Mayor's Forum on Diversity Hears Residents' Views on Summit

Ken Miles and other members of the Mayor's Forum of Diversity discuss the survey results. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
Mayor Ellen Dckson and co-chair Susan Hairston listen as Chris Cotter gives an overview of the survey results. Credits: Christy Potter Kass
City Administrator Chris Cotter gave an overview of the survey results to members of the Mayor's Forum on Diversity. Credits: Christy Potter Kass

SUMMIT, NJ – The Mayor’s Forum on Diversity met Thursday morning at town hall to explore a new piece of insight into what residents think is – and isn’t – working in Summit.

The forum, which was created about 11 years ago under then-Mayor Walter Long, meets quarterly to work on ways to improve Summit’s outreach to the ever-growing community. Thursday’s meeting was the first for new co-chair Susan Hairston, who moderated alongside Mayor Ellen Dickson.

Chris Cotter, city administrator, presented the group with the results of the 2012 National Citizen Survey. Cotter said the survey focused on a series of community characteristics and local government services as well as issues of public trust. The survey also measured residents’ behaviors related to civic engagement in the city.

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Cotter explained that the surveys were sent randomly, and results were statistically weighted to reflect the proper demographic composition of the entire community. The city received a total of 419 completed surveys, for an overall response rate of 36 percent, with a five percent margin of error. He added that typically, response rates obtained on citizen surveys range from 25 percent to 40 percent.

He also explained that Summit is the first city in New Jersey to conduct such a survey in the last five years. The survey results include benchmarks, which gave comparisons to the survey company’s national database.

Cotter said that overall, most residents said they have a good quality of life in Summit and rate the city as a good place to live. Ninety-one percent of the respondents rated the overall quality of life as either “excellent” or “good.” The majority said they plan to stay in Summit for the next five years.

The survey also rated a variety of characteristics of the community. Among those that received the highest ratings: ease of rail travel, overall appearance, and overall reputation of Summit. The three characteristics receiving the lowest ratings: employment opportunities, availability of affordable quality housing, and the amount of public parking.

Cotter pointed out that “affordable housing” doesn’t mean low-income housing, just housing that’s affordable.

He also said that Summit didn’t score so well when it comes to being an affordable place for senior citizens.

“A lot of our seniors have left Summit but haven’t gone far,” Cotter said. He mentioned townhomes that seniors have found they can afford in places like Chatham. “That’s something to think about, from a planning perspective.”

The survey also showed that residents of Summit are civically engaged. While 35 percent said they had attended a meeting of local elected public officials or other local public meeting in the previous 12 months, 95 percent had provided help to a friend or neighbor. About half had volunteered their time to some group or activity, which was higher than the benchmark.

Where Summit didn’t stack up as well against the benchmark: contact with immediate neighbors. Twenty-seven percent said they had contact with their neighbors several times a month, while 29 percent said less than several times a month. Seventeen percent said “Just about every day,” and 26 percent said “Several times a week.”

While those numbers don’t seem extraordinarily low, Cotter said, they are lower than the benchmark. There are a number of reasons for less chatting-over-the-fence: long work hours, for example, and architecture that enables people to drive into their garages and go directly into the house from inside the garage. Where the lack of interaction can be problematic, he said, is when a community tries to incorporate programs such as Neighborhood Watch.

In general, those who responded to the survey said they have a strong trust in local government. A majority rated the overall direction being taken by the City of Summit as “good” or “excellent,” which was higher than the benchmark. Those residents who had interacted with an employee of the City of Summit in the previous 12 months gave high marks to those employees. Most rated their overall impression of employees as “excellent” or “good.”

On average, residents gave high ratings to almost all local government services. City services rated were able to be compared to the benchmark database. Of the 37 services for which comparisons were available, 26 were above the benchmark comparison, nine were similar to the benchmark comparison and none were below.

The police and fire departments scored high on the survey, in which residents were asked to rate their feelings of safety from violent crimes, property crimes, fire and environmental dangers.

About 89 percent of those who responded said they felt “very” or “somewhat” safe from violent crimes and 85 percent felt “very” or “somewhat” safe from environmental hazards. Daytime sense of safety was better than nighttime safety, including downtown.

Summit public schools also were rated very high, well above the benchmark.

Full survey results are available on the City of Summit’s website.

Cotter and Dickson are available to present the survey findings to any local group who would like to hear it. Hairston said it’s important for the Forum on Diversity to not only reach out to the community to make them aware of what’s being done at the local level, but also to gather thoughts and concerns about what the city could be doing to better reach out to all residents.

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