SUMMIT, NJ - There were a few good one-liners, not really any "aha" moments, but a copious amount of substance was shared with the community, as the League of Women Voters and Speak Up Summit hosted a candidates debate at the Summit High School media center.
All seven local candidates seeking public office in the Hilltop City were present, including:
- Ellen Dickson (R-incumbent) and Nora Radest (D) / Mayor
- Albert Dill, Jr. (R-incumbent) and David Naidu (D) / Common Council, Ward I
- Andy Smith (R) and Richard Sun (D) / Common Council, At-Large
- Mary Ogden (R-unopposed) / Common Council, Ward II
With the November 3 election just weeks away, the SHS Media Center was packed with an overflow crowd, with many commenting that it was the largest attendance for such an event in memory.
Each candidate was given an opportunity to make an opening and closing statement and, in between, written questions submitted from the audience were posed to select candidates or the group as a whole.
As is often the case in politics and elections, the incumbents lauded the current state of the city, while the challengers pointed out areas where, by their assessment, improvements are needed and -- in some cases -- issues remain unsolved, unresolved, and-or are heading off-course.
Specifically, the Republican slate of Dickson, Dill, and Smith heralded the fiscal responsibility on which the city operates while maintaining services and its triple, AAA bond rating, touted the rankings of Summit's Downtown and Public Schools in publications like New Jersey Monthly and Newsweek, and extolled the overall quality of life in Summit -- all while acknowledging that managing a city is always a work in progress.
The challengers in Radest, Naidu, and Sun pointed out ideological and procedural contrasts, such as their proposed approach to Full-Day Kindergarten, parking in Summit, the current state of Downtown, the city's relationship tactics with Union County, and the general process of how best to represent all of Summit's populace.
A sampling of issues raised by the audience questions and candidate responses included:
Smith stated that the current tuition-based system is not optimal, but that it is a step forward compared to the past, and would consider a funded Full-Day option if the budget could accommodate it.
Sun said that not having a funded Full-Day option will have an effect on Summit home values, and is advocate for a funded program, as is Radest, who described the current program as a form of "socioeconomic inequality." Naidu noted the tuition-based program operates, in essence, "like a middle class tax."
Dickson pointed out that the District must operate in the state-mandated, two-percent cap, and that expanding the program would necessitate two, major construction project to accommodate elevated enrollment levels. Dill, like Smith, said he was willing to explore the funded program option, and said he would like to see a city-wide referendum on the issue to gauge resident sentiment.
Parking in Summit / Downtown Parking Structure
Dickson, Dill, and Smith, all citing commissioned surveys that show Downtown Summit needs additional parking, were in general consensus that the Post Office Lot would be the best location for a tier garage, while the challengers of Radest, Naidu, and Sun felt that it was premature to determine that a new parking structure was necessary, and that better management of the current parking capacity, as well as the use of technology to inform drivers about parking supply status, were potential solutions.
Radest said that, based on resident feedback she has heard, that it was time to admit the installation of gated parking on DeForest Avenue was a mistake, and she would initiate a process to remove the gates.
One of the areas where the candidates' positions, as articulated, illustrate a stark contrast is the economic state of Summit's Downtown. Dickson, Dill, and Smith all noted the stated 93% occupancy rate, and that half of the remaining seven percent were leased business under construction or renovation. Smith detailed that, after speaking with business owners, Summit Downtown, Inc., (SDI) and others stakeholders, the best way to enhance Downtown is through tiered parking.
Dickson and Dill also detailed that SDI has retained a business recruiter, which will assist in attracting new and diverse businesses to the downtown corridor.
The challengers, conversely, noted the high number of empty storefronts and lack of business diversity which is mitigating Downtown's vibrancy. Rates, Naidu, and Sun each noted the need for a more integrated, aggressive approach to attracting new businesses, utilizing the promotion of business-specific enhancements and incentives such as fast-track permitting, which will both fill Downtown vacancies and create a greater brand diversity in the corridor.
Voting / Polling Places in Public Schools
All of the candidates acknowledged that safety of Summit's schoolchildren was of paramount importance, just as each noted the issue was complicated with no simple solution.
Radest and Naidu advocated for a phased out approach to voting in the schools, while Sun and Smith stated they would like to see the schools closed, if possible, on voting days. Dickson said that options were limited, but that the situation is "a lot safer today than it has been in the past."
Summit High School Parking
While all of the candidates said that parking supply at the high school did not meet demand, each noted the complications with various proposed solutions, especially in light of the Morris Avenue Bridge closure.
Radest said she was in favor of alternate side parking on Kent Place Boulevard, and marking spaces, as a way to provide additional parking, while tempering resident concerns as to congestion and safety in the area.
Smith said that he was in favor of the proposed parking lot addition on the lower athletic field, while Dickson noted it was a Board of Education issue, and that the initial price tag of $950,000 was a lot to spend to gain 73 spots.
Union County Relationship / Summit Taxes
While all acknowledged the disparity of Summit tax dollars going to Union County compared to services coming back to the Hilltop City, there was a different approach articulated as to how best to deal with this challenge.
Smith, noting his experience as a litigator, said that Summit's elected officials must continue to push for Union County to reign in spending, while also negotiating for a more equitable return on Summit's tax dollars. Naidu, who also has experience as a litigator, noted that creating an adversarial relationship would not yield results, and that Summit should be communicating better and more frequently to get a fair share return from the County, while also stressing fiscal conservatism.
Best Non-Political Line of The Day
While certain answers from various candidates brought varying levels of applause, perhaps the loudest response occurred when the 24 year-old Sun recounted a conversation he had with Rich Madden, the current At-Large Council member who is not seeking another term.
Sun told Madden that he hoped "to have your (Madden's) resume when I am your age," to which Madden replied, "I would trade my resume for your age."
Political Lines of The Day
"You keep telling people everything is fine - how are you going to solve a problem if you don't admit that it exists?" - David Naidu, on the state of Downtown's economy
"Life in Summit is pretty perfect, but not perfect. not everything can be completely planned" - Ellen Dickson, on Union County, New Jersey Transit, and City of Summit construction projects that have overlapped on Morris and Springfield Avenues.
"Summit is not blue or red, we are maroon." - Richard Sun, on Summit's non-partisan mindset
"I think it great that we have a parking problem, it means our Downtown is vital and working." - Al Dill on parking in Downtown Summit.
"I'd like to think there is some room in a $63 million budget for the future of our children." - Nora Radest on the need for Full-Day Kindergarten.
"Just because you are from the same party it won't work - you'll get run over by them" - Andy Smith on Summit Democrats working with Union County Freeholder Democrats.
"We need a long-term economic development plan, we don't need another nail salon and we are not going to cost cut our way to prosperity." - Richard Sun, on the Summit economy
"I haven't heard one new thing from our opponents this morning - what are we doing wrong?" - Al Dill on the state of the city
"I'll put our board up against any board in the nation." - Ellen Dickson on the quality of Summit's Board of Education
"People hate the gates." - Nora Radest on the DeForest Avenue parking lots.
"Being a punching bag is bad for your self-esteem." - David Naidu on a potential working relationship with Union County Freeholders
"None of you have one second of experience running your own business." - Andy Smith on his qualifications to assess small business owner challenges and needs
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