WEST ORANGE, NJ—Eldridge Hawkins, Jr. is the former mayor of Orange and a former police officer in West Orange. And while both experiences lend credence to his run for mayor of West Orange, they also present a challenge to prospective voters.
Hawkins, Jr. understands that several incidents connected with his public service could use clarification to the voters in this November’s upcoming mayoral election. In a recent interview with TAP into West Orange, Hawkins addressed his past and his plans for the future of West Orange.
As the former mayor of Orange can attest, an Internet search of his name brings up two major areas of news coverage: his discrimination lawsuit against the township of West Orange, former Police Director and current Business Administrator Jack Sayers, Police Chief James Abbott, and the West Orange Police Department; and his battles against various critics and employees during his time as mayor of Orange.
In 2007, Hawkins, Jr. filed a lawsuit claiming that he was discriminated against by the West Orange Police Department. In it, he contended that former mayor John McKeon (named as John Doe in the suit), Police Director Jack Sayers, Police Chief James Abbott and the former sergeant in charge of hiring, conspired to give Irish-American officers advantages in pay and promotion.
Hawkins, Jr. contended that the discrimination negatively affected his pay and promotion schedule. Over the course of the next seven years, Hawkins’s lawsuit was dismissed, amended, re-filed, and ultimately dismissed for the final time this year.
Despite being quoted in a Star-Ledger article, saying his current run for mayor is “a bit personal,” the former mayor says he won’t have any problem governing the town he sued.
“I don’t see [the lawsuit] as being any hurdle whatsoever,” said Hawkins, Jr., “because the truth of the matter is, it was the administration that made the improper decisions, not the rank and file members of the department.”
He added that the quote was taken out of context.
“It is personal to me to the extent that I want people to have a quality of life, have taxes they can afford, have a safe community,” said Hawkins, “and have a government that’s responsive to their needs and not mismanaging and making improper decisions.”
He says he has put the lawsuit behind him. “At the end of the day I fought for my job and my police retirement and I won.”
Hawkins, Jr. is on disability retirement, and says he is still physically affected by injuries he suffered during a highway accident in 2009. He currently works as the director of community outreach for the New Jersey Department of State and has a private security business, a return to civilian life he didn’t plan on happening so soon.
Hawkins’s loss in the 2012 mayoral election was an unexpected one. He had a large war chest and the backing of Democratic luminaries. Ultimately he lost to current Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren, who Hawkins says ran a better campaign. Warren was among those who criticized Hawkins’s management style.
The criticisms Hawkins faced as mayor included his appointment to the positions of fire director, police director, and director of emergency management at various times during his tenure as mayor. His critics contended he orchestrated these appointments in order to pad his salary. It is an accusation he denies.
“I imagine [these issues] are on the hearts and minds of some people,” said Hawkins, “and the truth is that with respect to me holding job titles—the council for example appointed me emergency management coordinator—I held other positions at various times mostly without additional compensation. When a vacancy occurred I assumed those responsibilities to ensure that the functions of city government continued to move forward.”
Hawkins added that, “As mayor or actually at all times during my tenure as a government official, my income from the township ranged from $14,000 per year to $36,000 per year. That’s a public record and I’ve been transparent to that and actually the W-2’s are up on my website; it’s a little bit disingenuous to paint a picture that there was something untoward or improper going in that regard because the truth speaks for itself.”
Hawkins said he has learned from any mistakes he made as mayor of Orange and touts his success in reducing crime in Orange and in moving development projects forward.
“I’m not so much concerned about [the past] because that was a different town, a different time, and I stand behind the decisions that I made,” said Hawkins. “But that’s not to say that you don’t learn, that you don’t grow, that you don’t mature and find different ways of doing things.”
He added that his ouster was a result of his attempt to save taxpayers money. “I had done something unpopular, which was advocating for pension and healthcare reform,” said Hawkins, “which ultimately had the impact of causing certain municipal employees to contribute more to their pension and healthcare.”
It was a decision Hawkins said was necessary because he didn’t feel right pushing the increased costs in those areas onto the residents. “Sometimes in government the right business decisions are not the best political ones.”
Hawkins says his plans for West Orange include working “side-by-side” with the people he wore the police uniform with in order to improve public safety, a focus of his campaign. During his time as mayor of Orange, crime dropped significantly, though he publicly clashed with individual officers. He said he wants to manage through inclusion, transparency and accessibility to the public.
“We as government officials have to be responsive and willing to bend based on the desires, will and needs of the people to which we work with and for,” said Hawkins.
Speaking of downtown redevelopment, Hawkins said, “I think that the entire situation is a travesty.”
“I think that it is an eye sore: it is something that I believe is symbolic of a failed promise from [Mayor Robert Parisi’s] administration. And I think that the present course of action that this administration is on flies in the face of the will of the people. And I think that’s evidenced in the litigation that residents have filed.”
The township is currently battling a group of local residents who oppose the $6.3 million bond issued by the council to support infrastructure improvements at the Edison Battery Factory site; litigation that Mayor Parisi is holding up construction.
Hawkins says that giving downtown redeveloper Prism $6.3 million of tax funding is misguided and that he believes that the project will put more of a tax burden on town through added students in the school system. He has an alternate plan for the site that he believes would combine innovative funding and prevent an influx of new students.
The best plan for the site, Hawkins believes, would be a science research center built in a public/private partnership with a local university, with private businesses neighboring the site.
“I have the experience and the track record of success specifically in moving redevelopment projects,” he said, “and I have never in my governmental history bonded to fill a private developers funding gap.”
Hawkins said he used alternative means such as tax credits and stimulus monies to help fund the projects in Orange and that Mayor Parisi is now hiding behind the litigation to cover up the real problems in redevelopment: a lack of capital.
“This litigation is not stopping the project,” Hawkins said, “This litigation is solely based on the bond issuance. Nobody’s saying [Prism] can’t build.”
Hawkins said that as mayor he would sit down with Prism and see if they can adapt to his plan, as long as the township has supported his ideas. If not, he would work to bring in another developer. It’s one of the moves he says would get under way even before he took office.
“In our transitional phase we would be looking to get input from the community,” said Hawkins, adding that as mayor he would first attack “low-hanging fruit” to cut the township’s costs and to improve public safety, one of the central focuses of his campaign.
“There will be administrative changes where we will have a true change, not just exchange where you change mayors and a everything else stays the same, but true change where you have different department heads to lead this municipality in a different direction,” said Hawkins.
As to current department leadership at Town Hall, Hawkins said that while he "would not change all department leadership, because that would eliminate institutional knowledge," he did say, "There will be significant changes with respect to who those department heads are so that we can make sure we have people in place that will follow the new agenda and the new policies that the township elected in November.”
Hawkins said that if he is elected mayor, he will retain his position with the Department of State, saying that he believes he has the “Skill sets that would enable me to govern and manage both responsibilities simultaneously.”
Over the course of the next month, Hawkins, Jr. hopes to show the voters of West Orange that he is a man for the future, not one haunted by the past.
(Editor's Note: This completes TAP into West Orange's interviews with West Orange Mayoral Candidates. The opinions expressed by the candidates are soley their own . Each candidate was asked the same series of questions to remain fair and represented a cross-section of issues which are neither inclusive or exclusive of all topics. Candidates may submit statements to TAP into West Orange once a week between now and Nov. 1.)