Editor's Note: Due to technological problems with the event's YouTube feed, a brief portion of the forum was not broadcast, causing a gap in the coverage of the event. This gap occurred at the end of Susan Hairston’s response to the second question, and affected the reporting of that response.
SUMMIT, NJ - It was new blood versus fourth-generation Hilltopper at the Candidates Forum sponsored by the Berkeley Heights-New Providence-Summit League of Women Voters on October 3. Republican Eileen Kelly and incumbent Democrat Susan Hairston are vying for a Ward 1 Summit Common Council seat in the November election.
The only other post up for election this year is currently held by Ward 2’s Marjorie Fox (D). Running unopposed, she didn’t participate in the session.
Unlike previous forums, in which the candidates faced off in person, this one was live-streamed on YouTube, which brought its share of problems. About 13 minutes into the program, the web feed went into an endless loop. It was several minutes before the League started another feed and the audience migrated to that one.
The session was moderated by Ann Armstrong of the Somerset-Hunterdon County League of Women Voters. The League is a nonpartisan organization promoting informed and active participation in government through education and advocacy.
Each candidate made an opening statement, then answered one question submitted by each political party and a series of prescreened questions submitted by residents.
Kelly introduced herself as “a woman who always gets involved in the communities I live in.” Soon after moving with her husband to Summit, she began attending Council meetings. She feels she can contribute in three ways, the first being “a new voice for fresh families in town. Many of our Common Council members have lived here for quite a while, and I think new families bring a diverse set of experiences and perspectives. I’m half Ecuadorian and speak fluent Spanish, and I think our Council would be well-served by someone who is bilingual.” Her second point was “an eye for efficiency.” Noting that Council has many members who are lawyers or who have significant nonprofit experience, she feels her private sector experience at a Fortune 500 firm would be of value in discussions about affordability and the City budget. Finally, she stressed her helping hand for small businesses. Having launched her own travel app in 2015, she knows “firsthand the rollercoaster ride that is being a small business owner” and vows to be an advocate for small businesses and bring her entrepreneurial experience to add value.
Hairston touted her “deep roots and uniquely relevant and extensive experience” as president of the Summit Board of Education, as a Union County tax commissioner, and her 20 years at the Ford Foundation as an operations executive. “I have decades of experience with demands to accomplish more with substantially less, and as a Board of Education member, I have balanced budgets that are greater than the City’s itself.” She cited making tough allocation decisions, saying the City is facing challenges that require experience, knowledge, and tough-mindedness “mixed with insight, foresight, and an ability to put the greater good before our own convenience.” She noted her devotion to Summit can’t be disputed. “In this unprecedented season of COVID-19… economic uncertainty… national unrest and debilitating environmental challenges, Summit needs a Common Council that is able to make critical decisions about our budget… the availability of basic needs for all of our residents and businesses.”
What has been the most memorable moment of your campaign so far, and why?
Hairston, a self-proclaimed “people person,” recalled walking with her intern, Jeffrey Bellaventura, early this year. He told her how he’d wandered away from home at the age of two and his frantic parents called the Summit Police. Officer Gerald McDermott located him and established a relationship with the boy that lasted for years and helped Jeffrey decide he wanted a career in law enforcement. Hairston regretted that COVID kept her from knocking on doors while campaigning, but “it has been a pleasure finding innovative ways to talk with residents about what’s on their minds, what things that they see needing to happen, and how council is doing.”
Kelly’s most memorable moment happened at a small outdoor gathering for residents from different party affiliations. A young mother went up to her and told her, “I came here tonight because I saw some of the really terrible things some people are saying about you online and that made me want to meet you” because of the positivity of Kelly’s campaign. Kelly continued, “And then she said one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, she said, ‘you’re the first woman I’m excited to vote for.’ And I tell everyone that has supported the campaign, win or lose, we have injected positivity at a time when I think our politics have gotten quite ugly, so I’m proud of that.”
It is often said that political party doesn’t matter on a local level. Why do you identify with the party you are affiliated with, and do you think it is relevant?
