TC candidates square off at HNA debate

Summersgill, McGehee offer differing opinions on taxes, small town party politics and more

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Hilton Neighborhood Association enjoyed a large turnout on Thursday, Sept. 22, for its Maplewood Township Committee candidates’ forum. And, if that night is any indication, this is sure to be a lively campaign season.

Running for the sole open seat on the committee — which was recently vacated by Marlon K. Brownlee and filled by Ian Grodman to serve out the remainder of the term — are Frank McGehee and Michael Summersgill. Both men bring a wealth of business expertise and social consciousness to the campaign.

But the candidates approached the debate — moderated by HNA President Carol Buchanan — differently: McGehee, a Democrat, gave direct answers, with brevity clearly on his mind, while Summersgill, a Republican, won people over with his wit and charm. Regardless of debate style, both candidates gave the audience an indication of where they would stand on some key issues should they be elected to the committee.

In Maplewood since 2013, McGehee lives with his wife, daughter and dog. Originally from Chicago, McGehee earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and his MBA from the University of Wisconsin School of Business. He now works as an analytical marketer; according to McGehee’s promotional material, he has experience managing the strategic and day-to-day logistics for large budgets and staffs of up to 32 people. He previously served on the Economic Development Commission in Newton, Mass. Here in Maplewood, McGehee is involved with the Tuscan School PTA, the Maplewood Library Foundation and the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.

“Our town is great,” McGehee said in the beginning of the debate. “But there are issues, which we will discuss tonight.”

An eight-year resident of Maplewood, Summersgill lives with his wife and children in the Hilton neighborhood — so he was on his home turf for the debate. Summersgill, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cornell University, is running a green campaign and, as such, residents will not be seeing any lawn signs with his name on them. But he is confident that his experience will make up for it. With 15 years in various operational leadership positions, he has managed a 700-person service organization, supervised a union workforce and been responsible for collective bargaining agreements. He currently serves on the Maplewood Pool Advisory Committee, and supports the local YMCA, the Kiwanis and Cougars Boosters. He is also member of his neighborhood parish, St Joseph’s on Prospect Street.

“I want to start out with the elephant in the room — I’m a Republican,” Summersgill joked, before adding that, despite that label, he has fought passionately for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; gun control with Moms Demand Action; diversity with the CCR; and equality for women.

After brief introductions, the two candidates dove into the issues. An issue very much on minds throughout the county is pedestrian safety, and Buchanan asked the two candidates what they would do if elected to address the ongoing problem in Maplewood of pedestrians being hit by cars.

Summersgill, who admitted that sometimes the best move is to steal a working idea from someone else, suggested Maplewood follow South Orange’s example.

“They’ve made great progress,” Summersgill said, referring to the village’s increased marking of curbs, enforcement and sting operations to catch motorists who do not stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. “That’s the kind of enforcement we need,” he continued, saying that he wants the committee to work with the Maplewood Police Department to make sure police are posted in priority spots.

Agreeing that South Orange’s success is something to which Maplewood should aspire, McGehee pointed out that, even if the same resources were allocated for enforcement, “South Orange is the No. 1 town with citations in Essex County.”

Greater enforcement was the first step in McGehee’s three-step plan, which also included empowering residents to be protected as pedestrians through education and working with homeowners to improve sightlines. McGehee would like to see more comprehensive education in the schools and for community members so that pedestrians know how to stay safe, learning more about reflective clothing, for example. He also said he wants to ensure that homeowners know that hedges must be trimmed to keep the sidewalks unobstructed, so that no one has to venture into the street to get past them.

Buchanan also asked the candidates how they would balance strict code enforcement with assisting residents who want to maintain their properties but are unable to do so.

McGehee pointed out that there are two types of people not maintaining their properties: absent landlords and those who want to fix their properties up but cannot.

“For the absent landlords, the slumlords, we need a crackdown,” McGehee said. But for residents who need assistance, McGehee suggested making some of the township’s currently “untapped” resources more widely known.

Maplewood offers an Affordable Housing Program that awards up to $20,000 for home repairs to needy residents. Residents can obtain information about this program by calling 609-664-2781. The CCR also offers the similar Home Maintenance Loan Program, which can award low-interest loans of up to $5,000 for home repair; for more information, visit http://www.twotowns.org/neighborhoods/home-maintenance-loan-program/.

