Maplewoodian by Joe Strupp

Election Day Is Over. Now What?

Election Day 2017 has passed with some significant changes to both the school board and Maplewood Township Committee (TC), but perhaps not as big as some might have expected.

But where do both governing bodies go from here? Will we see a new mayor or a new school board president in 2018?

If the voting results are any indication, perhaps not.

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Both Mayor Vic DeLuca and Board President Elizabeth Baker took the most votes in their elections, with DeLuca continuing a trend that has had him garnering more votes each election since his return in 2008.

DeLuca, like the rest of the TC, faces re-election every three years. Under our form of government, however the mayor is chosen annually by the TC members.

The nine-year mayor, who took 3,136 votes when he ran for re-election in 2011, received 5,055 in 2014 and a whopping 6,384 on Tuesday. 

When DeLuca returned to politics in 2008 after a three-year absence, he received 8,328 votes. But that was the historic Barack Obama election year that saw a larger than usual turnout.

His votes this year remain impressive given it is an off-year election, although the governor’s race likely brought out more voters. DeLuca also topped his running mate, Democrat Dean Dafis, by exactly 400 votes.

Dafis also made history as the first openly gay candidate and now first to serve on the TC. He will take his seat on New Year’s Day, replacing India Larrier, who chose not to run.

One candidate who was likely not happy with the outcome was Republican Mike Summersgill, who received only 1,466 votes – a sharp drop from the 2,133 votes he took last year against Frank McGehee. And there were nearly 3,000 fewer votes cast last year, meaning his percentage went from nearly 20% to just over 10%.

Once the new TC is seated, who will they choose as mayor? 

DeLuca has been given the nod annually since 2009 and would likely win it if we had a directly-elected mayor. But there are whispers at Town Hall that the mayor may not have the three votes needed to keep the top spot for another year. 

He did not respond to an inquiry about whether he wants the mayoralship again or not.

One wonders if the system should be changed to allow a directly-elected mayor like many other towns, including South Orange.

While Maplewood’s mayor does not have the power of some towns and cities, it is a potent position. Aside from running the TC meetings, the mayor also has a seat on the Planning Board and other committees and appoints members to several boards. 

Either way, whoever is mayor – and on the TC – will have a lot to handle in 2018. Along with finding a new police chief and making sure the abuse that occurred in the past does not repeat itself, Maplewood faces the always present property tax hikes, especially after last year’s reassessment boosted the town’s take even more for many.

And just last week, popular Township Administrator Joseph Manning announced his pending retirement.

At the school board, meanwhile, Baker beat out eight opponents to take the top vote count with 5,696 votes, 20 percent of those cast. In second place was challenger Anthony Mazzocchi, who came back after a failed bid last year, to grab 5,408 votes, or more than 19 percent. 

Baker’s running mate, former board member Robin (no relation) Baker, took third with 4,911 votes.

While incumbent Maureen Jones, who ran with Elizabeth Baker three years ago, chose not to run, another incumbent, Donna Smith, is now leaving, coming in a somewhat distant fourth with 3,431 votes.

It is hard to say that Smith’s loss was due to an anti-incumbent wave since Elizabeth Baker did so well.

Also showing a respectable fifth place was Shannon Cuttle, who made history as the first non-binary (identifying as neither a man or a woman) candidate to run in the school board election. The veteran teacher and education consultant took in more than 3,000 votes, or some 11 percent.

The biggest loser in the race might be Walter Fields, president of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop, who managed the campaigns of recent Columbia High School graduates Avery Julien and Felisha George. 

George and Julien received high marks from many in the community for their willingness to run and give some recent student voice to the board. 

But when Fields distributed a harshly negative campaign flier that attacked incumbents Baker and Smith, and included several misleading or incomplete claims about them, many likely took it out on the candidates.

The flier also may have violated federal non-profit rules that bar groups like the SOMA Black Parents -- which has applied to be a 501 (c) 3 organization and works through an existing one -- from engaging in pro- or anti-candidate efforts.

With her second straight top vote win, Baker is certainly in line to serve as president for a third straight year. She has received both criticism and praise for her meeting management style, which sets a strict policy for public comment timing, discussions and decorum. 

But will she want the job again? A full-time attorney and mother of two, Baker -- along with the other members -- has had to endure plenty of late meetings that go past midnight. There are also plenty of other meetings and phone conferences on issues ranging from school safety to equity.

“In terms of the presidency, I think it would be premature to answer that question as we need to go through the board formation process,” Baker said via email when asked about her plans. “I can assure you, though, that I am very committed to driving the work forward.”

And 2018 will prove to be even more involved as the board searches for a new superintendent, a hunt that could take another two years, Baker has said.

The board also has a growing enrollment and space shortage problem, as well as continued battles over equity, racial issues and cost increases. The teachers’ union, meanwhile, still has no new contract after the last one ended in June.

So no matter who’s in charge, they won’t be bored.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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