SUMMIT, NJ - By a 5-2 vote that fell along party lines -- Council Members Steve Bowman and Michael McTernan cast the dissenting votes -- the Summit Common Council passed a series of three ordinances that, collectively, enact significant restrictions on the use of single-use plastics in the Hilltop City.
The vote -- and the swearing in of new Ward I Council Member Susan Hairston -- occurred on a rare Monday night meeting, the adjustment made due to the fact that several City officials were headed to Atlantic City for the New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference that began November 19.
A standing-room-only crowd witnessed -- in the meeting's first order of business -- the swearing-in of Hairston who, upon taking the oath, became Summit's first-ever African American Council Member. She was elected on November 5 to complete the final year of late Council Member Matthew Gould’s term. Mayor Nora Radest administered the oath of office to Hairston in front of a gathering that included family, friends, and members of Jack and Jill of Greater Union County. Also in attendance was state Senator Joe Cryan, who presented a resolution honoring Hairston and her accomplishments.
Sharing top-billing at the meeting with Hairston was a trio of ordinances proposing restrictions on single-use plastics.
Ward 2 Council Member Marjorie Fox provided an overall description of the ordinances' goals. Affected would be single-use plastic checkout bags by retail establishments; plastic straws -- which would be available only on request -- and polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers used by food establishments. Fox explained the rules would go into effect six months after passage, with the intervening time being used to educate residents and businesses. There is a variance process to allow businesses to use up plastic bags and polystyrene containers already in inventory. She described the extensive outreach, including four public workshops, that has already taken place, and the “overwhelmingly” positive response from residents and businesses. Fox shared that the facility that processes Summit’s recycling estimated that plastic bags cause breakdowns that result in a loss of two hours of operations per day, on average.
Ward 2 Council Member Stephen Bowman called attention to the long list of exceptions to the plastic bag ordinance.
Naidu described the plastic bag ordinance as a restriction, not a ban. Saying he’d like to see the state put a law into effect, he admitted that, “unfortunately, Trenton is unable to act,” and he preferred to take one step forward rather than do nothing. Naidu also noted that other states and countries have put restrictions in place, and “life goes on.”
Karen Raihofer, Parkview Terrace, chair of the Recycling Advisory Committee, expressed support for the three ordinances. She had presented to the Council in July about the necessity of taking action on plastic pollution. Referring to the voluntary 'Skip the Straw' campaign, she noted that while it had been initially well received, “more is needed prevent backsliding.” She told of being part of a seven-person team in the statewide Beach Sweep organized in October by Clean Ocean Action. Her team in Asbury Park picked up 276 pieces of plastic litter, among other items.
Donna Goggin Patel, Beekman Road, chairs the Summit Environmental Commission. She too supported the ordinances, citing the annual Great Swamp Watershed Association’s annual water testing. In late 2018, it found microplastics in every Passaic River site sampled. She also noted the neighboring municipalities which have already passed plastic ordinances.
Melissa Spurr, Woodland Avenue, and four other members of 'Green Summit' added their approval. They reminded listeners that their 2018 survey of residents revealed plastic use as the top environmental priority for the city. 'Green Summit' partnered with Summit Downtown Inc. to create reusable bags for the farmers market and collected reusable bags for use at local food pantries. Calling recycling an “incomplete solution,” 'Green Summit' said the ordinances address actually reducing waste.
Mimi Zukoff, Wade Drive, spoke on behalf of the 'Summit Area GreenFaith Circle', a coalition of houses of worship. “Caring for the earth is a core principle of our shared human experience.” She referred to the pervasiveness of microplastics in the environment, suggesting a link to health problems, and said plastics manufacturing depletes fossil resources. She called these ordinances a “strong first step” in reducing dependence on single-use plastics.
Karen Gale, Lorraine Place, represented the 'Summit Green Schools Committee', saying the ordinances are in line with the organization’s mission of “ensuring a healthy environmental future for our children” and finding ways to “green our schools.”
Giovanni Sce, Glenside Avenue, expressed his support, adding his hope that in the future the ordinance would also include single usage food containers made of #6 plastics.
Eric Salcedo, Wade Drive, held up a plastic checkout bag in use in California, where they must be able to carry 25 pounds and be reusable 50 times.
The public comment section was summed up by a high school student who applauded the ordinances for giving “future generations a fighting chance for saving the environment around us.”
Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan called the ordinances “good for the environment, a step in the right direction, and people want them.” Ward 1 Council Member Mike McTernan acknowledged the passion of the ordinances’ supporters, but hoped reasonable people should be able to disagree civilly. He asked if these ordinances would result in a break on recycling costs. Paul Cascais, DCS director, replied it would not, at least initially, although it might help Summit avoid fines imposed by the recycler. McTernan questioned some of the assertions made by the ordinance language and by its supporters, particularly unproven health claims that could scare people. Quoting James Madison’s concept of “tyranny of the majority,” he suggested a City should “trust its citizens to do the right thing,” instead of taking away choices or telling them what they should do.
