SUMMIT, NJ—-The six candidates for Summit Common Council agreed at the League of Women Voters Candidates Forum October 12 that the Hilltop City needs to be kept affordable, that targeted plans are needed for the 'Broad Street Corridor', and that pedestrian safety is one of the keys to the City’s future. The event drew its largest audience in recent memory, with every seat taken and many standing in the back portion of the Summit High School Media Center.
The candidates are:
Councilman-at-Large—Republican David Dietze and Democrat Beth Little.
Ward 1 Council representative-Democrat Matt Gould and Republican John Dougherty.
Ward 2 Council representative-Republican Mike Wattick and Democrat Marjorie Fox.
In his opening remarks, Dietze, last year’s Board of Education president, cited his nearly six years on the school board and his two decades of experience as the owner of an investment planning business and an attorney as well as a member and chairman of a number of Summit volunteer boards, including Overlook Medical Center and the Summit Area YMCA.
Gould, a City resident for nearly 10 years, pointed to his leadership and ability to make tough decisions as a television executive for a number of television series -- productions which have taken him to 48 of the 50 states -- and as a member of the Mayor’s Partnership for the Public Arts and a trustee of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey of Summit.
A 28-year member of the Summit Police Department, who retired as captain of the City force, Dougherty noted he has served on 25 boards and volunteer organizations in the Hilltop City. He also pointed to his three years as a member of the city planning board.
Little, currently president of the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization, also has been active with the Santa Claus Shop, the Summit Educational Foundation and The Connection. Additionally, she is a former child abuse prosecutor.
A member of the Summit Environment Commission since 2005, Fox founded the citywide Earth Day Clean-Up and chairs the Summit Recycling Committee. She also is a former attorney for the City of New York.
Wattick, the former president of the Summit Taxpayers Association, is senior vice president and financial advisor at an investment firm based in the Hilltop City. He also served for five years of the board of the New Jersey Crossroads Chapter of the American Red Cross, three of them as its chairman.
The candidates were asked, first of all, whether they favored Full-Day kindergarten (FDK), how they would pay for it, what were the startup costs and what was the cost per pupil.
Wattick, the father of four children in the Summit public schools, said he knows firsthand how excellent the city’s educational system is.
He added, however, that the Board of Education and the superintendent of schools set educational policy. Therefore, “if it’s something they think we should take a look at, I think we should take a look at it. The only question I would have, is what problem are we trying to solve?”
The candidate noted that, at one of the school board meetings he attended, in October 2016, data presented said that “12 percent of the children that attended FDK needed additional help with basic skills, reading and math, and only 5 percent of those who attended half-day kindergarten in Summit needed extra help with basic skills, reading and math.”
Again, Wattick asked what problem is attempting to be solved.
Fox endorsed FDK, saying that, in 2013, Board of Education experts endorsed the concept.
She added she was not injecting her own personal views into the discussion, noting that Jennifer Ambrose, the school district’s director of elementary education, said at the time the data cited by Wattick was presented, that it was too small a sample to come to a valid conclusion.
Fox added that current data points to the advantages of FDK, and also decried the fact that the parents of a substantial amount of Summit’s children cannot afford the district’s current tuition-based FDK.
She also said, the fact that 80 percent of the districts in the state have FDK puts Summit at a disadvantage.
Little said, “I think the problem that we are trying to solve is that more Summit families cannot afford to pay for FDK,” adding that those who “choose” not to attend FDK is because their families cannot afford the $7,200 annual tuition.
She added that, in the five years since FDK first was considered, the City’s demographics have changed, the Common Core standards have changed, adding that Summit needs to reevaluate the program “based on where we are as a community and where we want to be.”
Dougherty, on the other hand, said he did not want to place “an unnecessary, additional burden on the taxpayers” and that there is insufficient data, in his mind, to prove that FDK makes a difference. If, at some point that changes, he would change his mind on the program.
He added that schools should “spend the money where it makes a difference,” such as with ACT and SAT preps and athletics, because more children seem to get into Division I and quality schools because of those factors.
Gould, in contrast, said, although he supports FDK, he did not know yet how it would be paid for and “did not have all the facts,” he was convinced if the Board of Education was challenged they would find a way to make it work, adding it should be made a part of the budget if the data showed an advantage to the program.
The candidate also called the current $7,200 fee a “middle class tax.” Although agreeing that ACT and SAT prep are important, he said prioritizing athletics over FDK would be a mistake.
Although Dietze said that, as chairman of the school board education committee, he could not ethically comment on the specifics of the FDK program, he did cite statistics that, he said, enabled those who families were on the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program to take advantage of FDK just as the program was available to those whose families could afford the full tuition -- at a cost of about $9 per day.
Little rebutted this by saying that the $2,500 charged those on the federal programs still was above the means of many Summit families.
All of the candidates praised and supported the Hilltop City’s diversity.
Fox, however, said having FDK available to all Summit families would enhance the city’s diversity, noting that neighboring Millburn, Scotch Plains and Livingston have found ways to make it happen.
Dougherty noted that, as a former policeman, he had seen both the best and worst of the City, but praised the way Summit residents of all ages and economics groups come together in times of adversity, such as during Superstorm Sandy.
Gould said the City would be more diversified if it was made more affordable and “all boats could rise together more easily.”