Summersgill agreed that increasing resident knowledge — even for residents who are having difficulty maintaining their properties due to their commuter schedules — about these programs is vital.

“We need to partner instead of punish,” Summersgill said. “These programs exist but we aren’t connecting our town to them. We’re just writing them tickets and hoping the problem goes away.”

Summersgill also suggested that neighbors reach out to one another to ask for and offer help.

Of great concern to members of the Hilton community is redevelopment, as a great deal of construction is currently taking place there. Buchanan asked each candidate if they believed the Hilton neighborhood had reached a saturation point with new development.

McGehee’s short answer: “No.” But he elaborated that, before more is done, he would like to see a comprehensive master plan, an urban development plan, to ensure that all of Maplewood thrives and is connected as one town.

“Property development does help our town, but we need a master plan,” McGehee said.”

He also was quick to point out that, whatever the next redevelopment phase in the town may be, transparency must be key, as currently he believes too much is done behind closed doors.

While Summersgill believes more can be done in the Hilton area, he stressed that Springfield Avenue is very different from Maplewood Village and should be treated as such. He rattled off a number of businesses that he is pleased to see on Springfield Avenue currently and said that, as this area has neither the parking concerns of Maplewood Village nor the feel of it, he would love to see chain stores move in.

“I would rather see a longstanding business with customers and employees stay than have luxury apartments,” Summersgill said. “Adding people (to the tax base) doesn’t help the budget.”

Among the changes coming to the township, Maplewood Memorial Library is currently planning to expand its Main Library to accommodate more people and new technologies.

“The library is not just a place where people get a book,” McGehee said, stressing that the library is a conduit for knowledge, provides an opportunity for everyone to have access to modern technology, and provides shelter and charging stations for residents after a natural disaster. For these reasons, McGehee supports the expansion and pointed out that the Hilton Branch will serve as the MML’s headquarters during the expansion. “Hilton is great,” he said.

Echoing McGehee’s sentiment that redevelopment needs to be in line with the whole town, Summersgill said that, although it is difficult to comment on a plan not yet finalized, he supports the expansion and just hopes it takes the whole township into account.

“You can’t just look at one building,” Summersgill explained. “You need to look at it in the context of the town. Don’t design something for the library that neglects the town.”

Summersgill suggested that it might be fun to put a Starbucks inside the expanded library, and he also suggested creating a family restroom at the community pool.

While discussing redevelopment, McGehee stressed the importance of building affordable housing and assisted living facilities for those who live in Maplewood and would like to remain, but who find the finances challenging. Summersgill said that, while expanding the library an eye should be kept on having spaces that reflect Maplewood’s aging population.

“We need stuff for residents who are older,” Summersgill said. “We need to be thinking about them when we plan spaces.”

Summersgill added later on that the town should do more for its seniors, who are contributing a lot in taxes but not receiving the benefits of the school district, which takes nearly 60 percent of property taxes. He suggested elevating the recreation department office that deals with senior activities.

McGehee added: “Diversity isn’t just gender and skin color, it’s age as well.”

When asked what projects they would most like to see pushed forward, Summersgill responded that he would like the township to provide free feminine hygiene products in the municipality’s public bathrooms. While the budget concerns for this are real, Summersgill suggested that, rather than continuing to look into electronic signs, the township can pursue this. McGehee would like to see Maplewood doing more to reduce its environmental footprint and increase sustainability.

Buchanan’s final question involved how the town should move forward in dealing with feral cats. Using the nonprofit Furry Hearts, the township currently has a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return policy, which Brownlee — whose vacated seat one of the candidates will fill — has openly criticized due to its ambiguous measurement of success.

Similar to Brownlee’s stance, McGehee would like more concrete gauges for the program’s success, as well as to explore all possibilities before making a financial promise.

“I do support a TNVR program, but we need stronger benchmarks and control,” McGehee said. “We need to justify the cost beforehand.”

