Three vie for 2 open seats on Maplewood Committee

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — When Maplewood residents head to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 6, they must choose from two of the three candidates running for the two open seats on the Township Committee. Running are Democratic incumbents Greg Lembrich and Nancy Adams, and independent challenger Ileana Castillo. All three shared their ideas for how to improve Maplewood in sit-down interviews with the News-Record.

Public safety has been a top issue in Maplewood recently, specifically the damaged trust between the police department and the community and ongoing traffic and pedestrian safety concerns. According to the candidates, the town has already taken steps to improve the relationship between the community and the department, but Lembrich said more can still be done in this area.

“Our goal is to have those who serve look like the community,” he said in an interview on Oct. 11. “When people are looking at an all-white police force, that contributes to the tension. We want to have a community so that police officers are not just the person who pulled you over. I’d like to get to know and see them at events so that when a situation does arise there’s familiarity and less tension.”

Lembrich said the Maplewood Police Department’s new traffic unit has been a good step forward, as well as the new Community Board on Police. He wants to work more on educating residents on pedestrian safety.

“We’re doing more with a dedicated unit now but we can still work to improve pedestrian safety,” Lembrich said. “It’s education and engineering, which is something we’ve been working on but there’s still more to be done. We’ve seen sign improvements at most schools, which makes it safer for parents and students. That’s something to still work on; it doesn’t end.”

Adams also said that she wants to continue mending the relationship between the MPD and residents. Since the hiring of Chief Jimmy DeVaul, she thinks strides have been made and wants to continue working to improve pedestrian safety.

“The culture has changed drastically,” she said in an interview on Oct. 19. “We do have to work to make pedestrians as aware and vigilant as the drivers on the road. We’ve had representatives from the community help and that’s going to go a long way in helping the public and I think it will be better as we go along. It’s improving on education and enforcement.”

Castillo said the MPD is not the only agency that should be trying to improve public safety.

“It’s not only from the police department, it’s from us, too,” she said in an interview on Oct. 18. “Many people think the police are these monsters, when they’re putting their lives on the line. We have to let people know they are not your enemies. It’ll take time, but we all have to make a commitment.”

High taxes are a concern for Maplewood residents. While it isn’t realistic to expect to see taxes lowered, the candidates shared their ideas for how to stabilize them so as not to see substantial raises in the near future.

“State school funding for years and years was going down, so we’ve gotten an increase” in taxes, Lembrich said. “A lot of it is about shared services because we don’t want to cut anything. We’re a year into merging the fire department with South Orange and that would save thousands of dollars every year. That will help keep them flat or maybe even lower them a little bit.”

Castillo wants to look at the municipal budget to see where the township can save money so that taxes don’t have to be raised year after year.

“I want to save every penny we can and question if we really need this,” she said about looking at line items in the budget. “I would like to see what the budget is. I think pedestrian safety and parks need funding and the streets and sidewalks are not in the best condition. I don’t want to keep raising taxes and I know it’s impossible to lower them.”

Adams said she wants to keep putting pressure on the state and federal lawmakers to stabilize taxes. Municipal taxes comprise approximately one-quarter of residents’ property tax bills, and Adams thinks working with state legislators could help.

“We have to put pressure on the state Legislature,” she said. “We do work hard to make it worthwhile. I think we have to look at a tax freeze for seniors, because as you get older you start to worry about if you can stay here. There is a lot of diversity in income and in age in town and unfortunately not a lot of that is in our control.”

Many Maplewood residents are environmentally conscious, and the candidates shared their thoughts about how to make the town even greener. Lembrich talked about the energy aggregation program of which Maplewood is the lead municipality. The Sustainable Essex Alliance allows local governments to create buying groups, which then seek bids for cheaper and greener energy. According to the state government’s website, the groups allow municipalities to aggregate energy so customers can buy their electricity and gas from a third-party supplier for below-average utility prices.

“The energy co-op that we’re the lead in is part of this,” Lembrich said. “That dictates that we want clean energy. Also, now that solar panels are getting lighter we can look into installing them more. Before, they were too heavy to put on many roofs.”

He also said the town needs to improve its recycling. Because China is no longer accepting all types of recyclable materials, residents have to be more conscious of what they can recycle and what they have to throw in the garbage.

“There’s no market for higher number plastics,” Lembrich said. “It has to be in pristine condition and even then you might not find someone to take it.”

Lembrich also talked about the potential plastic bag charge, saying that he doesn’t want to put Maplewood’s local businesses at a disadvantage, because customers would have to pay to use plastic bags. The Township Committee has been discussing possibly enacting a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic bags at stores to encourage people to bring reusable bags.

“I don’t want to put our local businesses at a disadvantage,” he said. “I hope the state bans them first, because it would eliminate residents being driven to other towns. I do think paying for plastic bags would encourage reusing or bringing a bag of their own.”

Castillo doesn’t support the plastic bag tax, saying that it would burden customers.

“I disagree with the bag tax; why give people more of a burden?” she said. “I think the bags should be banned and we use reusable bags. But everything costs money, so we should stop that.”

Castillo said that she doesn’t have other ideas for how to improve sustainability in Maplewood.

Adams does support the potential plastic bag fee, saying that she wants all community establishments to ban using plastic bags.

“I don’t think a 10-cent fee is a burden,” she said. “We can look at buying reusable bags and handing them out to the community and helping that way. It’s a nominal amount but for whatever reason it works — people don’t want to spend it.”

Maplewood has an all-Democratic Township Committee and there are no Republicans on the ballot this year. Lembrich said that, even though Maplewood is a primarily Democratic town, it doesn’t mean everyone agrees on every issue.

“It doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements,” he said. “So many local issues aren’t partisan issues. A lot of things that are divisive at the federal and state level aren’t locally. If someone could come in and keep the same services and lower taxes, they can have my seat.”

Lembrich said ideas brought to the table are neither Democratic or Republican, and the current committee members do not always vote in a bloc.

“I think we’re capable of different points of view,” he said. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican ideas — it’s about bringing in lots of ideas. It’s either good or bad. It will either work or it won’t work.”

Castillo, who is running as an independent, said one reason she is running is because there are people who live in Maplewood who are not Democrats or Republicans who she wants to see represented.

“There are others that are not Democrats in Maplewood,” she said. “I want at least one person there for them. I want to give a voice to the people who don’t already have one.”

Adams, like Lembrich, said that many local issues are not partisan, but that she encourages Republicans and independents in town to run for office.

“I think they should run, if there is a Republican who knows the issues I would expect there to be agreements,” she said. “If there was someone who was informed and had good ideas but was a Republican I would still look at them. When it’s more issue oriented, I wouldn’t care what the party is.”