I hope you and your family are healthy and safe in these extremely tumultuous times.
I have now served on our Common Council for 18-months. One campaign promise was to communicate with you regularly about our goals and progress. I am upholding that promise by posting the “Vartan’s Views” videos after every Council meeting. I have also made a number of additional videos, and this letter is the third in a series of longer (in this case much longer) and more thorough updates every 6 months. Before getting into the details, the thoughts expressed here are my own, and not an official communication from the City of Summit.
I am compelled to tell you honestly that Summit has been deeply affected and forever changed. The global pandemic and the events of the last few weeks have forced all of the people in positions of leadership at every level of government to drastically change their focus. People in this community are anxious. People in this community are hurting. People in this community have died. I don’t write this to make you feel more concerned. I write this to let you know that your government takes this all extremely seriously - but more important, we take action.
I would like to start by saying what many residents already believe, but what all residents need to hear from their leaders. Black Lives Matter. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others should be alive today. Make no mistake, systemic racism continues to exist in this country. I pledge to do my very best to eliminate this racism and promote equality. I am a white man with privilege. I understand why this terminology makes many people feel defensive and uncomfortable. But I believe that acknowledging my privilege is important. Doing this doesn’t diminish my achievements or discount any of my personal struggles. It is a simple act of recognition that I understand the color of my skin didn’t make my life any more difficult. I promise to continue to educate myself, listen to our community, and lead with honesty and integrity when it comes to all issues, but especially our continuing struggle for racial justice.
The way I have structured the last two updates was to write about the accomplishments of our Council within the framework of the issues on which I ran during the campaign. I think considering the climate, it would be better to provide you with an update of how each of the committees have been leading through the crises. I also think it’s worthwhile to mention at this juncture that we are incredibly lucky to have an outstanding team of people working for this City. That team of people have been the ones who are managing the day-to-day operations while the Council is focusing on the task of leading toward an uncertain, yet surely prosperous future.
The most important job of any government is keeping people healthy and safe. The second most important job of any government is to be responsible stewards of the financial resources. I’ll lead off with those two committees.
Safety and Health Committee
Whenever there is a large-scale emergency in our City, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is activated. The group consists of the Mayor, leadership of the Police, Fire, and EMS, Health Department various City departments including Finance, Communications, Community Services, Community Programs, and the leadership of the schools and several non-profits throughout town. In conjunction with their counterparts at the County and State level, that group has been working diligently to coordinate the City’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The OEM, and indeed all our first responders and essential workers, have responded with the grace under pressure we have all come to expect.
As of the writing of this letter, Summit had 211 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, 16 members of the Summit community lost their lives to the virus. To the families and friends of everyone affected, I wish continued strength in this unbearably painful time. Union County and New Jersey were hit particularly hard. But I believe strongly that we avoided more cases and deaths by the way we came together to respect one another and comply with the stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and mask-wearing. The pandemic has also shined a particularly bright light on the mental health challenges that have become more prevalent. Councilwoman Susan Hairston, Chair of the committee is passionate about this issue, and I know that she will continue to work toward innovative public health solutions.
In addition to the pandemic response, there have been other changes. Chief Robert Weck retired on June 1 after 31 years of distinguished service in the Summit Police Department. His leadership over the last nine years has laid the strong foundation for community policing. It is on that foundation that our new Chief Andrew Bartolotti will be able to build. Chief Bartolotti is thoughtful, compassionate, and has a clear vision for the future. In speaking with him during the interview process, he clearly articulated his beliefs about the importance of community centered policing, enhancing diversity in hiring, and conducting a thorough review of all policing policies.
On his first day serving as Chief, Andrew Bartolott’s words about these issues were put into action. He worked with the high school organizers of a protest march, and on his second day as Chief he stood shoulder to shoulder with more than 1,000 people who gathered peacefully to affirm our support for social justice. At our June 9th Council meeting, he clearly declared “In most protest situations, we don’t take a side. On this one, we are on the same side as the protesters. Black lives matter, and police misconduct to people of color must end.” I cannot be more proud that he’s our Police Chief, and I really hope you will take a few minutes to watch his extremely powerful report.
As Chair of the Finance Committee, I am thrilled to report the City of Summit’s municipal budget was adopted during the Council meeting on June 9, 2020. The municipal tax rate was increased by 0.14% over last year. This impressive achievement keeps staffing levels flat and provides staff with the resources they need to provide the high level of service we have come to expect. It also ensures Summit will continue to be the only municipality in the state with a AAA Bond Rating from all three of the major credit rating agencies.
The budget process is painstakingly detailed in the best of times. This year, the whole process was done twice. The original, “pre-COVID” budget was very lean. It saw a 0.75% increase in spending over last year. The pandemic forced us to revisit every one of those details as revenues in many areas have decreased. I hope you know that our extremely dedicated staff and the Finance Committee acted thoughtfully to maintain transparency, and to make decisions that deliver a lower tax levy in the short term without sacrificing the long-term financial health of the City.
As you may know, only about 20% of the entire tax levy falls within the control of our Council. For many years the Council has budgeted responsibly, and it is encouraging that this year the schools and County have both followed our lead.
