Senior issues take center stage at candidates debate

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — They may be political rivals, but the two candidates vying for the one open seat on the Maplewood Township Committee both agreed that more can be done to support the community’s senior citizens during the Oct. 15 forum sponsored by Maplewood Senior Share at Les Saisons.

Republican Mike Summersgill and Democrat Frank McGehee each had several ideas about how they would assist the township’s senior population, if elected next month.

Summersgill said he is in favor of creating a senior advocate position that would report directly to the township business administrator or to the Township Committee itself. That way, instead of leaving senior programs “buried in the recreation department,” he said, Maplewood will have someone working exclusively to ensure that elderly residents have their needs met and that township officials understand what is lacking. The candidate said many senior citizens are not even aware what services are currently available to them, something an advocate could remedy.

“You need someone who can connect those dots for this population and is really out there advocating for them,” Summersgill said. “That’s how I think we get at it — by giving (senior needs) a focus and making it someone’s full time job to connect to that population.”

In the same vein, Summersgill said he would like to establish a senior advisory committee.

McGehee said he is also interested in launching a senior advisory committee, but one that would encompass Maplewood and South Orange so that all residents are made aware of services offered in both towns. Additionally, he would like to promote a shared housing model in which seniors can take renters into their homes to subsidize the tax burden.

McGehee pointed out that many senior citizens cannot even afford to live in Maplewood any longer, especially since New Jersey’s Senior Freeze property tax reimbursement program now only covers those whose yearly income is below $70,000. To address this, he said he would look into the possibility of excluding developments from the state-mandated affordable housing lottery so that Maplewood seniors and other residents can obtain affordable units through preferred opportunity. The candidate admitted that the township would have to figure out how to fill its affordable housing quota if it goes in that direction, but he stressed that it is an idea worth considering.

“It’s very out-there, but it’s an idea I’m willing to take to bat because I care about my seniors,” McGehee said.

Related to the senior citizen issue was the topic of inclusivity. Specifically, the candidates were asked how they would better communicate information to seniors who don’t use the Internet and to residents who don’t speak English. They also were questioned about what they would do to bring people of all backgrounds and ideologies onto Maplewood’s various committees.

McGehee answered that the township currently is not doing a good job of disseminating information to any part of the community, which is why many residents are not aware of the opportunity to serve in local government. To correct this, the candidate said he would put together a marketing campaign utilizing local media to inform residents about how they can become involved in township affairs. He also is in favor of sending information through direct mail in addition to online measures. And, as someone who has enjoyed speaking Creole with Haitian residents while campaigning, he said translating information into different languages would be essential.

As for including different types of people, McGehee said he already has reached out to minorities about joining the Maplewood Green Team. If elected, he said he would use his network of contacts to ensure that every committee is diverse with members of different races, ages, sexual orientations and political beliefs.

For Summersgill, the answer to better communication lies in the quality of the facts sent to residents — not the quantity. Thus, he said he would frame delivered information in a way that explains the issues and how they affect residents. He also wants to submit reports to the Township Committee ahead of every meeting outlining exactly what he has accomplished and where matters stand. On top of that, the candidate said he is in favor of mailing hard copies of pieces like the Maplewood Leaflet since he enjoys reading printed documents and knows many other residents do too.

And Summersgill agreed that committees should be diverse. As a result, he said he would be interested in completely shaking up all of their current memberships in order to add new perspectives.

Development was the third major subject addressed by the candidates. And while McGehee and Summersgill both felt that the Post House project could be conducted better, they each had different ideas as to how they would handle future construction initiatives.

McGehee said he would request that any developer provide a third-party financial analyst — which it is required to do by law — who could build a pro forma demonstrating whether any sort of tax abatement is necessary. The Democratic candidate added that he would also consider what impact a development would have on Maplewood’s traffic, services and schools. After all, he indicated, construction is not always the answer.

“We can’t develop ourselves out of our tax burden,” McGehee said.

The candidate also said it is time to designate Maplewood Village a historic district, which would prevent buildings from being demolished and unwanted projects from hurting the area. And while his opponent pointed out that the designation would place restrictions on what small business owners could do with their shops, McGehee responded that such restrictions would primarily govern just the outside appearance of buildings. Besides, he said, the village’s business owners already face restrictions since the area is a designated special improvement district.

Summersgill’s opinion on development boils down to one basic question.

“Are we building (a development) for the people who are here, or are we building it for some future people coming in?” Summersgill said. “We have to think (about) the residents we have now and are we delivering everything we can for them before we build properties in the name of development because we’ve got land and we’ve got developers that want to buy it and build.”

The Republican candidate stressed that he is not opposed to development, but he said the township must consider whether a project would affect current residents’ quality of life before proceeding with it. He is also in favor of revising Maplewood’s master plan again.

Additionally, Summersgill is protective of the overall feeling of the town, recalling that he was attracted to the community the first time he drove through it years ago. He said he would be disappointed to see big buildings like the Post House redevelopment dominating the village since that would change its appearance. If elected, he said he would call for the township to follow its existing processes to prevent this from happening instead of “relitigating” each case. He said he supports Committeeman Greg Lembrich’s idea for a formula business restriction, which would prohibit chain businesses from coming into Maplewood Village and potentially disturbing its character.

Photos by Sean Quinn