Rather than explain what he would like to do about the feral cat situation, Summersgill questioned the amount of money being shouldered by taxpayers to support such programs, calling it “wrong” and “outrageous” to make citizens pay for basic programs. His main issue was with the “kid tax” that parents whose children play organized sports must pay to maintain the fields; he argued that paying the “kid tax” is overkill considering parents already pay registration fees and that all residents already pay property taxes.

“Until we have an independent voice on the Township Committee, it’s going to continue,” Summersgill said.

As for controlling taxes to keep Maplewood affordable, the two candidates could not have disagreed more on a course of action.

McGehee suggested a tax-incentive program, similar to what is being done in Marlboro and in neighboring West Orange. With such a program, participating residents, when shopping at participating businesses in town, would receive a small discount from their property taxes. According to McGehee, this helps the residents, who would be paying less in taxes; it helps the businesses, who would see more customers and see money going back into the town; and it helps the town keep businesses.

But Summersgill called McGehee’s idea “terrible,” stating that such a program helps no one but the credit card companies. He said revenue can’t be cut without cutting expenses and that, to do so, would also be taking money from the schools and the county.

“It’s really a mistake,” Summersgill said. “I will not stand for cutting taxes without cutting expenses.”

As to where they can cut expenses without hurting the township, both candidates agreed that efficiencies need to be found.

Summersgill explained that, while he doesn’t want to cut any services, he believes the township can look for efficiencies to spend its money more wisely. He praised township administrator Joseph Manning for his fiscal restraint in weighing the pros and cons of spending with needs, upcoming projects and more.

“Mr. Manning does a great job,” Summersgill said. “I would like to see the Township Committee listen to him more often.”

McGehee said the township should look for efficiencies through more shared services; he would like to explore further the possibility of sharing police and fire services with South Orange and other surrounding towns.

McGehee said the township is already looking into sharing fire services with South Orange and the two towns are expecting to receive a report on the findings next month. McGehee stressed that it was important, however, to ensure that response times do not increase.

One resident asked how McGehee and Summersgill would address the difficulty of combining the two fire departments, considering one department is civil service and the other is not. While McGehee did not answer question, Summersgill, who said he has done this type of work before, combining union and nonunion workforces, said he would likely use “dovetailing,” a process in which management is merged with proportional seniority.

Summersgill said that, were the two fire departments to merge, most of the cuts would likely come from management, as the two towns would still need the same amount of firefighters, equipment and real estate in order to continue service.

“We shouldn’t hang our hats on this being the savior of the town’s finances,” Summersgill cautioned.

The divide between the Democrats and Republicans in the room became most palpable when the two candidates addressed their party differences toward the end of the night.

“I’ve never put stock in (the Republican) label, especially at the local level,” Summersgill said. He explained that, rather than just looking at the party, people should look at the candidates, listen to their policy ideas and decide from that who to vote for.

McGehee argued that being a Democrat is more than just a label. “Being a Democrat is about lifting people up and listening to all people,” he said.

“I don’t think any party can stake a claim on any value,” Summersgill responded, saying that partisanship is plaguing Maplewood. He argued that the Maplewood Democratic Committee holds too much power and that those elected are then beholden to the political party in order to secure future endorsements. He did promise that he will never be endorsed by the MDC.

While Democrats may be concerned that a Republican could win a seat on the committee, Republicans are concerned that the status quo of a one-party committee could continue.

When asked about political diversity on the committee, McGehee promised voters that he is his own person and his own voice. He is running for transparency, he said, not to be just another Democrat on the committee.

At the end of the day, both candidates are asking voters to examine the issues and choose who they think is best for the job.

“I think the Township Committee does a good job,” Summersgill said. “I would come in to support them and make them better.”

“Together we will. I have to work with everyone in this room,” McGehee said. “We collaborate together, we grow together, we win together.”

To finish up the evening, Buchanan thanked the candidates for their time, saying: “I feel such pride that we have such wonderful candidates and that people are willing to spend so much of their time making Maplewood better.”

Be sure to vote Nov. 8 for Summersgill or McGehee. Additionally, don’t miss the HNA candidates’ forum Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at DeHart Community Center, 120 Burnett Ave. in Maplewood, a debate for the five candidates for the SOMA Board of Education.

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