SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — While the race for the three open seats on the South Orange Board of Trustees may not be the largest we’ve seen in the village, it is sure to be exciting with two incumbents and two challengers facing off.
Incumbents Stephen Schnall and Walter Clarke are running a joint campaign with challenger Karen Hartshorn Hilton, creating the “South Orange 2017” platform. Going against them is challenger Nureed Saeed. While Schnall and Clarke are looking to maintain their seats, the third open seat currently belongs to Trustee Jeff DuBowy, who was appointed to fill the rest of Sheena Collum’s term when she became village president. He declined to run for a new term.
Elected to the Board of Trustees in 2013, Clarke has a long history of volunteerism in South Orange, moving here in 1998; he lives here with his wife and two children, both enrolled in the SOMA public schools. At one time or another he has led the Environmental Commission, Energy Policy Advisory Committee, Sustainable South Orange Committee and the Community Emergency Response Team.
As village trustee, he currently chairs the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee as well as serving on the Recreation and Cultural Affairs, Legal and Personnel, and Public Information and Marketing standing committees. He also acts as liaison to Community Coalition on Race, Environmental Commission, River Greenway Committee, Design Review Board, Community Garden and the Sustainable Jersey Green Team.
“I have been honored to serve the community for the past 11 years as volunteer on various committees and for the last four years as a village trustee,” Clarke told the News-Record earlier this week via email. “I take a great deal of pride in our town and enjoy contributing to it in many ways. I was inspired to run for re-election specifically because of unfinished business and concern for maintaining the unique culture of South Orange in the face of recent national events.”
Clarke also highlighted his commitment to sustainability and infrastructure, spotlighting the village’s recent successes with projects such as the transitioning the water system from East Orange Water Commission to New Jersey American Water, a two-year process that required much infrastructure repair.
“We have had success repaving a high number of roads, establishing a Forestry Plan and adding things like solar charging benches to the downtown, but finishing the next phase of the River Greenway and the repair of many municipal buildings will require continued diligence and careful financial oversight,” Clarke said. “Some projects simply take a long time and require consistency. I want to see these things through so we get them right.”
As founding executive director for Emerge New Jersey — a nonprofit organization that identifies, trains and encourages women to run for public office — Hilton, a 20-year South Orange resident, has focused on recruitment, program development, fundraising and board governance. After starting her career as a forest ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, Hilton turned to helping underserved communities at Women’s Way and Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. She migrated to government service as a senior analyst for the House Ways and Means Committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature on legislative issues relating to social services, children and public health, and then served as director of special education rate setting at the Department of Administration and Finance in Massachusetts.
Hilton is founding president of the Foundation for the South Orange Public Library, and served as chairwoman of the Public Library Board. She was a longtime volunteer and leader with several Junior Leagues, the South Orange- Maplewood public schools, and the Girl Scouts. Hilton lives in the village with her husband and four children.
“I want to serve the community that has given me, and my family, so much. Twenty years of volunteering in our schools and library have shown me how the village has benefited from the efforts of those who have come before. I feel an obligation to continue this tradition,” Hilton told the News-Record via email earlier this week. “Now more than ever, I want to set an example of public service for my daughters. One expert stated that a woman must be asked to seek public office seven times before she will run — a man only once. Public service is an obligation, but also an honor, and should be open and accessible to every member of our community.”
Saeed has lived in the Newstead section of South Orange for three years with her husband and three young children. An entrepreneur and small business owner, Saeed started her interior design company shortly after moving to South Orange. In addition to her design business, she and her husband are real estate investors, buying and then rehabbing homes, improving their appearance and market value. Prior to moving to South Orange, Saeed spent 15 years in the fashion and retail industry. Most recently she was a senior executive for Greg Norman, PGA champion and golf legend, serving as vice president of licensing and global business development. Saeed was responsible for retail store development, merchandising development, brand messaging and contract negotiations in more than 25 countries.
An active participant of the South Orange and Essex County community, she serves on the Newstead Association Board. She is a member of the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom, a group dedicated to building bridges and understanding between the Muslim and Jewish women’s communities. She is also a member of the SOMA Dems and SOMA Action grassroots groups, participating in multiple discussions with local leaders.
“If we want to make change, we have to participate,” Saeed told the News-Record earlier this week via email. “I am not a politician; I am a mother of three small children who realized if I want a different world for them, I need to engage in the process. I am a small business owner who realized if I want to grow, I need to engage in the process. I am a proud South Orange Village resident who realized if I want to help the town reach its full potential, then I need to engage in the process. I am a fortunate human being and it is my duty to participate and give a voice for those who cannot. I am running for my family, for my friends, for my community, and for a realization that I have an enormous duty as an American and as a Muslim to play my part in democracy.”
