SUMMIT, NJ - For the first time in more than a decade, a woman will wield the Summit Common Council gavel, as Ward 2 Council Member Marjorie Fox was unanimously elected Council President at the governing body's annual reorganization meeting. Council Member at-Large Beth Little, who was sworn in for a second term on Council, was -- also unanimously -- chosen to serve as Council President pro tempore and will act as president in Fox's absence.
In addition to Little, Summit Mayor Nora Radest and Ward 2 Council Member Steve Bowman were sworn in for second terms. Newly-elected Ward 1 Council Member Danny O'Sullivan took the oath of office for the first time. Radest was sworn in by the Honorable Judge John J. Callahan. She in turn swore in O’Sullivan, Bowman and Little. Family members held the Bible for each of the swearings-in.
While it is not known for certain -- and City officials could not verify it at press time -- having Radest, Fox and Little as Mayor, Council President, and Council President Pro Tem may represent the first time in City history that all three of the roles were simultaneously occupied by women.
Preceded by a reception in the City Hall lobby, with music provided by violinist Julian Cartwright, the meeting opened with City Clerk Rosemary Licatese in charge. Invocations were offered by Msgr. Robert Meyer of St. Teresa of Avila Church and Rev. Denison Harrield, Jr. of Wallace Chapel A.M.E Zion Church.
Licatese then called for nominations for the position of 2020 council president. Ward 1 Council Member David Naidu, the previous council president, nominated his “good friend” Marjorie Fox, citing her efforts to institute Summit’s Earth Day observance. Fox was elected unanimously. Taking the president’s seat, Fox opened the nominations for council president pro tem. That office serves as council president in the president’s absence and similarly for the mayor in her absence. Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan nominated Little, who was also elected unanimously.
Observing that “our democracy depends on the participation of residents,” Fox thanked the audience for attending and invited them to continue to attend council meetings and “let us know what you’re thinking.” She introduced the dignitaries who were in attendance, including Congressman Tom Malinowski, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, and State Republican Committeewoman Dorothy Burger. Local dignitaries included former Mayor Jordan Glatt, former Council Presidents Dave Bomgaars and Dr. Robert Rubino, former Council Member Stephanie Gould, and Democratic Committee Member Andrea Stein. Also present were Vanessa Primack, Board of Education president; Donna Patel, Environmental Commission chair; Karen Raihofer, Recycling Advisory Committee chair; John Kilby, Shade Tree Advisory Committee chair; Vivian Furman, Summit Public Arts co-chair; David Hughes, former city clerk; Terri Tauber, former Democratic Committee chair; and Lisa Allen, former Republican Committee chair.
The centerpiece of the meeting was Radest’s State of the City speech. She opened it by thanking the voters for their trust in her. She described 2019 as a year in which “we made a resilient city even stronger through the implementation of a number of thoughtful and fiscally-responsible civic improvements. Members of Common Council and I have worked diligently to move the city forward while keeping an ever-present eye on the bottom line of the city budget.”
Noting that “We live in a world with a diminishing degree of respect for institutions… I am confident that in 2020, we will continue to enjoy our Summit tradition of civility, robust debate, and thoughtful outcomes with the collective goal of a well-run [city], the best in the state.”
Radest pledged to continue to offer transparent communications, maintaining office hours and other opportunities for residents to meet with her. Social media will continue to be an integral part of the city’s communications plan. The city’s website often exceeds 30,000 visits a month, and Summit maintains active Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts.
She took the opportunity to urge residents to respond to the national census this year. Census data helps determine the number of legislators allotted to communities and the distribution of $765 billion in federal funding. Recognizing that “the challenge is to assure people that census data is confidential and critical to obtain,” she has created an ad hoc committee of community and institutional leaders, enlisting their help in communicating with their constituents.
The new Community Center, opened in May, was held up as benefiting all residents across all demographics. The center currently serves 183 senior members, 475 open gym members, some 35 to 40 children in the afterschool program daily, and 367 participants in special needs programs. More than 75 general programs serve approximately 2000 individuals and an expanded summer camp program serves more than 180 children.