Kelly addressed “the elephant in the Zoom room,” her Republican affiliation. She explained that she grew up in a working-class family; her father was a doorman at a luxury building in Manhattan and her mother immigrated from Ecuador. “My parents always guided me into believing that I could do anything and be anything in this country. Those are values that are close to the Republican party and that I believed in as a little girl and still believe in today. I believe that the role of government is to create opportunities for all, make it a safe environment, and to get out of the way of business.” She added that at the local level, putting one’s party into local issues does more harm than good.
Hairston, meanwhile, proclaimed herself a “proud unapologetic Democrat,” though admitting she has voted for a Republican. “So I do know that locally it has not mattered. We have served every constituency, independent, unaffiliated, because that is our responsibility.” She allowed that the national political climate has created a divisiveness “that has seeped into the local race in a way that is shocking and really unacceptable.”
Next were questions submitted in advance by Summit residents.
How do you see Summit using shared services with other towns in the future? What are the benefits of the shared services?
Hairston called shared services is an excellent option for efficiency, citing the Westfield Health Department and the shared emergency dispatch service. “In the future I could see us exploring it in other areas where there would be efficiencies. However, we have to make sure that Summit is benefiting from this.” Kelly added that shared services is an ideal place to tackle the “burdensome tax issue in the community. She pointed out that recycling costs had gone up significantly in the new budget and added that she thinks “the customer service in recycling has gone down, if you look at SeeClickFix. I think that area is ripe for an opportunity to look at shared services. If we have to make a lofty investment, say for robotics or for a more futuristic view on how we recycle, we can share that expense across communities and Summit’s bill is a lot smaller and our services are just as strong.”
Like businesses everywhere, Summit’s businesses have struggled due to COVID-19. What can the city do to support local businesses?
Kelly spoke of working over the past months with local businesses, talking about how they can re-imagine operating in this environment. She suggested three things that could be done – a formalized business mentorship program to share Summit’s “rich intellectual capital” and expertise in various fields; enhanced services by Summit Downtown Inc. to give business owners a pooled resource for digital marketing or ecommerce strategy, and the elimination of unnecessary processes for things like permitting, licensing, and other business activities.
Hairston countered that those things are already happening in Summit, saying the City worked hard to make sure resources were provided to businesses from “a generous philanthropic community and the state. “I personally offered solutions through ordinances to make it easier for the businesses to bypass things that were holding them up. And we have to support our businesses by keeping our town healthy so that people will come in and shop here.”
But Kelly responded that her ideas are “tangible solutions that currently do not exist; we do not have a formalized business mentorship program and if we do, many of our businesses aren’t aware of them or are not participating in them.” Similarly, she hasn’t seen a digital marketing and ecommerce strategy offered.
Due to COVID, the town has suffered financially. What ideas do you have for recouping lost revenues?
Hairston cited the opportunity to apply for CARES Act grant money and the hope that the HEROS Act will be implemented. She also pointed to the engagement of the philanthropic community and working with incentive programs for businesses to help them recoup revenues.
Kelly suggested that Summit, like many cities, is at a crossroads, saying COVID-19 has “changed the dynamic of how people live, work, and get educated, and I think that makes it ripe for reimagining how we deliver some of our services today.” She proposed privatization as something to explore. “When you look at our parking structure, given that non-residents might not be taking up as many slots, and that residents will, we should look at privatization of our parking garages” as well as potentially other municipal services such as the pool and golf course.
Summit has earned a reputation as a sustainable and green City through its various initiatives, including the Free Market, Park Line, and Earth Day cleanups. What other Citywide environmental initiatives would you support?
Kelly expressed her appreciation for the City’s many green spaces and environmental education programs, but thinks the City could have more consistency with cleanups. She gave as an example Briant Park, saying residents want to know how they can fix the park while waiting for Union County. “I think we can initiate more community-oriented events that focus on keeping Summit beautified and our parks livable.” Hairston pointed to the City’s long history of leading in environmental and sustainable issues. “One of the things I’m very much interested in is energy and looking into how we can incorporate solar. This is something that requires a long-term look but it is something that we’re motivated to do and so I look forward to continuing that with the Environmental Commission.”
What is your position on the single-use plastics ordinance that was passed? What environmental actions would you support as a councilperson and why?