Naidu agreed on the virtues of civil discourse, but disagreed on almost everything else. Asking, “What do we do with what we are given on this small planet?” he maintained a governing body has a moral and a political obligation to exercise its power for good and to act as its constituents desire. In Naidu’s view, “effective government works best when we try to compromise and … improve the situation for future generations.”
Diane Dresdale, Valley View Avenue, pointed out that no one in attendance had spoken against the proposed ordinances.
Stephanie Gould, Webster Avenue, said “we as a city have to do more. … This is what we need to do for our younger people.’’
The plastics ordinances passed by a vote of 5-2, with Bowman and McTernan voting “no” on each.
Fox also moved an ordinance under which the City will now pay for the installation of new sidewalks as part of its capital projects, rather than assessing property owners. Property owners will still be responsible for maintenance and its associated costs. Council member at-large Beth Little pointed out this reflects the idea that sidewalks are an amenity benefiting the community as a whole. Vartan added that nobody is currently being assessed for sidewalk installation, making this a good time to change the policy. The ordinance passed unanimously on a roll call vote.
There was a short agenda of resolutions. Little had a single Finance motion, authorizing the transfer of funds in the operating budget from accounts with a balance to those with a shortfall. Requiring a roll call vote, this passed unanimously.
Bowman had three Law & Labor resolutions. The first approved the 2020 council meeting schedule, beginning with the Thursday, January 2, organization meeting. The next reappointed temporary Municipal Court Judge John Callahan for a term not to exceed one year, effective December 20, 2019. The third granted a waiver of the distance limit between establishments selling alcohol. Cambridge Wines plans to open at 320 Springfield Avenue, slightly under the 300-foot limit approved at the previous council meeting. McTernan took the opportunity to express his hopes that the Law & Labor committee reconsider the ordinance and do away with the distance limit entirely. Dan Dinelli of Cambridge Wine said Summit’s downtown vibe is what attracted them to the city, and “we’d be happy to be part of the community in any way we can.”
Vartan had a single Safety & Health resolution, accepting a donation of $16,000 from Celgene Corp. to the Fire Department to offset some training costs.
Hairston moved one Community Programs & Parking Services resolution authorizing grant applications to the Community Development Block Grant program. These grants would fund senior enrichment, the Senior Connection bus, the Share the Fun Club, and refurbishing the elevators at the Chestnut Street senior apartments.
Three Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions were moved by Fox. The first authorized the 14th annual Earth Day clean-up for April 18. Last year, some 200 volunteers picked up nearly three tons of trash and recycling. Fox also had two change orders, one reducing the cost of the Village Green Phase II improvement project by $5,140, and a second, reducing the cost of the Pine Grove Avenue section I improvement project by $19,961.56. Both changes reflect the smaller quantity of materials needed to complete the respective projects.
All resolutions passed.
Dorothy Burger, chair of the Rent Commission, provided an update of the newly revitalized commission’s status. Accompanying her were Annemarie Cahill, Walter Gonzalez, and Mitchell Horn; Christin Spigai was unable to attend. Membership represents four constituencies: tenants, landlords, homeowners, and an at-large member.
Burger credited Council liaison Vartan with helping to revitalize the commission, which has been dormant for a number of years. The commission is undertaking a variety of public outreach to reintroduce itself to the public. She described the groups’ mission, to promote safe and fair rental practices for tenants and landlords, to educate the public, and to act as a mediator in conflicts. That free service can potentially keep an issue from ending up in the courts. While the Commission has no enforcement power, it does have subpoena power. The commission also educates both tenants and landlords about their rights. Among the resources it provides is a Rent Complaint Form, available online. Questioned about who the commission represents in a dispute, Burger stressed that it is a neutral party.
In her Mayor’s Report, Radest mentioned attending the 20th anniversary celebration of the NJDOT Transit Village initiative, saying Summit is proud to be one of 33 communities in the state working towards more “transit-oriented” residential and commercial development.
She reminded residents that Council had previously approved engineering studies for the entirety of the Park Line, so residents noticing activity along the trail should understand that work being done is only to determine the feasibility of going forward.
Radest will be moderating a panel at the League of Municipalities conference on “sustaining citizen engagement through technology.” Summit will also be receiving a Silver Level award from Sustainable New Jersey. Based on criteria including environmental, arts, and public outreach, Summit, a repeat winner, earned the highest score for a municipality of its size.
City Administrator Michael Rogers reported that City Hall will be closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday, November 29. Those days are also “parking holidays” with free parking in municipal lots, garages, and meters. Garbage will be picked up on the regular schedule; recycling will be picked up on Friday. The Transfer Station is closed on Thanksgiving Day.
Curbside leaf collection continues through December 6 or the first major snowstorm on regular trash collection days.