Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of five 'Ask the Candidates' articles focusing on the lone contested Summit Common Council race in the upcoming November 3 election. The two Ward 1 candidates are Democrat Susan Hairston and Republican Eileen Kelly.

TAPinto Summit sent the question(s) for each article to the candidates and is publishing their written answers as received (verbatim). The order of the candidates' answers will be rotated with each successive article.

Part One - Who I Am and Why I'm Running

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Eileen Kelly (R)

Biography / Background

My name is Eileen Kelly and alongside my husband Matthew, I am proud to call Summit home. 

A couple years ago, Matthew took a job based out of Northern New Jersey. As two born and bred New Yorkers, we were excited to explore New Jersey and lucky enough to stumble upon Summit. It was the tree-lined streets, vibrant downtown, and proximity to New York City that initially drew us here. And without hesitation it was the people of Summit - welcoming, smart, and dedicated - that inspired us to begin building our future here.  

As a young couple, figuring out where to raise our future family was one of the most important decisions of our lives and Summit’s community spirit instantly made us feel that we had finally found ‘home’. I understand the importance of a strong community in one’s upbringing. Growing up in a working-class family with an immigrant mother from Ecuador, I was the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. I know firsthand the struggles and sacrifices a family must make and the importance of a strong public-school system in the future success of a child.

Because of my personal experiences, I’ve always had a desire to help others the way my family and community helped me. For this reason, I feel a sense of civic responsibility and believe that serving on the Common Council is an opportunity for me to give back to all of those who have worked so hard to make Summit such a welcoming and wonderful place to live.

What inspired you to pursue a role in public office?

No matter where I live, I always get involved in my community. Here in Summit, some of my earliest involvement in the community included attending Common Council meetings. By joining these meetings, I was afforded the opportunity to ask questions and hear firsthand from present elected representatives, outstanding City staff, and many passionate volunteers. 

What I saw missing and would hope to contribute to the important work of Common Council includes

  • A Voice for New Families. Today’s Common Council primarily consists of longtime residents with even two members, or rather their families, calling Summit home for multiple generations. What I saw missing was the fresh perspectives of Summit’s many new families that bring with them a tremendous diversity of experience and perspective. We should celebrate and welcome the many new faces in our community. On chronic issues like power outages, I believe a fresh voice can also reinvigorate local ideas. 

  • An Eye for Efficiency. While we are well-represented on Council by attorneys and as well as members with considerable non-profit and governmental experience, there is very little private sector experience weighing in on matters of great significance to residents including our municipal budget. Our local government is facing unprecedented public health and financial crises as a result of COVID and would surely benefit from the perspective of someone with strategic, operational, and financial experience among the world’s leading Fortune 500 firms.

  • A Helping Hand for Summit’s Small Businesses. In 2015 I was proud to launch my own travel app, @WingitTravelApp. As Co-Founder, I learned how to take an idea and turn it into a viable product. I know how to think outside of the box to solve problems and am eager to help the City put technology to better use. Small business owners must navigate a constant rollercoaster of activities. As a fellow small business owner, I am familiar with the ups-and-downs and I will be an advocate on the Common Council. I will be ready to put my entrepreneurial experience to work strengthening our business community and in turn our city.

What positions and qualifications differentiate you – therefore making you the better choice – from your opponent in the November 3 Election?

If elected to serve on Summit’s Common Council starting in 2021, I will prioritize:

  • Continued fiscal responsibility with a commitment to reimagining the delivery of vital municipal services. Take curbside recycling for example and its considerable increase in cost just this year. We need not just normal mechanisms that balance the City’s books but to actively look for duplicative costs at all levels of government that contribute to persistent increases in our property taxes and seek out opportunities to utilize new and innovative technologies. In an environment where revenues may continue to be a challenge for our city, we should evaluate opportunities for shared services with an eye on expenditures like recycling. As someone with international work experience and Fortune 500 financial know-how, I believe I’m better equipped than my opponent, who has spent most of her career in the non-profit space, to take on this challenge. 

  • Overdue support for our vulnerable small businesses. If our downtown small businesses continue to struggle as they have during the COVID-19 pandemic, the unique charm of our City center will be under great strain for years to come. One way to leverage the considerable intellectual capital of our community would be spinning up a business mentorship program. We should also map the start-up as well as recurring administrative workflows of our small businesses and work to remove unnecessary regulations and roadblocks, defer or outright remove fees wherever possible, and leverage technology. I’ve been connected, engaged, and vocal on this topic. I have not seen the same level of attention, dedication, or any specific ideas from my opponent regarding our small businesses.

  • Reexamine chronic issues like power outages with tangible local plans that leave our community better prepared for when the next storm hits. One week after our last power outage I hosted a community forum with over 60 registered attendees. Our discussion examined a three-pronged approach that I developed. This approach included transparent tree-pruning planning, the development of a Certified Emergency Response Team to assess on-the-ground damages following a storm, and requirements that JCP&L participate in quarterly Council meetings to deliver a report on the health of our local infrastructure. If elected, I would ensure that this plan is implemented in a timely manner with clear goals and deliverables. My opponent, however, was completely silent during our last power outage and has not revealed any specifics on how she plans to tackle this decades-long issue.

Three words that describe Summit are...?

