WEST ORANGE, NJ - (Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part article of the West Orange Mayoral Forum held on Oct. 20. at Temple B'Nai Shalom on Pleasant Valley Way.)

The suburban Mayor with a small-town sensibility. The urban Mayor with big plans. The self-confessed “Watchdog,” and the local businessman. During the second Mayoral forum held at Temple B’Nai Shalom on Oct. 20, the four West Orange mayoral candidates: incumbent Robert Parisi, Township Councilman Joe Krakoviak, Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., and Rodolfo Rodriguez, may have all answered the same questions, but their responses clearly began to show the lines of delineation in attitude, experience, and perspective.

The event was moderated by Larry Rein and the audience was comprised of supporters from all four camps. A few audience members nodded emphatically in agreement with their candidate while muttering out loud when another spoke, but overall, the audience was well-behaved and respectful of all candidates.

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A number of questions were asked of the candidates, including prepared questions and questions collected from audience participants.

The first question asked the candidates what top one-three features would they use to ‘advertise’ West Orange.

Mayor Parisi said the West Orange Public Schools; the Township's parks and recreational features, and the diversity of the neighborhoods and people. Krakoviak said the people that he’s gotten to know in his 12 years as a resident, and the business professionals in town. Hawkins, Jr. said the town “could be better,” and noted West Orange was underutilized given its accessibility to Route 280, NYC and train stations. He also mentioned the downtown ‘failed redevelopment.' Rodriguez said he “would not be shy” and said West Orange had an incredible history, citing Thomas Edison and his inventions, and how that should be highlighted once he “cleans up the mess by the museum (Edison Village redevelopment).”

The second question was somewhat multi-leveled and noted that “many things draw people to a town.” The question asked whether the Mayor should work in concert with the Board of Education.

Parisi, Hawkins and Krakoviak acknowledged the limited capacity that municipal government had over the school district’s budget. Krakoviak said the Town could  “work together” to determine shared services, bring the community together and “expand best practices to hold meetings” that would promote better communication.

Hawkins said he would leverage political relationships and mentioned redevelopment, which he said would bring more kids and expenses to the school district and taxpayers.

Parisi said that the Township “has a strong relationship with the school district,” mentioning the combined efforts of both to acquire the property for Liberty Middle School. He mentioned that school crossing guards were part of the West Orange Police Department and how the Township has worked with Hazel and Pleasantdale to address parking issues.

Rodriguez said the situation was “urgent.” “It costs taxpayers $21,000 per student,” said Rodriguez, “and West Orange High School is only ranked #143 in NJ Monthly…that is bad for West Orange High School and bad for the town.” He also echoed Hawkins’ sentiments that redevelopment would bring 200-300 more children into the district, which he said the Town could not afford.

The third question was about the West Orange First Aid Squad, asking if there was any purpose to keep it as a volunteer organization or whether it should go out to bid.

Rodriguez said there should be no cuts in services. Hawkins said those services were important. Krakoviak lamented that despite 50 years of services that WOFAS was “this close to going out of business.”

“The Mayor insisted on putting them out to bid,” said Krakoviak, and “it was not brought to the Council for consideration.” He said that WOFAS began paying some of its volunteers around 2006 as volunteers declined. Criticizing Business Administrator Jack Sayers for failing to provide him with requested information on West Orange Fire Department salaries until today, Krakoviak continued that there was no transparency.

Parisi said that except for some of the volunteers being paid in 2006, that “everything he (Krakoviak) said was wrong.” He began by saying the Township wants WOFAS to remain their alternate provider.

“WOFAS wanted to start billing, and that was fine,” said Parisi, who went on to explain that WOFAS provides approximately 35 percent of emergency services to the Township. Once WOFAS got their medicare number, Parisi continued, the Township checked with the state, which told them that WOFAS would now have to bid for services because they were billing.

“He (Krakoviak) was on the phone with us, with the State, when they told us this,” said Parisi.

WOFAS challenged the RFP (Request for Proposal) and asked to change the language, and the Township complied. However, they still did not submit a bid. The current bidder is reconsidering their bid, and Parisi said, “it may work in WOFAS' favor and we may have to put out an RFP again, but we have to follow the law.”

(For more information on the WOFAS discussion at the West Orange Township Council Meeting on Oct. 7, go to: http://thealternativepress.com/towns/west-orange/articles/funding-for-llewellyn-park-west-orange-first-aid)

Rein then asked the candidates about West Orange’s “Master Plan,” mentioning Edison Village (Prism redevelopment); Valley Road redevelopment; downtown West Orange, Pleasant Valley Way, and Northfield Avenue development.