Summit’s downtown is flourishing, with retail vacancy at 0.19%. Radest said, “Several new businesses have opened, reflecting a modern economy mix of experiential and traditional retail. … Additionally, corporate tenants see a value in locating in downtown Summit. Employees want to be in a location where they can walk to restaurants and shops. This is great for ratables as well as for street life.”
Admitting that infrastructure projects are “not generally very exciting,” Radest noted that those projects are “crucial to resident safety and public health.” In 2019, the city repaved 1.5 miles of roads and micro-paved three miles of roads, and completed five major infrastructure projects improving drainage, sewers, sidewalks, and roadways throughout town. Additionally, upkeep was performed on a portion of the miles of sanitary and storm sewers and thousands of sanitary and storm structures in town. “[G]ood stewardship of our physical surroundings is a hallmark of what makes Summit such a well-run and desirable place to live. The Department of Community Services … continues to use technology to improve service to residents and business owners. In 2019, DCS processed 3,245 SeeClickFix requests and reviewed 270 engineering permits, a 16% increase over 2018. Total construction office revenues are up $20,000 over 2018 as well.” Under the new Sidewalk Master Plan, walks will be installed as road work is performed. Summit entered into an agreement with the Park Line Foundation that delineates each party’s respective responsibilities regarding construction and maintenance. The Foundation has hired an engineering firm to determine the feasibility and costs; the city will decide how and if to move forward. Radest also reminded listeners of the recent passage of restrictions on single-use plastics.
She saluted Summit’s “outstanding police force, providing the most professional, dedicated and community-based service in the state. As you may know, we reinstituted a Traffic Unit over two years ago with the primary goal of enforcing moving violations, when necessary. Motor vehicle accidents were down from 934 in 2018 to 738 at the end of November 2019. Motor vehicle stops were up in 2019, which I think correlates with the reduction of motor vehicle accidents.” The department answers over 35,000 service calls a year.
As the city continues to address both pedestrian and motorist safety, Radest urged residents to “slow down and use care when navigating our Summit roadways … [I]t is incumbent upon each of us to travel with deliberation and focus, whether by car, on a bike or on foot.” In the wake of 11 residential vehicle thefts in 2019, in which every car was unlocked and had its keys or fobs left in them, she “implore[d] every vehicle owner to lock your cars and keep the keys inside your homes.”
Shifting gears to taxes, Radest said community leaders are “always mindful of the demands on our taxpayers. We had a 0% municipal tax increase in 2018 and a 1% increase in 2019 and council and city staff are working diligently to develop a stable budget in 2020. We face many pressures on our budget, not least of which are increasing demands for capital projects. All of us want the city to be in the best possible repair, but prioritization and vision are essential.” She cited the city’s agreement with the Summit Conservancy to build the Summit Free Market building as a “great example of a viable public/private partnership.” She also vowed to stay in close contact with the Union County Freeholders. In 2018, the Freeholders delivered a budget that was under the 2% cap; in 2019 the increase was 1.75%. Summit received $108,000 in county grants and $357,000 in state grants in 2019. Additionally, Union County is sharing 50% of the cost for planting 1000 trees over the next four years.
Addressing the purchase of Celgene by Bristol-Myers Squibb last year, Radest said the firm expects to relocate personnel from the 44-acre campus on Morris Avenue near the Community Center to their 95-acre location on western Morris Avenue. The eventual sale of the Bob Hugin campus will be “an opportunity to bring in one or more tenants or owners to the eastern Morris Avenue location.”
The city’s residential ratable base has been growing, and in 2019 Summit experienced an increase in construction value of approximately $28 million. “Increased ratables, both residential and commercial, are a crucial component in a healthy city budget. That is why we are proceeding with thoughtful redevelopment in the Broad Street West corridor. … The national housing market now places a premium on the ability to live within walking distance of a vibrant town center with proximity to shops, restaurants, places of work and mass transit. Summit is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this trend: we are a transit hub, 20 miles from New York City, with a thriving downtown and an excellent school system. The obvious opportunity for redevelopment is Broad Street West…. In 2018, council declared the 10-acre Broad Street West area as an Area in Need of Redevelopment. This designation allows the city to offer tax incentives to redevelopers and it also allows the city to maintain control over the type, quality and quantity of redevelopment initiatives.” A consortium of L&M and Toll Brothers has been conditionally designated as developers of the site.