Capital Projects and Community Services Committee
This is the committee responsible for the things in our local government that might go unnoticed. That is because even through a global pandemic, the management team properly maintains our critical infrastructure, makes operations like trash pickup run smoothly, and prioritize the many capital improvement projects . When there is a problem like a pothole, it is very easy to go to the City’s website and use the Report a Concern tool. They usually correct the problem later that day.
Through this committee, Council took action on six items meant to help facilitate the reopening of businesses throughout the City. They include re-authorizing the parklet program downtown, expanding the parklets program to other locations throughout Summit, transforming the Bank Street lot into a seating area for outdoor dining, allowing use of public fields and parks for group fitness classes, expanding the use of sidewalk cafes, and also allowing sidewalk sale of retail items. An ad-hoc “re-opening” group was formed that included the Mayor, Council President, other members of Council and the city administrator. They spent countless hours meeting with more than 30 business owners to understand their specific challenges and think creatively about how to help. It is important to me that we recognize the contributions of that group, especially Council President Marjorie Fox and Councilwoman Beth Little. We must understand that none of the proposed solutions are perfect, and we should be flexible.
Community Programs and Parking Services Committee
I also serve on this committee and have been so impressed with how staff members of the Department of Community Programs and the Parking Authority have adapted to changes in their roles and responsibilities. On the Community Programs side, the team quickly spun up online booking for the municipal golf course and tennis courts. They are also helping GRACE’s pantry provide food and essential items as food insecurity has risen sharply to more than 500 Summit families per week. Preparations have also been accelerated for the summer camps and pool to open and more information will soon be available.
In addition to all of this work, the staff has been coordinating fun online activities that include health and fitness classes. Preparations also continue for the typically popular concerts and movies that take place every year. Whether they are more socially distant or drive-in, it is likely those events will go forward. Additionally, it was disappointing that Summit couldn’t hold it’s second annual PRIDE event this year due to the restrictions. However, we were able to raise the PRIDE flag at the Community Center. If you want to feel inspired by how Summit welcomes people, watch Councilman Danny O’Sullivan’s comments during the ceremony that was held on June 1.
On the parking side of things, Council voted in March to suspend all parking fees for permits, lots, and street parking to help businesses and residents. The parking authority team has been assisting with maintaining social distance of residents while using the Transfer Station and the Farmers Market. There will also soon be a new online platform to renew permits. This long overdue upgrade will save time for residents and staff. In addition, while the parking garage on Broad Street is not being used every day, the City will be able to take care of critical structural maintenance and save money by having the work done during the week instead of paying overtime for work to be done on evenings and weekends.
Law and Labor Committee
This is one of the committees that rarely makes headlines. For another year, our municipal staffing levels have remained flat. Councilmembers Hairston and Bowman work closely with Administrator Rogers to reasonably approach contract negotiations and each and every vacancy. Salaries and benefits are the costliest line item for any organization. Therefore, when a staff-member resigns or retires this committee conducts a thorough review and helps to decide if the position should be filled.
Administrative Policies and Community Relations Committee
This committee has been very hard at work.Our City Clerk’s office, run by Rosemary Licatese, is to be commended for the way they quickly switched to a virtual meeting format. While many other organizations faced technical issues and were attacked by “Zoom bombers,” our Clerk took the extra time to make sure the system was tested and secure. When it became clear we wouldn’t be back to meeting in person before the budget hearing, Council also took action to allow greater public participation, allowing both email and zoom conferencing for public comments during the meetings. Greater participation produces better government.
The City’s Communications Department, led by Amy Cairns Harrison, is organized, creative, and tireless. During this public health crisis, it is virtually impossible to describe the depth and the breadth of information that has been passed from all levels of government, through our city, and to residents. All of the resources related to COVID-19 have been compiled in an incredibly user-friendly platform on the city website. There has also been outreach to residents via HTTV, press releases to numerous new outlets, phone calls, emails, and virtually all social media platforms. In the midst of the health crisis, the website also got a functional and aesthetic upgrade.
Beyond the information disseminated by the City Press Office about the crisis, our Mayor, Council President, and other members of Council have also been featured providing information and seeking input. This has allowed for greater transparency and engagement on local issues that affect daily life in our wonderful city.
Other ways Summit is on track to revive, recover, and thrive
Mayor Radest spearheaded the Sustain Summit and Jumpstart Summit funds to help local businesses survive and prepare for reopening. In addition to this relief for businesses, the Other Fellow First Foundation also raised money for five of the non-profits throughout Summit that help people stay alive and keep food on the table. Together, all of these efforts have raised almost a million dollars. Every time there is a challenge facing this community, the people meet it head on and rise up to help one another. Thank you to all who continue to support the many charitable organizations.
Almost a quarter of the people who live in Summit are renters. In addition to being a renter myself, I am also the Council Liaison to the Rent Commission. “The mission of the Rent Commission is to promote safe and fair rental practices for tenants and landlords. We serve to educate and support Summit residents, and recommend appropriate methods for settling rental disputes.” Governor Murphy has declared a moratorium on evictions. If you are a landlord or tenant with a problem I recommend reaching out to the Rent Commission for guidance.
As always, it is my honor and pleasure to serve a community that understands the power of our voice and the value of our vote. Please reach out and let me know what you think. firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading and have a great day!
Greg Vartan, City of Summit Councilman - Ward 2