SUMMIT, NJ - Nora Radest’s 'Mayor’s Report' opened the October 20 Summit Common Council meeting with a message addressing recent “uncivil discourse” on local social media.
Radest said, “I lament this loss of civility. Every one of is us grieving the many losses we have suffered this year... At the same time, we are left to process our grief without our typical sources of comfort... I recognize the toll the stress of these uncertain times is taking on all of us but I implore you to be your best selves in our community conversations.”
She asked residents to be patient with one another, especially on social media. “As mayor, I have an opportunity to see on a daily basis how much we have one another’s backs. I am so proud of all of us and our town 99% of the time. As for the unfortunate moments, let us all redouble our efforts to keep those as few as possible, and when they occur... let us all do our best not to judge.” She closed with a plea to “make sure it feels safe and hospitable to all of our neighbors.”
Many of the people who called in via Zoom during the public comment portion of the meeting reacted to the mayor’s words. Doug Kramer, Brentwood Drive, had spoken at the previous Council meeting about Ward One Council Member Danny O’Sullivan’s “disparaging tweet.” “Since the last meeting, I’ve received over 30 texts, emails, and phone calls... thanking me for speaking up,” he said, before thanking Radest for her comments, which “hit a nerve.” He described encouraging the people who’d contacted him to speak up, but said many of them felt afraid to do so, fearing repercussions. He cited 'Summit Marches On', a group that started out providing assistance during the start of the pandemic, but which he said has changed into a political organization attacking the Ward One Republican candidate on its website. He also pointed to people’s middle school children being bullied because their parents are Republicans. “The town is great... but I think we do we have a political incivility issue we should address.”
Council President Marjorie Fox retorted that people are under a lot of stress, and this is not just a Summit problem, but a national one. She stressed that the Council, all of who are volunteers, has worked for the community in a bipartisan way. “I don’t think it’s fair to generalize from just a few incidents on what our community mood is.”
Amy Disibio, Essex Road, echoed Kramer’s remarks, noting it’s not just “a few” incidences, but “a lot of hate speech.” Referencing the “no home for hate” signs seen throughout Summit, she suggested people “really need to pay heed to that, especially the ones who are going to put those on their front lawns.”=
Elizabeth Fagan, Hawthorne Place, acknowledged the Council’s hard work but said “we need to bring unity back, and we need to do it fast. This starts from the top,” meaning all adults, especially the town’s leaders, need to act with decorum and respect for all. She said kids are afraid of being ostracized by their peers or getting bad grades for voicing unpopular opinions. Addressing Fox directly, she said “these fears are not unfounded.” Referring to the state of local social media, she said, “We adults need to heed our own advice. We all have to go back and consider how to be kind to everyone, everyone in our town, even if we disagree. Then we can model that for our kids.”
Ryan Felmet, Madison Avenue, simply added that it’s “not productive when the public speaks up and the Council turns around and says they’re disappointed in us and ‘it’s not fair,’ and basically judging feelings people have in this community.”
Proclamations and Presentations
In addition to a mayoral proclamation, the nearly 160-minute meeting included three presentations. The pandemic was woven through all three presentations. Jackie Kondel, who became Executive Director of Reeves-Reed Arboretum in July, admitted it’s been a “difficult year... but we’ve had a lot of small victories that we’ve been proud of.” It is still offering programming and the grounds are open to visitors, with staff on site since the late spring. She reported that the first Fall Festival was a success. The Arboretum is finding ways to reach the public “and let people know that we are still here, we’re still a resource, and we’re still able to connect with people in a safe and comfortable way,” she said.
Megan Avallone, regional health director and director of the Westfield Regional Health Department, spoke next. She reported an increase in COVID-19 cases, something that was anticipated with the onset of cooler weather and people spending more time indoors. Contact tracing is revealing that most of these new cases stem from indoor transmission via household contacts or visitors. Acknowledging that “people want to go back to seeing the ones they love,” she described “12 people around a dinner table” as a higher-risk activity especially since people can spread the virus two days before becoming symptomatic. On a positive note, indoor venues like stores and malls, because people are wearing masks and distancing, are not spreading the disease as much.
Regarding Halloween, she recommended celebrants wear their face masks and practice social distancing. She also advocated everyone to get their flu shot by Halloween or shortly thereafter. Avallone said her office has been in constant communication with the school system and can address issues very promptly. Schools are safe, as demonstrated by the lack of classroom transmission, she said.
She alerted people to a shift in the symptoms being seen, including headache, tiredness, and diarrhea; a fever or cough may not always be the first signs. She emphasized that, should one suspect they have been exposed, to get tested. She also described a new Bluetooth-based app, COVID Alert NJ, which connects with other nearby users; if one becomes positive, the app can notify everyone that person has had contact with.
