “I want to give back” to the town which has given so much to me and my family.
“I have the experience, energy and vision to serve you,” Peterson said. She said that she has “no tolerance for fiscal waste” and that as a councilwoman she would provide the residents with transparency, accountability and improved communications. She encouraged residents to give their vote to her and Doll thus bringing new voices to the council.
I am a husband, a father, a nurse and a grassroots organizer, Doll said. “Because of those roles and responsibilities I decided to step up when a call came to serve our community”. If elected I will set “a new standard for accessibility and accountability in town.” His candidacy stands “for empowering voices in the community and inspiring a new generation of leadership,” he said.
Councilman Robertson reflected upon the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, when many residents were unable to stay in their homes. The municipal center provided shelter for residents who were displaced. The municipal center was supervised 24 hours a day. “I was there every day from 10 pm to 2 am,” he said. It doesn’t matter what party you represent, what matters is the provision of a safe place. “I will be there when you need it.”