Hairston said she was “100% in favor of” the ordinance, one of the first items she was able to vote on after becoming a Council member, citing its cost-saving implications while acknowledging the need to continue educating the community. Kelly suggested that since legislation has been passed at the state level, the local ordinance strikes her as redundant. She also pointed out the loopholes in the local ordinance. “We need to get really serious about how we’re going to actually oversee and manage this piece of legislation. We have to come up with the right solutions to make sure that we don’t pass ordinances that don’t get enforced, and that we are attentive to the dynamics that impact our businesses as well as individual choice.” Hairston responded that the City is working with businesses not to penalize them but to get them on board, as well as asking citizens to be “a part of enforcement – that’s how we work here in Summit, collaboratively.”
What is your view on Primrose School moving into Summit?
Kelly shared that she’s heard a lot of feedback from area residents. She pointed to the proposed school’s Morris Avenue location near another school where there is already a lot of traffic. “Any traffic studies that are done as part of the planning board analysis need to be done under the lens that is relevant for Summit. It’s not enough for an outsider to come in and analyze our city. We need equally to have the voice and perspective of the parents most impacted. I think it’s also important to share what, if any, are the real benefits provided to our city from a ratable perspective, but first and foremost it’s about addressing the needs of the community.”
Citing her background in regulating child care, Hairston said she’s a “big advocate of child care,” but noted that Primrose, in her own neighborhood, would be near three existing schools where there is already “a traffic nightmare.” She said she expects the planning board to do its due diligence, keeping the residents. “Day care is a viable need in town; however, it cannot harm the community it’s moving into.”
What areas of Summit do you feel could benefit from redevelopment?
Hairston said she’s devoted to keeping the City’s green footprint and very diverse neighborhoods, but said the “amazing” Broad Street redevelopment plan would revitalize Summit’s ratables by bringing in businesses and providing housing. “It’s something that was a result of the master plan and that corridor on Broad Street is going to keep Summit the strong and viable city that it is, having others wanting to come here and shop.”
While not discounting the importance of Broad Street, Kelly pointed to other areas of the City, saying she consistently hears that businesses near Park Avenue and on Morris Avenue feel forgotten. “I think when we talk about beautification as part of redevelopment we need to keep in mind that it’s not just our downtown or the area surrounding Broad Street West, but it’s Park Avenue, it’s Morris Avenue, River Road to consider. Those things all make those areas more attractive to go do business and of course we want to ensure walkability as well.” Hairston pointed out that council has met with the Park Avenue residents and a discussion is under way on ways to beautify that neighborhood.
How would you make Summit more welcoming to a broader spectrum of racial, ethnic, and gender-identity diverse populations? How would you measure success?
Kelly replied that Summit is an incredibly diverse community today that does a wonderful job of welcoming people from all different backgrounds. Thinking about the future, “I think it’s really important for us to make sure we message what Summit is to the outside and be really deliberate about including people to participate on committees and to take up leadership positions in different parts of the city. I’m really keen on building and growing a participatory environment for local government, making it exciting, and personally for me, as a Hispanic woman, I’d love to use my fluency in Spanish to also provide that messaging in Spanish to members of the Hispanic community.”
Hairston agreed. “As a fourth-generation Summit resident, when I’m outside of Summit people are always surprised to hear that, and so we’ve got to get the word out that Summit is a welcoming place” for all nationalities, ethnicities, and sexual expressions. She listed the many active groups in town, such as the Mayor’s Forum on Diversity, the Interfaith Council, the African-American Action Association, the Summit Chinese Action Association, and added their ideas are welcomed.
Kelly added a suggestion that Council implement a “meet your neighbor campaign where we highlight residents from across the community of all different backgrounds” monthly or quarterly to show the small-town charm and diversity of Summit.”
What can we do to help seniors stay in Summit?
Hairston pointed to the new Silver Summit Committee, led by long-time volunteer Tracy Keegan and made up of seniors and City staff. It’s designed to ask seniors what they need to have happen in Summit. “We know that making Summit affordable is one of the most important things we can do. Making sure that services that meet their needs in terms of getting around town, food security, these are the kinds of things that make Summit habitable for seniors.”
Kelly is a renter in a building near the downtown and said many of her neighbors and friends are seniors who have downsized. “We need to do two things when we talk about affordability for seniors. We need to address the burdensome tax issue we have that forces seniors to have to downsize or leave Summit, and Summit needs to promote the housing stock we have for seniors. We have a lot of beautiful locations that seniors can downsize to if they want to make that choice.”