She reiterated that Atlantic Health System has been seeing an uptick in cases and that plans are under way for mass vaccination events in early 2021. Thanking residents for their cooperation so far, she urged people to not give up yet, saying, “We’re really close to the end... continue wearing a mask, stay home if you’re sick, and keep that six-foot distance.”
Asked by Ward 1 Council Member David Naidu how contact tracing is going, Avallone said her group is still struggling with getting callbacks. Calls are made seven days a week, and the tracers never ask about unrelated matters such as immigration status or underage drinking. She stressed the conversations are voluntary and aren’t scary, because “we’re lovely to talk to.” Susan Hairston, Ward 1 Council Member, called Avallone and her agency “forward-thinking” and “cutting-edge,” and asked about changing demographics. While early cases were older or middle-aged, said Avallone, now COVID is affecting a younger population, who may not be taking as many precautions. These new patients may not get as sick but can still spread the virus. Still, she added, “getting this virus is nobody’s fault.”
Greg Vartan, Ward 2 Council Member, was concerned whether the health office has the resources it needs. Avallone said they have been notified by the Department of Health that supplemental funding is on its way, but added that public health has been underfunded for decades. Vartan also asked about mental health resources. While the department doesn’t provide that sort of support, it does refer people to Union County social services when appropriate. Avallone said anxiety and sadness are elevated for everyone, and people shouldn’t be embarrassed to seek help. Fox asked about getting more details on the cases that Summit reports publicly, but was told the health department has to strike a balance between information that’s beneficial to the community and maintaining patient privacy, as they never share identifying information. O’Sullivan asked about the regional transmission rate (the state’s was at 1.15). That figure was not readily available, but Avallone said that with more cases occurring in home settings, anyone who must quarantine at home should stay isolated from other family members.
Eileen Kelly, Woodland Avenue, asked if there is a regional threshold that would trigger additional action. Avallone replied that Union County is at “moderate” risk, as is the state, and that assessment is updated every Thursday.
The evening’s final presentation was by Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti, offering departmental statistics through the beginning of October; a full annual report will be issued in the first quarter of 2021. He first described how the department fared during the twelve-week period between March 16 and June 3 at the beginning of the pandemic, while soon-to-retire Chief Robert Weck was himself ill with the virus. The Department had to set realistic expectations and evaluate its response procedures, amending procedures as necessary.
It was important to minimize the risk to police personnel and their families while continuing to serve the City. Staffing was reorganized to ensure the maximum number of officers available for patrols, while nonessential administrative work was temporarily put on hold. All non-essential civilian personnel worked from home or a hybrid arrangement. Because of intensified cleaning procedures, turnaround time on departmental vehicles was as long as 24 hours.
Bartolotti cited operational statistics for that 12-week period: 16,320 of operational readiness, 9,600 hours of reserve readiness in case a shift needed to quarantine, 62,947 miles of roads patrolled, 8,942 calls for service (5,106 were property checks), 663 911/medical calls, and 252 operational briefings held every day at all hours with partners like the fire department, Office of Emergency Management, and county and state organizations. Bartolotti said that he is particularly proud of the fact that the department has recorded no positive COVID-19 cases.
Year to date, calls for service are down slightly at 35,107 versus 39,374 last year, largely due to some 4,400 fewer traffic-related calls. There were 18,672 non-crime-related service calls, up from 15,806 last year. Motor vehicle accidents at 406 are down 33% from last year’s 603, because of fewer cars on the road, and pedestrian accidents are down 64%, five versus 14 last year. On a related note, Bartolotti said the Department has been awarded a public safety grant and is anticipating an impaired driving educational enforcement grant.
Uniform Crime Report statistics cover seven major types of crimes tracked by the state police and FBI, as well as the local police. Summit has had no homicides, rapes, robberies, or arsons this year. Assaults -- everything from a bruise to a brawl -- are at 29. There have been a dozen burglaries or unlawful entries, six each residential and non-residential. Seven of those involved unlocked doors. Larceny, at 149, is up from 2019’s 101. This category includes crimes like shoplifting, car break-ins, robberies, and bike thefts. There have been 26 vehicle thefts this year; last year there were nine. While auto thefts are down 4% statewide, they’re up 2% in the CorrState Region that includes Union, Morris, Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties. They’re up 45% in Union County and up 188% in Summit versus 2019. Bartolotti described potential thieves walking driveway to driveway, checking car door handles; he then showed surveillance video of this happening. If the vehicle is unlocked, thieves hop in and drive off, because 100% of these stolen vehicles had their fobs or valet keys left in them. Also, Summit’s four “open door” burglaries this year are tied to car thefts.
