The approved minutes to that Jan. 24, 2017 Town Council meeting offered Westfield a preview of the hypocrisy currently playing in a theatre near you this autumn. “Shelley Wright Brindle said that there is a perceived lack of transparency in the Task Force and that perception is taken as reality and the Mayor (Skibitsky) should do more to make the process transparent such as holding public forums and going on Facebook live daily. She wanted to know how the people on the Task Force were selected.”
The minutes to the meeting also recorded then Mayor Andrew Skibitsky “explain(ing) that there were many residents, landlords, merchants, as well as Council members on the Task Force and that the Task Force was formed late last summer. The Task Force has been broken down into Committees and those committees have met with many people who have offered valuable input into how to keep the downtown vibrant.”
For those new to Westfield, or those regaining interest in these historic events, the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force (DTF) was already 6 months into its work when Mrs. Brindle and Mrs. Bandelli presented their disingenuous complaints and partisan inquiry to the council. Formed by then Mayor Andrew Skibitsky during July of 2016, the mission of the DTF was to “identify the factors within the town’s scope of authority and develop recommendations to present to the Town Council that will serve to promote economic development and sustainability for many years to come.”
Further, the DTF was “a collaborative effort among all the stakeholders, including but not limited to, merchants, restaurateurs, property owners, commercial realtors, residential realtors, residents, other business owners, and community leaders, as the stakeholders not only stand to benefit from a healthy central business district, they also share in the responsibility to make sure they are part of the solution and not a source of the problem.”
At the time of its formation, it was determined that “local government alone cannot reverse global trends or changes in demographics. However, the town can and will continue to spearhead the movement to identify concrete, sustainable actions to keep our downtown vibrant.”
The announcement and work of the DTF were widely covered by both print and digital media in the local area and were a big part of the conversation in the public and social forum. The story was a big deal when the DTF was announced because local government was stepping in to proactively help find solutions to a private sector matter that had started to affect the quality of life here in Westfield. About 14 storefronts had become empty in our downtown before DTF. From start to finish, the DTF held 15 listening sessions with stakeholders, contracted with a planning consultant, analyzed local ordinances and conducted a physical inspection of the downtown area. Along the way, the DTF reported progress to the Mayor and council and sought advice from the public. Anybody who had been engaged with the economic or political conversation in Westfield, NJ during the 10 months of their work knew about the DTF, who was working with the DTF, and what the DTF was working on.
The non-partisan efforts of this task force, chaired by a Democrat, where the working committee included the school board president, town attorney, town planner, executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation, sitting town council members, engaged residents and most productive real estate broker in town. For those living in Westfield at the time, if you did not know about the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force, you were either not engaged with the economic conversation in Westfield NJ, or you simply were not interested in the work of the DTF. This is a fair statement, not a criticism.
Perception is not reality. Reality is reality. The hypocrisy of that exchange between then citizen Brindle and Mayor Skibitsky is that Mrs. Brindle had not cast one single vote in the interest of Westfield NJ in the 12 years prior to her sudden appearance before the public that January 2017 evening. Any perceived lack of transparency can be explained by the reality of citizen Brindle’s own lack of interest for the issues concerning Westfield.
To be clear, citizen Brindle was NOT ENGAGED with the local conversation in Westfield NJ for over a decade and certainly was not interested in the economic success of our downtown prior to the arrival of DJT and 20/20. Even if Mayor Skibitsky had called on Shelley Brindle herself, the reality of the situation was that Shelley Brindle had no interest in joining any conversation promoting the success of Westfield downtown, prior to the 2016 federal election results.
Further, since Mayor Brindle began her term, the work of the DTF, the recommendations produced, and the document itself have been removed from the town website and no longer are available to be seen by the public. All the time, money, and countless hours contributed by our volunteering neighbors was deleted from transparency and Westfield history. Approaching two years into the Brindle administration, with a non-partisan path forward now deleted from the public view, Westfield downtown has regressed. Currently, there are about twenty-five storefronts empty in our downtown. Westfield has gone from a shopping destination to a taxpayer funded party town and protest destination.
Now playing at the Rialto, #BrindleSwindle.
I have written and said this before: not all of what is going on with our downtown is Mayor Brindle’s fault – some of these issues are exogenous factors, just like the matters for which Mrs. Brindle attacked her predecessor, who had recently guided our town out of the Great Recession and led Westfield through the Superstorm Sandy recovery. Exogenous shocks to a local economy can be fixed, yet it takes time. Mayor Skibitsky was unable to execute on all of the ideas and recommendations put forward by his Downtown Task Force by the end of his term.
Mayor Brindle was elected for four years to come up with a solution of her own that will look very much like the non-partisan Initial Report of Research and Recommendations published April 14 of 2017 by the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force. To that end, I have no issue with our current mayor. Shelley Brindle is my mayor for as long as she serves the office. Her best effort for making use of the DTF’s research and recommendations, while complying with the New Jersey state laws that mandate our master plan be reviewed and revisions be made every 10 years will be considered when her own term expires.
Edward T. Stellingwerf