Hawkins said, “The plan is good but the execution is horrible.” He noted that while the County had done a good job with South Mountain Recreation Complex, “Northfield Avenue across the street – Julio’s and the old Joy Luck are empty, and the area does not need a Quick Chek (drawing applause from the audience) that will be a magnet for crime."

He criticized the $6.3 million in taxes (referencing the approved bond for infrastructure once Prism begins construction of Edison Village) and said until Prism was addressed "that every business on Main Street will fail.”

Hawkins said he favors getting rid of Prism and setting up a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) center that he is confident he can secure funding for. “I created the Valley Arts District,” he said, “Hat City Kitchen…there are ways of bringing up the hill down the hill.”

Krakoviak said that Prism was “dead in the water,” and that businesses were looking to move from Main Street. He said he favored recruiting “the right” businesses and sending out immediate notice of default to Prism for their failure to pay their property taxes since May, 2014.

Parisi said the Township has attempted to recruit multiple businesses to the Northfield corridor. He mentioned Perkins and Outback Steakhouse as two that declined the opportunity based on space and parking. However, he said thay Julio’s was soon to be reopened as a drive-through Dunkin Donuts with office space.

As for Prism, Parisi said that this was his fourth election where downtown redevelopment has been an issue. “The Township is anxious to see Prism begin building,” he said, “but they have to wait it out in court.” (Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 12.)

“New Jersey law says that property taxes can be delinquent for one year,” he continued. "At that time we can act in accordance with the law, but there must be protection under the law.”

Rodriguez said he was the only candidate to discuss Pleasant Valley Way but said he would build a pedestrian bridge across PVW, and add cameras and police. (editor's Note: PVW is a county-owned road).

He called downtown redevelopment a “disaster” and said he would change the way the Township worked with businesses including time reductions for permits, to make the Township more business friendly.

The next question regarded issues of Safety and Security, and whether or not the Township needed police substations.

Parisi said that safety and security were "paramount" although the challenge in government was to balance services including the police, fire, health department, department of public works, and more. "We are limited by the boundaries of money," he said.

Parisi said the Town could not afford to have 150 police officers, inclusive of salary, benefits, and pension, and that the Town has attempted to get grant money for salaries. He added that through a grant, the Town was able to hire 10 new firemen. 

He then said, "Yes," the substation on Washington Street has been a vital addition to the community and that grants would help to fund the new substation on Valley Road. "It will create a presence," he noted. He also mentioned the surveillance cameras installed throughout the Town.

Krakoviak disagreed and said he would "find money" by cutting uncessary services and expenses to add police. He said he disliked the idea of "forced overtime" on the WOPD and said the Valley Road sub-station redesign would cost taxpayers $400,000, even though a small substation already existed there. He also made note of increases in crime of 22 percent  since Parisi became Mayor in 2010.

"There are no police to watch the surveillance cameras at police headquarters," he noted.

Hawkins said that the Parisi administration was a failure because it was unable to obtain grants for additional police. "In New York, they have a 501 C-3 Police Officer foundation," he said. He went on to say that there was a 53 percent increase in burglary in West Orange, while there was a 39 percent reduction in burglary when he was the Mayor of Orange. 

"It is a failure of the leadership," said Hawkins. "CVS on Main Street will close and there will be drug dealers on Pleasant Valley Way."

Rodriguez said he would "bring back the police force." (See the West Orange Uniform Crime Report here.)

The final question before audience questions were heard was regarding transportation. Rein mentioned buses, the Town Jitney, which does not travel to all parts of Town, and the fact that West Orange has no trains.

Rodriguez again said that easing requrements on business permits would help.

Hawkins said West Orange was train accessible with the Orange and South Orange stations. He said the Town Jitney should be available all around townand that this would help to drive business here.

Krakoviak has been an advocate of paid Jitney service and reiterated that sentiment, saying the Town should determine the areas of demand and make people pay as it was not fair to the rest of the taxpayers.

Parisi said there were multiple buses available for commuters and that the current areas of Jitney service had been determined to be areas of need. He said the Town had spoken to Livingston, which operates a drop off Jitney service at the Livingston Mall, but that he did not want to charge for Jitney services at this time. "The Jitnies provide a draw to real estate in the areas they operate in," he said.

(This completes Part I of the Candidate Forum review.)