Moving from four wheels to two, bike thefts spiked in September, and all were unsecured. An individual has been arrested; during his interview, he described how easy it is to steal bikes in Summit because nothing’s locked. Bartolotti then played a PSA featuring Officer Sean Thompson describing how to deter “thefts of opportunity” by locking one’s homes, cars, and bikes. Other preventive measures include making sure valuables in a car are hidden in the trunk, not leaving deliveries on the front steps, and not advertising new purchases like TVs by discarding their packaging on the curb.
Over the past five years, Summit has had 74 cars and 66 bikes stolen and 173 thefts from unlocked vehicles – all preventable crimes. The statewide “9 p.m. Lock It Up” campaign reminds residents to check before bedtime that everything’s secured.
Council Member at Large Beth Little observed that many new cars have mirrors that fold in when they’re locked, providing a visual clue to potential thieves. She said leaving cars unlocked brings “an element of danger” into the City. Hairston pointed out that off-duty police officers are often hired and paid by contractors, utilities, and others to control traffic at roadwork and construction sites. Bartolotti said there may be five or more off-duty officers on such assignments in a day, but they can be recalled immediately if needed. O’Sullivan expressed his surprise that theft numbers aren’t higher, given the number of times he’s observed valuables left in cars around the City. Bartolotti verified these crimes happen at all hours of the day and night.
Eileen Kelly asked what’s driving the upward trend in car thefts. Bartolotti attributed the increase to the opportunity presented by unlocked vehicles, as well how much faster it is to steal a car with an available key than when it was necessary to 'hotwire' the vehicle. Additionally, interviews with alleged thieves reveal widespread knowledge that -- in these suburban areas -- vehicles are left unlocked.
He continued that from mid-March to mid-April, violent crimes plummeted, speculating that even criminals were being mindful of COVID-19 risks. Numbers went up mid-April to July then steadied. Kelly also asked about license plate reader technology. Bartolutti said the City uses that technology, though he wouldn’t reveal where, but said it’s not a deterrent to theft. More often, it’s an investigative tool. Sometimes a car is “read” and only later reported as stolen, because the owner hasn’t missed it yet.
Mayor Radest issued a proclamation recognizing October 13 as Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day (October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month). She recognized METAvivors of NJ, the local chapter of the national organization METAvivor Research and Support, which inspires action and advocates for better laws and more funding for research for Stage Four breast cancer patients. Fox added that a tree on Beechwood Road in Lyric Park is illuminated through the end of the month. The proclamation was virtually accepted by Lauren Gonnella of METAvivors of NJ, who said the lit tree is doing its job of raising awareness, prompting several citizens to initiate conversations about MBC with her.
Additional Public Comments
With the microphone open for public comments, not all speakers were concerned with the current political atmosphere. Jim Bennett, Fairview Avenue, described sitting through state senate hearings on Tropical Storm Isaias, where JCP&L President Jim Fakult was a witness. Bennet presented some statistics to help the Council “focus [its] field of questioning” when the utility representative visits. Fakult said 70% of outages in JCP&L’s service area were due to trees, and 80% of those trees were on private property. Thirty percent of power was back on in 24 hours, 98% in just over five days. If the local distribution system had been underground, Bennett suggested, 70% of the outages could have been avoided, allowing the remaining 30% to be restored within 24 hours. David M. Daly, president and COO of PSE&G, testified to its communications efforts, but Bennet observed that with fewer outages, less communication would be required. Kin Gee, president of the activist group Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas and Electric (CHARGE) suggested utilities should have to compete for business every set number of years, and if a utility provides poor service, it can be “fired.”
Terence Hayes, Wallace Road, was calling with a number of his neighbors to thank the City for its upgrades to Wallace Road but noting that the spillway on the municipal golf course causes flooding and needs to be repaired. City Engineer Aaron Schrager shared the City had just received a letter from the state DEP regarding the permit process. Since the spillway is over five feet high, it’s technically a dam, and so is before the Bureau of Dam Safety, albeit as a low priority. The Bureau has asked for some additional information. The project is budgeted for, and the City hopes to get its permit before the year’s end, at which time it will solicit bids.
Ryan Felmet had questions about rent evictions, since about a quarter of the City’s residents are renters, and about measures to assist the City’s small businesses as a second COVID-19 wave looms. Fox didn’t have statistics on how many of the City’s approximately 5,000 renters are at risk of eviction when the moratorium is lifted, but said there is Union County assistance for those who need it, adding the City has about 2,000 rental units. Vartan added there’s no accounting of those potentially facing eviction, but there is a City rent commission to mediate disputes between tenants and landlords. CARES Act funds will be available to businesses throughout the community. Fox added that the Council is working with SDI on measures like the extended sidewalk café season and reduced fees. Radest recalled the approximately $750,000 in privately-funded grants distributed through SDI to businesses all over the City. SDI is also helping businesses fill out complex PPP and CARES Act paperwork. Further, SDI gave out $19,000 in gift cards to businesses to use as they wish, funded by SDI’s unused events budget. She observed that shopping is up in town over prior years.
