SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The two candidates who are running for village president faced off in a forum hosted by the Academy Heights Neighborhood Association on April 24. Incumbent Sheena Collum and challenger Deborah Davis Ford, a current South Orange trustee, each had two minutes to answer each question without a chance to rebut.
On the topic of shared services and the potential merging of the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments, Davis Ford said she would prefer a regional model rather than just combining the departments of the two towns.
“The statement that was presented did not allow for governance from South Orange,” she said at the debate. “It allowed for Maplewood to have total control and it did not allow for the efficiency that the cities need.”
Davis Ford said that having shared services is a no-brainer, but not at the expense of quality of service.
“I believe that we should do better,” she said. “We should take our time and make sure all shared services are equal. It should be regionalized and we should include Millburn, West Orange, Irvington, other towns that are similar to our services that protects civil service and our unions.”
Collum said that if the merger happens, the South Orange Firehouse would remain open and no fewer than six firefighters would be stationed there.
“The No. 1 priority was to increase operational efficiencies, which means no longer do we just have six people responding, or seven — we have the power of two towns,” she said at the debate. “It advances not only the efficiencies but our training and administrative abilities and in the long term it is going to save taxpayer money, not just because of the overtime, but what we call cost avoidance.”
Collum said that she sees Maplewood as South Orange’s biggest ally, also mentioning the shared tax collector, court system, school district and senior citizen initiatives.
Candidates also responded to a question about homelessness in the town and how they would address it. Davis Ford said the village should have social services in place to be able to provide help to those who need it.
“I would suggest that South Orange has an individual — or maybe even a committee formed — to address the homeless and the housing challenge,” she said. “It could be in partnership with an organization that exists on a county level that has a lot of resources for homelessness.”
Davis Ford also mentioned more affordable housing as a priority for South Orange to address homelessness, saying that it would be a way to allow people to stay in South Orange.
“If they’re a member of our community, how can we keep them here and find the resources for them to have a better life?” she said.
Collum agreed that South Orange should work with the county to solve the homelessness problem. She added that Essex County spends 9 percent of it stax dollars on open space, but both South Orange and Maplewood are too small to see many of the benefits and need more help in other areas.
“We are not big enough to have our own division of social services,” Collum said. “This is something that needs a countywide strategy, different locations and better ways of communicating with our residents. I think that we need to recommit portions of the county budget, not just into homeless shelters, but job training mechanisms that will help get people on their feet.”
She agreed with Davis Ford that affordable housing should become a bigger priority, which would help solve some of the homelessness issue.
The candidates were also asked about communication and how they think civic engagement can be increased in South Orange. Collum said she prides herself on being accessible, saying that she makes herself available to talk to residents.
“What I’d really love to see is options for people to participate in committees without having to attend in person,” she said. “One of the biggest disadvantages is that a lot of our meetings happen at nighttime and for people with small children or for people who are not as mobile, it’s a little bit more difficult for them to participate. We do have the technology and, if you do it right, people should be able to call into meetings and be able to participate.”
Collum also proposed a townwide volunteer directory to make residents more aware of existing opportunities to become involved and interact with the government in one centralized place.
Davis Ford said South Orange should make better use of its website and Facebook page, and have one location where residents can find news and information about the village.
“I believe that to improve civic engagement we need to be able to have something in place that can connect different organizations, different interests and different people to come together and focus on what is important to them and what will benefit their community and organization.”