Radest re-emphasized “how fortunate we are to be positioned to take advantage of this opportunity for careful and thoughtful redevelopment of an underutilized part of our downtown, at no cost to taxpayers—and with the future benefit of an increased tax base. Summit has gone from strength to strength when it comes to our downtown, and it is a pleasure and pride to me as mayor to see people out and enjoying Summit’s downtown at all seasons of the year.”
The Broad Street West redevelopment also allows the city to address its need for a new firehouse to replace the current century-old structure. In 2019, the fire department responded to 2400 emergency calls ranging from severe weather issues to fires. The department also performed 800 inspections of commercial and residential properties. She added, “This is indeed a very large capital project: the anticipated cost is approximately $11.5 million. I realize that this is a significant decision and may seem like a substantial risk, but it was not made lightly. A new building is an absolute necessity, and this is one of those tough decisions that council and I are elected to shepherd through our community. I am confident that we will find the most cost-effective way possible to make this investment in our public safety.”
As the new firehouse’s construction will necessitate some reconfiguring of parking spaces, Radest assured her audience that “determining a parking plan during the construction of the firehouse is priority number one.” Parking remains a prominent topic in the city. In 2019, the ridesharing program was expanded to include up to 300 commuters and resident employees. The parking kiosks installed in 2018 have greatly improved turnover in premium downtown parking spaces, particularly in conjunction with the ParkMobile app. “I am certain that through the Broad Street West redevelopment project we will increase parking to address existing parking deficits as well as parking needs created by new development.”
In closing Radest reiterated that “Summit’s best asset is its people. … We are committed to engaging even more citizen volunteers to help create a plan for the future of our city; we are fortunate to have community members who have tremendous talent and are willing to share their expertise.” She also thanked the hundreds of residents who donated money and items to the victims of the two recent house fires; tens of thousands of dollars were collected. She quoted the late Mayor Walter Long, who said “Summit is a little city with a big heart.” She also expressed her thanks to the city government’s professionals. “We live in a world where trust is in short supply, but I do not find that to be the case in Summit. We receive thousands of requests for assistance and/or improvements from residents and business owners and our professional and dedicated city staff always responds. These requests come to us because people trust that we will help them. And they trust us because the men and women who work for the city work hard and take pride in their jobs and in our city.”
“Finally, please do not underestimate the uniquely cooperative relationship council members and I have with one another, and with city staff. I am proud that our goal is to work together leading Summit to become an even greater city than it already is.” Radest’s entire speech can be found on the city website.
The meeting included a number of ceremonial presentations, including the presentation of a ceremonial gavel by Fox to Naidu. Retiring Ward 1 Council Member Mike McTernan, although absent because he was attending a funeral, received a symbolic council chair emblazoned with the City logo. Naidu acknowledged McTernan’s six years on Council, including two as president. He also recalled his leadership on key events including Celgene’s purchase of the Merck site, and the subsequent tax settlement that avoided a precipitous increase in residential taxes; and the successful outcome of affordable housing litigation with Fair Share Housing.
A chair was also presented to Stephanie Gould and her late husband Matt, both former Ward 1 council members. Naidu recalled both Matt’s sense of humor and the seriousness with which he approached his Council responsibilities. Noting that plastic restrictions, reforestation, and banning the sale of puppy mill dogs were issues dear to Matt which were unaddressed at the time of his death, Naidu pointed out that Stephanie Gould promptly stepped in and made sure his goals were achieved. “She turned grief into positive action.” Gould received a standing ovation. Earlier in the evening, Congressman Tom Malinowski presented Gould with the flag which had been flown over the capitol building in Matt’s honor.
More than a dozen retiring volunteer board and commission members were recognized by Naidu and Radest. Radest also announced her 2020 appointments. The meeting ended with a quick item of business, the approval of the consent agenda, including the 2020 council meeting schedule, council rules, and council committees and appointments.