He was particularly concerned, he said, that many senior citizens could not afford to remain in the City after their children were grown. The candidate called for the freezing of all City property taxes for those 70 years of aga and up.
Dietze pointed with pride to the school board’s continuing commitment to raising the achievement levels of students of all socioeconomic groups, pointing to his own support of English as a Second Language programs and the fact that the percentage of Summit public school students in all groups had been on the rise over the years to the current level of 94 percent accepted into college.
Little also saw affordability as a barrier to increasing diversity, but praised the large mix of age groups and socioeconomic sectors in the Summit economy.
Wattick said high property taxes were one of the main barriers to increased diversity in the City, citing a letter he received from a senior citizen who said she had to rent out part of her home to help pay her property taxes.
He supported Gould’s idea of a freeze on senior citizen property taxes.
The candidates also were unanimous in their condemnation of New Jersey Transit’s, citing its inefficiency and lack of sufficient service to Summit commuters.
Both Dietze and Dougherty said Hilltop City residents should keep after their legislators to make the transit agency shape up and to provide better funding.
They also said that, if further repairs need to be made on railroad infrastructure, more effective bus transportation alternatives should be provided in and out of Summit.
Gould, described New Jersey Transit “a disgrace,” calling its ills a major problem.
He did, however, praise results of a survey taken at the Summit train station by he and his running mates and the efforts of Summit Mayor Nora Radest in uniting with mayors of neighboring communities to push the transit agency toward better service and reforms.
New Jersey Transit, Wattick said, is symptomatic of a state in which costs are too high and services are not up to standard, citing the transit agency’s high operating expenses.
He added that other state costs, such as a $70 billion “hole” in pension funding made it difficult to deal with problems such as those with mass transit.
Fox said both federal and state legislators had to be pressured to invest more money in mass transit. She, as did Little, said the next time a major railroad facility overhaul is needed commuters on other train lines, other than the one serving Summit, should be forced to find alternative commuting methods.
Both also praised Radest and the other mayors for their efforts.
On the question of a new downtown parking deck, all of the candidates were opposed to spending the estimated $10 million cost out of taxpayer funds, although there were a few different approaches to solving the City's parking issues.
Gould said the problem times in the central business district seem to be between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., when commuters and business district employees take up most of the spaces which could be used by shoppers.
He supported the City’s subsidized Uber ride sharing program for commuters and said more innovative programs akin to the jitney service in Maplewood should be tried.
Little also supported the Uber initiative and Jitney ideas, as well as the recent restrictions on long-term parking in the DeForest Avenue parking deck to free up more spaces for parking turnover.
Decrying the possible $10 million parking deck cost with a 30-year bond, she said developers should bear the cost of more parking facilities.
Fox agreed with Little on restrictions to encourage more turnover and supported more innovative ideas to deal with the parking deficit.
Both Dietze and Dougherty said developers should be encouraged to enter into leasing agreements to provide more area for parking. Wattick, who is on the Summit Parking Advisory Committee, said it was his opinion from serving on that body that it is not necessary to spend tax dollars on another parking garage in the City.
All candidates were unanimous and resounding in turning a thumbs down on Summit being turned into a “sanctuary city” to shield those here illegally.
They said the city’s socio-economic base means there is no need for such designation and they applauded Summit Police Chief Robert Weck for his department’s efforts in fostering communications and dealing fairly with all Summit residents and visitors.
Although condemning those who disobey the law, the candidates generally did not want the Summit Police Department becoming an arm of federal law enforcement.
Dougherty also said the City should not risk the loss of its federal funds by designating itself as a "sanctuary city."
While both Dietze and Dougherty said stricter traffic law enforcement, especially against texting and other distracted driving were needed, Dougherty went further in calling for more “traffic-calming” devices such as speed humps and “speed tables” like those in Princeton.
Wattick also supported greater enforcement with more penalties and the construction of more sidewalks to slow traffic.
Fox and Little both agreed for the need for more sidewalks, and supported Weck’s emphasis on engineering, education and enforcement.
Little also praised Weck for establishing the new traffic enforcement unit in his department.
Gould agreed with Dougherty’s speed table idea and supported engineering, education and enforcement, although noting that recent surveys should Summit is 15 percent safer than it was in 2006.
Dietze also praised increases in stop-signed intersections and intersection improvements in such areas as those around Jefferson School.
All the contenders praised City efforts in improving infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy, but encouraged stronger approaches to utilities such as Jersey Central Power & Light to get them to provide “redundancies” in transmission facilities to prevent power outages.
Dougherty also said regulations should be passed to make sure all service stations had working generators so gasoline could be kept flowing for residential vehicles and home and business generators.
All the candidates praised the City’s settlement of its fair-share affordable housing agreement and the decision to regulate where commercial development could be placed in the event affordable housing is constructed on the site of the Marco Polo restaurant.
Gould, however, said he would like to see “broader lifecycle” affordable housing, such as for those returning after college, and Little saying she would like to see more affordable housing on the upper floors of buildings in the central business district.
On the “Broad Street Corridor,” Dougherty said private developers should be encouraged to come in with plans should the current Summit Post Office close for new construction in that area.
Dietze, however, had a fear that current vacancies in the central business district would be solved with more development in other areas of the downtown.
While Little, Fox and Gould supported more entertainment venues, such as another movie theater, in the central business district, Wattick was skeptical that movie theaters could succeed in the downtown with home entertainment now playing such a large role in the economy.