According to Saeed, the call to run came following the torrent of emotions she has felt since the November presidential election.
“In the wake of the November election, I went through an emotional process, as many of us did. I was afraid — more afraid than I have ever been in my life. I stayed home and held my children close. I felt myself checking my surroundings, questioning people when they looked at me,” Saeed said. “I began thinking of ways to immigrate in order to protect my family from racial and religious persecution. At the same time, I would be angry. Why do I have to leave my country? Why is this not a place for me and my kids? Then I began to channel that fear, anger and sadness into ways I could participate in engaging my friends and community into this discussion. I started to attend different talks, getting comfortable with sharing my story and being part of the human conversation. Through this process, I realized that I am not alone in my feelings and that I can use my voice to advance the human condition forward.”
Elected to his first term as trustee in 2013, Schnall had moved to South Orange in 1999 and lives in the downtown. Schnall is a certified compliance and ethics professional and enjoyed more than 30 years in business and technology, including seven years of operating his own software development company. He is also a guest lecturer at graduate programs for St John’s University and Seton Hall University. Following his successful career, Schnall retired at the end of 2011, allowing him the freedom to devote his time to nonprofit work and to South Orange. He now co-produces bound-for-Broadway shows, such as the hit “Pippin,” and chairs the Essex County College Foundation Board.
Schnall is a board member for the South Orange Village Center Alliance, as well as board liaison to the South Orange Performing Arts Center and the Community Relations Committee. He is the chairman of the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, and is a member of the Planning and Zoning, and Finance and IT committees. He also chairs the Public Information and Marketing Committee, which is an advisory committee.
“Having completed almost four rewarding and interesting years of service as a trustee, I am happy to have led and participated in a number of successful areas where our village has continued to grow in terms of services and offerings, while still within our tightly capped budget,” Schnall told the News-Record via email earlier this week. “And yet there are still phases of existing projects to complete as well as new endeavors that I would like to accomplish.
“I am happy to report a rejuvenated SOPAC and local cultural arts scene as well as entertaining events such as Play Day and the SouthNext festival; and Music/Films on the Hill — South Orange Summer Nights — and expanded ‘Downtown After Sundown’ concerts,” Schnall continued. “Speaking of our business district, it is noticeably cleaner with better aesthetics and there have been more successful businesses opening and new developments, which are producing a greater sense of vitality, and even more people involved in village activities.”
Moving ahead, the candidates all have ideas for how they could help to improve South Orange. Clarke wants to ensure infrastructure in maintained without breaking the taxpayers’ backs.
“The role of trustee is very much a balancing act where we must limit spending and weigh it against the constant demand for more and improved services. As national politics are affecting (us locally), we must balance our role as symbolic leaders with the practical day-to-day functioning that fixes the potholes,” Clarke said. “My goal is to continue to execute the plans we’ve made to protect our critical infrastructure while maximizing South Orange as a multi-modal transit village moving toward sustainability. I also intend to continue doing that with as little taxpayer spending as possible by taking advantage of grants, government trusts and coordinated volunteer effort.”
Hilton too is focused on keeping taxes down, yet protecting South Orange’s many historical sites.
“I hope to enhance our village’s communications, to continue ongoing efforts to expand shared services, to advocate for a fair and effective state education funding formula, and to evaluate the uses of our municipal spaces and preserving the village’s historic assets, including the Connett Library building,” Hilton said.
Unable to choose one topic to focus on, Saeed said she would focus her energies on downtown development, inclusivity and government transparency.
“South Orange’s downtown has enormous potential to become a vibrant, engaging and fiscally productive epicenter for the village. Much of the recent development has focused on housing for the downtown. I would focus, in partnership with the SOVCA, on how to create a viable mixed-use retail center, how to create more of a gathering and destination center for our village vs. a pass-through center for commuters,” Saeed said.
She also discussed her desire to enhance inclusivity in South Orange, considering more than 40 percent of the town is non-white, yet the current board does not reflect that diversity. “I want to help bridge the gap between the different political thoughts that prevent us from being a united community,” she said. “I want to help bridge the gap between the younger, newer residents and the long-term residents.”
She also stressed the need to ensure consistent and clear communication between the village and its residents. She wants to make certain all relevant data is available via the village website.
Schnall also wants to improve the website for the sake of transparency.
“As chair of the Public Information and Marketing Committee, I helped usher in a new website, and we now need to promote it more so that residents sign up for the new software applications that deliver on our government’s increased transparency and two-way communications capabilities,” Schnall said. “I will continue to work hard at finding ways to integrate mutual interests between Seton Hall University and our village in order to make our town environment one of safety, civility and energy.”
The South Orange municipal election will be Tuesday, May 9.