Charming, Inspiring, and thankfully, Home

***** ***** *****

Susan Hairston (D)

Biography / Background

I’m proud to be a fourth-generation Summit resident. I grew up here, attended Summit public schools, raised my family here and served Summit in many capacities. As a result, I’m uniquely positioned to draw upon my knowledge of Summit’s past to help shepherd it into the future. My father, who was one of the first African Americans in the Summit Police Department, and my mother, who worked for decades at Summit’s Fair Oaks Hospital, helped prepare me for my own path as both a professional in the non-profit sector and an avid community advocate. 

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in Business Administration and earning a Master of Public Administration from Seton Hall University, I spent the bulk of my career at the Ford Foundation. I learned about process excellence and shared services; how to lead people and projects; and how to manage change and large budgets. I also learned the enormous potential of public-private collaboration. I recently stepped back from my full-time career in order to give my work on Council, and the concerns and needs of Summit residents, greater focus. I’ve also started my own consulting firm, helping non-profits prepare for expansion and sustained funding.

I have served Summit in many capacities. During my two terms as a member of the Board of Education (appointed by former Republican Mayor Walter Long), SHS completed its significant expansion; my year as BOE President was spent leading the search for a new Superintendent. I served as Commissioner for the Union County Board of Taxation, which provided me with a unique insight into tax policy and how to get the most out of every tax dollar. My years of commuting have been invaluable in my role as a liaison to the Lackawanna Coalition. And now, as an entrepreneur, I have a keen understanding of the challenges that business owners face, and how local policy can help nurture start-ups and small business growth.

I currently serve on Summit Common Council representing Ward 1, elected to complete the term left open by the death of my friend and colleague Matt Gould. Since my election just one year ago, I’ve helped Summit navigate the COVID-19 pandemic; enhance pedestrian safety at key intersections; select a new police chief; and respond to resident needs following Isaias; and I have supported various contract negotiations, environment-friendly plastics policy decisions, and the continued planning for Broad Street West Redevelopment. It has been quite a year!

My current roles on Council include: Chair of the Safety and Health Committee, member of the Law & Labor Committee; and Council Liaison to community committees including Affordable Housing, Summit Public & Private Schools, Emergency Management & Shared Dispatch, Labor Negotiations, and the Summit Public Library. In these varied roles, I have worked to address personnel issues and legal matters facing the City; provided critical coordination and recommendations regarding traffic and Summit’s response to COVID-19 and Tropical Storm Isaias, and actively participated in the planning and budgeting process that resulted in an essentially flat budget despite the harsh economic realities of the pandemic. Council’s years of wise investments and thoughtful austerity have paid off. My many years of experience, both volunteer and professional, guided my input and leadership in these varied and complex challenges.

I am proud of all that Council has achieved in the last few years, and serving on Council has given me the perfect opportunity to apply my skills, my experience, and my deep love for my hometown to help further that success. The quality of our day-to-day lives depends enormously on the decisions our local leaders make. From our taxes to the state of our sidewalks, from our schools, libraries and senior centers to our restaurant and shopping choices—they are all affected (and often determined) by the actions of our Common Council, our Mayor, and the various boards and committees they oversee.

What inspired you to pursue a role in public office?

Municipal government is where the “rubber hits the road,” where tangible decision making and implementation of federal, state and county policies takes place.  In times like these, where we are dealing with a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and national unrest at unprecedented levels, I want to make sure our decisions serve the public good for all residents, businesses and employees in Summit. Five generations of my family have lived, worked and volunteered here. And frankly, expanding my skills and applying them to important, meaningful problems and opportunities has been a career-long joy.

What positions and qualifications differentiate you – therefore making you the better choice – from your opponent in the November 3 Election?

The first, and most important, is my experience--both my prior and current work experience, my experience on Council, and my history of service in Summit. Over a 25-year career, I’ve learned so much about operational management, contracts, cross-functional communication, strategies that serve both short-term and long-term needs, and even things like commuting, entrepreneurship, and technology. This experience has been essential to my being an effective contributor and, where it’s needed, an effective leader. Even before the pandemic, Summit was facing major decisions with long-term consequences, and that’s where deep and varied organizational experience is critical. Having already served on Council over the past year, I bring on-the-ground experience to the urgent needs our town is facing right now. The other difference between me and my opponent lies in my personal investment in our town. I’m one of five generations residing in Summit. I grew up here, went to public school here, and I raised my own family here. I’ve also served our town in numerous ways. As a result, I have deep, broad relationships in Summit--with its people, its institutions and its history. All of this is present in my approach to serving our town through my role on Common Council.

Three words that describe Summit are...?

1.    Community. An aesthetically beautiful community filled with generosity of spirit and intention, city staff and elected officials are sincerely dedicated to serving Summit and the people who live, work, play and pray here. We have so many instances of neighbors helping neighbors during emergencies; residents contributing to help businesses during restrictions; special “GoFundMe” campaigns when a fellow resident experiences a grave health need, or a tragic loss of possessions to a fire. Our community is strong and generous.

2.    Innovation. Our past leaders took on audacious projects like submerging the train tracks, establishing parks and recreational facilities near our schools, maintaining green spaces, and more. That forward-thinking approach now plays out in our decisions regarding a large redevelopment project, our environmental decisions, investment in technology, and service models.

3.    Collaboration. Across Summit, residents, businesses, government, non-profits, and faith communities routinely work together for the benefit of all. Additionally, Summit is leading collaboration between communities to create shared-service arrangements. Our relationship with the County is strong, and we have a respected voice at the state level, too.