How will you work to address the large number of vacancies in our downtown?
Kelly believes that “in a moment of crisis, I think our city has an opportunity to really message what it wants to be.” She mentioned the City’s proximity to other communities and its position as a rail transportation hub give it “an opportunity to welcome entrepreneurs, to create an environment where we are the easiest place to do business. I mentioned earlier digitizing our processes, making it less cumbersome to do business in Summit. I think that will attract entrepreneurs who are looking to solve some of the issues that we’ve seen as a result of covid, and hopefully pilot ideas that we can benefit from as a community and fill some of the storefronts.”
Hairston reiterated Summit has a vibrant downtown and is a very attractive place for businesses, but said “the number one thing that we can do right now is to ensure the health and the safety of this community.” That’s been one of her objectives as chair of the Safety and Health Committee. Another concern is ensuring that parking serves residents and the downtown, while keeping Summit pedestrian-friendly. “We have done a great job attracting businesses but we’ve got to get over this covid and help our current businesses be strong and that is what our redevelopment plan is also going to do.”
What is one attribute you admire in your opponent?
Hairston answered, “I love Eileen’s ambition, her courage to stand up and be an example for young women of diverse backgrounds that they can have a voice. Doing that is an important thing to do, and volunteering and getting out there and getting experience is a great way to use that courage and ambition.”
In turn, Kelly said, “I admire that you are a mother and have a big family in Summit. As someone entering that next stage and looking to the future, to being a mother, raising my family in Summit, I think I’d have some things to learn from you about the great things about Summit and how you’ve raised your family here. I could certainly use some tips from you about juggling being a mom and again, carrying a big role in our community.”
How would you work across party lines on significant issues?
Kelly applauded the city’s history of leadership from both party affiliations sharing the idea that consensus-building and commonalty are key. “I believe that running for office is about serving a community and everyone in that community, and equally that means working with everyone.” She professed to being excited, if elected, “to work on some of the things that perhaps are very different than what I initially thought about,” adding that “one of my favorite things to do is learn and hear and listen about ways that we can work together.”
Hairston is experienced in working across party lines, “something I’ve done my entire career,” as well as being a lifelong Democrat who’s been appointed to positions by a Republican mayor and a Republican governor. “In the end it is not what party you represent, it is what you are doing for the community. Having different opinions brings out the best, if you can work collaboratively and engage the community. This is something that I have done and will continue to do.”
In closing, Hairston thanked her opponent for throwing in her hat, but called the people’s decision simple: “Summit needs and wants experience, they need a track record of local results.” She asked rhetorically, “how many volunteers have you worked with who have raised their hand and shown up and done good work but you’ve had to spend so much time teaching and showing them? Now is not the time.” While applauding Kelly’s run for office, she suggested she should start as a volunteer and gain experience, saying, “trust me, if you are good you will be called on often and in varied ways to serve your community.” She continued, “I want to see to it that we thrive and do well despite this corona that is going to impact us for several more years, and we need to have an on-the-ground active council doing things that keep Summit strong. … I don’t want Summit to be a place of just million-dollar homes, I want it to be a place that my children can come back and live here and raise their children.”
Kelly said she agreed with Hairston that the voters’ choice is simple. “I think our town is faced with unprecedented challenges and we need to go with Fortune 500 experience that is missing from that Council today – a new and fresh perspective.” She vowed she was up for the challenge, having already been active in helping Summit’s downtown businesses and Hispanic community, who she said feel left out from a business perspective. “I’m excited to bring the energy, I’m excited to bring the tangible solutions to address these problems.” She ended her message by directly addressing the City’s Hispanic community in Spanish.
Moderator Armstrong closed the session by reminding viewers that this November’s election will be predominantly Vote-by-Mail, and that all active registered voters will automatically receive a mail-in ballot. Ballots must be postmarked by November 3 or deposited in a secure collection box, whose locations can be found by calling the Union County Board of Elections at 908-527-4123. Election information is also available at vote411.org and lwvnj.org; questions or concerns may also be addressed to the LWV at 1-800-792-VOTE.
The recorded candidate forum can be viewed at lwvbhnps.org or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdxAn4Syq4A and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxzWRZ8tvqA.