SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — While the weeks preceding the South Orange Board of Trustees election held May 9 were rather quiet and orderly, the days following the election were anything but. While election night results clearly showed that challenger Karen Hilton and incumbent Walter Clarke had won two of the three open seats on the board, the third seat’s future occupant remained unclear. However, after a few extra days, incumbent Stephen Schnall was named the winner, having edged out challenger Nureed Saeed by just 20 votes.
Clarke and Schnall, who have each served one term on the board, ran a joint campaign with newcomer Hilton. Saeed, also a newcomer, ran a solo campaign.
According to the official results from Essex County Clerk Christopher J. Durkin, with 100 percent of the votes tallied, Hilton was the frontrunner, with 1,327 votes, or 26.32 percent of the votes. Clarke came in second, with 1,298 votes, or 25.74 percent of the votes. Schnall came in third, taking the last open seat, with 1,197 votes, or 23.74 percent of the votes. Unfortunately for Saeed, she received 20 fewer votes than Schnall, with 1,177 votes, or 23.34 percent of the votes.
There was only a 3-point difference between first and fourth place, with third and fourth place only being separated by a 0.4-percent difference.
The county clerk recorded 912 undervotes, which shows the number of votes left over when voters either voted for one or two candidates, but not three.
There were 43 write-in votes.
Results were not available until May 11 — two days after the election — because, as Durkin told the News-Record in a May 11 email, the county still had to tabulate the eight provisional and five emergency ballots, as well as results from an extra machine, put in place to accommodate a high number of registered voters in the district.
As a result of this delay, though the village had been planning to hold a reorganization meeting on May 15, President Sheena Collum wrote in a May 11 Facebook post that the meeting had been postponed to Monday, May 22.
Despite the delay, the winners are looking forward to beginning their work.
“I am thrilled to have won this election,” Hilton told the News-Record in a recent email. “It is said you can be judged by the company you keep, and my running mates, along with the many, many campaign volunteers made this campaigning experience fulfilling.”
Staying true to some of her past ambitions and goals, Hilton is looking forward to continuing her work to improve library services in the village.
“This is such a vital service for a community and ours is in serious need of attention — the way in which we store our historical records, our children’s spaces and our lack of small group meeting spaces all need to be addressed. The physical spaces in our current library are not fulfilling the critical uses that a library should provide to a community,” Hilton said. “In addition, I hope to further enhance on our village communications, our shared services and on our education funding from the state.”
Clarke told the News-Record that while he was pleased to see voters supporting him, he was underwhelmed by voter turnout, especially after the diligent work that SOMA Action did to “get out the vote.”
Nevertheless, he is pleased that he will be able to continue the momentum of his first four years on the board, though he said that there is still much to do.
“If it were about one thing (that needed to be done), that would be easy, but there are so many things in the spaghetti bowl of our village that need to be done,” Clarke said in a Tuesday night, May 9, phone interview.
He did stress, however, that he will continue to focus his energies on sustainability, continuing to improve the village’s water system and creating alternate transit routes, especially for cyclists via the River Greenway project.
“There’s a lot to be done,” Clarke said. “While campaigning I got to meet people and there are so many cool people in South Orange — being able to represent them is heartening, (as is) being able to contribute to the culture of South Orange.”
Schnall too is pleased to be re-elected, saying that, after four years on the board, he feels even more qualified to use his abilities to enhance the village.
“We have such a diverse town of people and interests, and our role as trustees are to weigh the relative benefits and costs of various initiatives to make our community as great as it can be, and direct our efforts toward that vision,” Schnall said in a recent email. “Inevitably there will be conflicts and challenges, and I feel like I am in a better position to generate preferred outcomes.”
As for his focus in his new term, Schnall said he believes the village can do a better job of communicating opportunities to its residents.
“I plan on using my business experience to help find better ways for us to inform our residents and enlist their participation in their personal areas of interest. The continued challenge is to find better and economically efficient ways to leverage systems to help make things easier to increase participation and engagement,” Schnall said. “I feel as though our residents have a lot of pride and generosity and that they would like to get more involved.”
Although she did not win a seat on the board, Saeed does not intend to let that stop her from bettering the village.
“I am excited accept an offer extended by Village President Collum to participate and volunteer to be a member of the Development Committee and serve in other capacities in which my talents and skill set will help the town,” Saeed said in a May 11 release. “I am still 100 percent committed to downtown development that is smart and sustainable and that takes into account innovation. I still believe we can do better and (I) can promise all my constituents that I will keep asking the tough questions, over and over and over if I have to.”
Despite the collar-tugging closeness of the election, Schnall expressed his eagerness to work with Saeed on future endeavors.
“I look forward to working collaboratively with Nureed on some of these initiatives as she has already proven through her voice and leadership that she is effective in galvanizing people to a message,” Schnall said. “The importance is for us to find as many people and ways as possible to contribute to the betterment of South Orange.”
Despite the fact that there are not enough additional ballots to swing the election, Saeed still expressed concern over some alleged irregularities at the polling at Marshall and potentially other sites and is continuing to ask the county to finalize the vote so every voice is heard.
“Emergency ballots are supposed to be called into the county, and they were not called in by poll workers,” Saeed said. “Our campaign team alerted the county to these issues at both Marshall and Our Lady of Sorrows and the county will continue to look into those. In the future I look forward to President Collum ensuring that poll workers in the district understand the responsibilities regarding following procedures for emergency ballots, especially in close races like these.
“While I know that the numbers will not change the outcome here, in the interest of true transparency and democracy I expect the county to complete its due diligence with regard to the emergency ballots and provisional ballots so that every single voice will have been registered and counted.”
Durkin did not respond to a request for comment regarding the alleged irregularities by press time.