Moving onto City business, Vartan moved a pair of Finance resolutions. The first approved a best practices inventory, required by the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services. This assesses each municipality’s compliance with various laws and evaluates its implementation of fiscal and operational best practices. The inventory gives taxpayers an additional way to evaluate their municipality’s performance, and identifies areas that may require improvement. On the scored section of the assessment, 16 points are required to ensure 100 percent of state aid. Summit’s score is 23 out of 24.5 possible points. His second resolution declared a vacancy for a full-time deputy tax assessor, in a position that will combine the former part-time deputy tax assessor and full-time tax clerk posts.
Hairston’s Safety & Health resolution extended the Summit Farmers Market, celebrating its 25th anniversary, by adding December 6, 13, and 20 market dates, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day. There will be no market Thanksgiving weekend.
Ward 2 Council Member Bowman moved a Law & Labor Committee resolution to extend paid sick leave for a Fire Department employee through October 27, then added a resolution from the floor to extend paid sick leave to a DCS employee.
There were two Community Programs & Parking Services resolutions from O’Sullivan. The first, to encourage holiday shopping downtown, authorized free holiday parking in the Central Retail Business District from December 12 - 27, in-effect at all 90-minute on-street meters, in the Bank Street Lot, and on the ground level of the Tier Garage on Springfield Avenue. Time limits will be enforced. All payment kiosks will be covered and signs posted in the Tier Garage. Summit Downtown, Inc. is paying for those covers and contributing $3,000 towards the lost parking revenue, as well as spending some $4,500 in marketing the free parking in various print and electronic media. Naidu thanked all those involved for making this happen earlier in the year rather than right before the holiday season, adding that he’d like this to become an annual practice via a permanent ordinance.
O’Sullivan’s second resolution authorized suspending the contract with Parking Services Plus for valet parking through December 31, 2020, since demand for valet services remains minimal. This will push the expiration of the contract back to August 31, 2021, and save the City a total of $89,980.50 this year. O’Sullivan has moved similar resolutions periodically throughout the pandemic.
The largest group of resolutions, under Capital Projects & Community Services, was moved by Little. Director of Community Services Paul Cascais is retiring in November, and four of these resolutions revolved around the department’s succession plan. City Engineer Aaron Schrager was appointed Acting Director. Assistant Engineer Rick Matias was appointed Acting City Engineer. Mike Caputo was promoted to Superintendent of Public Works. Matt DiLauri administrative manager, DCS, was appointed the City’s Municipal Housing Liaison, replacing Cascais in that role.
Both Little and Naidu called attention to the depth of knowledge in the department Cascais put together, embodying a great deal of institutional knowledge. Little also declared a vacancy for a part-time assistant position in the Department of Community Services. This role was created to take the administrative burden off the DPW and DCS supervisors so they can focus on their core duties. Also moved by Little was a resolution to apply to the Transportation Alternatives Program grant administered by the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The program provides federal funds for “nontraditional” improvements to transportation systems. The City is seeking $1,000,000 to extend sidewalks on Morris Avenue and Broad Street and provide updates and ADA-compliant access to Phase I of the Park Line project.
Summit has previously applied, unsuccessfully, in 2014 and 2016.
Typically, the consent agenda is voted on as a unit, but O’Sullivan pulled out a Community Programs & Parking Services resolution for individual consideration. It authorized a change order adding $14,400 to the Summit Family Aquatic Center pool resurfacing project. Pandemic-related supply chain interruptions delayed the availability of black tiles specified for lane demarcations and touchpads; cobalt blue tiles were used instead. Additionally, 575 linear feet of 2” white tiles were added around the top of the plaster wall to provide a more secure bond with the metal gutter. Patchwork repairs to that seal cost the City a couple of thousand dollars each year for a number of years. This tile will create a longer-lasting barrier against water getting behind the wall, preventing premature plaster erosion. Other towns have used this technique “to great success.” O’ Sullivan called the resulting appearance “spectacular,” and predicted future councils will thank the current one “for spending this money now so the wall will last a little longer.” The project ended up costing $477,707.50, 3.2% higher than the initial bid but still below what was budgeted for the job.
All resolutions passed.
Other Business, General Information
Fox, as council president, reported that JCP&L liaison Carol Bianchi will present a report on the utility’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias and answer questions from council and the public at the November 4 council meeting. She pointed out that is a Wednesday because of Election Day.
With increasing COVID-19 cases, Fox urged residents to consider adapting Halloween traditions.
Finally, she reminded residents that Summit’s single-use plastic ban goes into effect on January 1, 2021.