MAPLEWOOD, NJ — At the Township of Maplewood’s reorganization meeting today at noon, Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee will be sworn into his second term on the committee and first term as mayor. After a total of 14 years as mayor, Vic DeLuca will step down from that office and remain on the township committee.
Serving on the Township Committee has been McGehee’s first publicly elected position, although he has served on the economic development commission in his former town of Newton, Mass., and on the alumni board of Notre Dame University, where he got his bachelor’s degree. He received an MBA from University of Wisconsin.
His upbringing steeped him in the importance of serving one’s community. His dad was a schoolteacher and worked for the Department of Human Services in Chicago; his mom was an assistant college professor. His brother is a Chicago police officer and there are many public school teachers in his family as well.
McGehee grew up on the south side of Chicago, in the Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s not only the home of the University of Chicago, but the home of Barack and Michelle Obama as well. “It was truly diverse,” he said. He said he valued growing up alongside children of many races, cultures, and religions.
When he and his wife moved to Maplewood in 2013, he got active right away. “I always say, don’t just say something, do something. See what you can do to make a difference.” He started volunteering in the parent group at Tuscan school where his daughter was a student, and with the library foundation.
For his term as mayor, he would like to see work continue on improving infrastructure. Improving pedestrian safety and roads — on the surface and underneath the pavement — adding bike lanes, and creating improvements in the Hilton neighborhood are all goals. “The town is growing and we have to be equipped,” he said.
Also being looked at is the continued effort toward gaining a traffic light at the intersection of Pierson Road and Valley Road. “We’ve been pushing for almost three years now. We want that stop light. It’s important” because it’s along a high-pedestrian route commuters use to get to the train and children use to get to school. “It’s a county road, so we don’t have total control over that,” he acknowledged.
Being on the township committee “has been a great experience… It may be the capstone of service in our community. For all intents and purposes, it’s a full time job.” He also maintains an actual full time job, as a consultant in the field of CRM marketing. “The balance is tough,” he maintains, but among his fellow committee members, “I think it’s a dedication that we have that makes us go. It is very taxing,” he admits. Late nights and early mornings accumulate, he said. “At the end of the day, we are really like a board of directors. We help set policy and oversee the town, provide direction and instruction” to Sonia Alves-Viveiros, the township business administrator who runs the day to day operations of Maplewood, and the other departments. Also, “you’re always trying to respond to the concerns of residents,” he said.
To that end, social media is a double-edged sword. McGehee sees it as a way for the public to be able to interact with committee members. “I do monitor it, I do think it’s an important channel to have, but I also don’t want people to think that’s the only way to communicate.” He is worried that social media encourages snap judgments and rash statements. “[It is] uberly important that we maintain humanity, and I think social media takes away from that. I think that people are quick to post something” without being thorough in their thoughts. “Words can hurt. So for 2020 I’d like to see us post less and act more. That’s what I’m looking for from our residents: To do less lounging and more action.” It’s a subtle nod to two local groups on Facebook: SOMa Lounge NJ, which has more than 15,500 members who discuss town issues — ranging from local current events to the noise level in local restaurants — with passion, and SOMA Action, a group begun three years ago with about 1,800 members, dedicated to raising awareness and activity concerning local political issues.
One issue McGehee feels there has been improvement on is community policing. In 2019 The Force Report— comprehensive reporting on incidents of force in policing in New Jersey towns from 2012 to 2016 — “said we have some things to work on,” which is putting it mildly, considering that the same year the data ended Maplewood paid out their police chief to retire over the rough handling of a group of black teens being herded forcibly toward Irvington on July 5; a federal lawsuit ensued, which the town settled.
Now, with a new police chief and three years worth of new data, things have gotten better but “we [still] have to work on not relying on stereotypes,” McGehee said. He believes that “from the top down and bottom up” the police department is consciously improving. “We have leadership at every level now that believes in human policing.”
The township committee interviews candidates for the department during the hiring process and he said he has met with six or so candidates during his first term. “I take it very seriously… They are potentially going to be with us for 20 years. So I don’t think about just myself and my daughter. I think about the kids to come” and how that person will interact with them and will add to the department. “Frankly as our town gets more white and homogeneous because of the circumstances [of changing demographics] we gotta work harder to make sure those who are in the minority [feel comfortable] so we can continue to be this inclusive, diverse town that we boast about.”
Wrapping up, McGehee said he feels “We have a great town. We are going to collectively work to continue on this path, and my colleagues and I will continue to provide the oversight we need. We’re going to work hard to keep our ties in Trenton, even DC, and also in Newark and the County level, because we want to be valued and respected… And also, we’re going to be a voice for our residents so that they know that if they have a concern we’re going to be able to address it right away.”
READ MORE: McGehee Sworn In