WEST ORANGE, NJ — When West Orange voters head to the polls on Nov. 6, they will be choosing from five candidates running for two open seats on the West Orange Township Council. Incumbent Councilman Victor Cirilo is running for his third term and incumbent Council President Susan McCartney is running for her fifth. The challengers are Monica Perkowski, Cindy Matute-Brown and Susan Scarpa. All five candidates shared their ideas for how they want to move West Orange forward in sit-down interviews with the West Orange Chronicle.
Taxes are a topic of constant conversation in West Orange, as they have risen in the last several years, prompting some residents to move out of town. Perkowski wants to explore sharing services and cutting services that might not be necessary at the moment.
“It’s important to take a look at the ancillary expenses,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 25. “There are those nice-to-have items and now is maybe not the right time to have them. It looks like drops in the bucket but it all adds up. We could look at more shared services with the Board of Education or other surrounding towns, to see how we could benefit from that and get some price relief.”
McCartney said that West Orange doesn’t replace township employees as they retire, instead absorbing their jobs into other departments, which she said saves money. She also said taxes can be offset by applying for and being awarded grants. Additionally, McCartney said starting a townwide recycling program could save money as the cost of recycling rises.
Cirilo agreed that attrition is a huge benefit to the municipal budget.
“We have 50 less employees than we did a decade ago,” Cirilo said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 18. “It’s difficult because there are growing costs in health care and we still have to pay for retiree benefits.”
Cirilo said he thinks the township does a good job of managing the number of services it offers while only controlling the 25 cents on the dollar it receives from municipal taxes.
“You get police, fire, snow plowing and recreation and everything else,” he said. “I think people are generally happy with the services. I think we need to look at what we’ve done over the last eight years. I stand by the track record; I think we’ve been fiscally responsible.”
Matute-Brown said the hiring of employees with no-bid contracts has to end because more competitive contracts for services would give the township a way to save money.
“Not having a culture with bidding is detrimental,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 25. “I think we could also reassess some departments and look at consolidating because that would save money. There are storefronts in town that are empty that we could draw businesses to that would have an effect on taxes, and a full-time planner could help with that. That investment could save us some money.”
Scarpa said that she wants to look at the budget and trim extra expenses.
“The main issue I hear about is that taxes are too high,” she told the Chronicle on Oct. 25. “I have neighbors who are leaving West Orange because they can no longer afford the taxes. One of the main drivers is insurance. It’s been the same insurance for 20 years and we need to look at changing that. We’re a little stuck and there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
The candidates also discussed term limits in both their interviews and at a debate hosted by the West Orange African Heritage Organization on Oct. 23 at the United Presbyterian Church. Perkowski believes in term limits, saying that as the demographics of the town change, the representation on the council should also change.
“Everyone that has served has had the best of intentions, but as demographics change we need new voices,” she said to the Chronicle. “I think it would encourage more people to get involved. I would support two, four-year terms for mayor and council and two, three-years for the Board of Education. After a while I think people just start checking the box when voting and that keeps the same thinking. The voter should have more of a choice.”
Perkowski proposed creating a voluntary advisory board made up of former council members, allowing people who have served on the council to act as mentors to current council members and remain involved in the town.
McCartney thinks the voters should determine term limits, and there shouldn’t be a cap to how long someone can sit on the council.
“I think that the community decides about term limits, not legislation,” she said at the debate. “There’s the Edison quote that says ‘what you do will be who you are.’ And when I did my introduction and I started to list all the things that I have been an agent of change of for the past 16 years, I hope with your vote I can continue to do so.”
Cirilo also said at the debate that he is not in favor of term limits at the local level.
“I trust you, the voters,” he said. “I trust you that you’re going to make the right choice. If you feel that Victor Cirilo is not doing a good job with respect to garbage pickup, law enforcement, quality of services in West Orange, vote me out of office and hold me accountable. At the local level, I trust that you will make the right decision.”
Matute-Brown said that she is in favor of enacting term limits.
“I think when you’re on for that long you become a little jaded,” she told the Chronicle. “It’s not nefarious, but it creates the appearance that it is. With the population that we have, there’s a whole town of people who could be just as good and maybe even better. I think if there are term limits at the national level, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have them here.”
Scarpa agreed with Cirilo that the voters should decide when elected officials should no longer serve, but also believes that it is time for new people to serve on the council.
“I would hope that term limits could be enforced by the voters,” she said at the debate. “Unfortunately that hasn’t happened to date. That would be the best way for it to happen, but since it hasn’t, I really do think that we need new blood in our town. I’ve met so many young families that have such talented people that could give so much to our community. I just think we need to tap into all of our residents and use all of their talent.”
West Orange is a large and diverse town, and the candidates discussed how to better unite residents who come from different cultural and economic backgrounds. Perkowski said that many groups are unified in their own neighborhoods, but there is nothing tying everyone together overall.
“There’s no real town feel, and I think part of that comes from the size,” she said to the Chronicle. “We’re not good at advertising events and I think we could really benefit from town hall meetings. That will give people a chance to raise their hands and give back. We should be doing more to keep our people in town and more to bring in others.”
McCartney said that she think the town does a good job uniting citizens who wouldn’t necessarily come together.
“I don’t know that it’s divided,” she told the Chronicle. “I think to continue that we have to let everyone know that events are open to the public and keep the lines of communication open.”
Cirilo thinks that residents being comfortable in their own groups or neighborhoods is a good thing; he does want to see those groups come together more though.
“West Orange has historically been a town of neighborhoods and enclaves,” he told the Chronicle. “People want to belong to a group, and there is unity within ethnic groups and neighborhoods. I think we can have neighborhood gatherings and come together at town events. I think we can co-promote and be more engaged, but I’m not going to look for an issue where there isn’t one.”
Matute-Brown said that she thinks West Orange is unified, but not in all facets of the community.
“There is unity in West Orange, but I think looking at social media is different,” she said to the Chronicle. “We need to work on building that sense of unity with language that isn’t divisive. There’s no shield and we can’t call every instance out, but I think there’s a culture of exclusivity that we need to change. We’re good, but we could be better.”
Scarpa wants to see more people from West Orange get involved in the community, which she thinks will solve some more divisive issues.
“I don’t see a huge problem,” she said to the Chronicle. “But I think we need to bring people together in town. We need to get representation from different parts of town because we’re spread out. We need more people to come out to meetings and get involved.”
Debate photo by Amanda Valentovic