Four candidates vie for three open South Orange Board of Trustees seats

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — While many people may be thinking ahead to the primary elections on June 8, South Orange residents have a vital election coming up much sooner. On May 11, villagers will have to choose three of four candidates to fill the three open seats on the South Orange Board of Trustees. 

Trustees Walter Clarke and Stephen Schnall have chosen not to run for reelection, leaving only one incumbent in this year’s race. Incumbent Karen Hartshorn Hilton is running a joint campaign with challengers Braynard “Bobby” Brown and Bill Haskins under the slogan “Devoted, Dependable & Diverse.” Challenger Neil Chambers is running a solo campaign with the slogan “Vote for Kids.”

Brown, a corporate attorney who serves as chairperson of the South Orange Community Police Collaborative, is an active member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and a former football player for the Cleveland Browns.

“While I was obviously disappointed by my campaign’s unfavorable outcome during the last Board of Trustees election, in 2019, I was extremely proud of my community, family, and friends after that experience,” Brown told the News-Record. “After taking the necessary time to recover emotionally, I used our community’s exemplary engagement in the 2019 election as my own motivation to do more. Accordingly, I stepped up to coach our third- and fourth-grade basketball team at the South Mountain YMCA. Go Ducks! Nothing makes you forget your own pity party like a diverse group of grade school kids eager to learn and have fun. I was their coach, but those kids taught me just as much as I taught them. They reminded me that my 2019 campaign was simply a commitment to making South Orange a better place for them and their families to enjoy today and for several tomorrows from now. I was thankful for that reminder.

“I am running for Board of Trustees again because I believe that there is a safer, healthier, more vibrant and more inclusive South Orange as the winning prize for serving with pride and working together,” the former athlete continued. “I am happy to team up with Karen Hilton and Bill Haskins in our quest to achieve that goal for South Orange.”

As he is already so involved with the village’s reformative response to the “Use of Force” report, he is looking forward to continuing that work and, as a trustee, building on it.

“If elected, I look forward to tackling the broad issue of equity and inclusion. I describe this issue as broad because several areas of our lives are impacted by whether or not equity and inclusion truly exists. For example, recreational offerings that are designed with more equity and inclusion in mind are better for residents of all ages, races, genders and socioeconomic lifestyles. At the same time, public safety initiatives that ensure better, safer and non-biased interactions with a community-focused police department also improve equity and inclusion efforts,” Brown said. “South Orange is a diverse community, and I look forward to helping all of our residents thrive from the benefits of that diversity.”

Chambers is director of design at Chambers Design, a family-owned business located in South Orange that offers sustainable, modern services that enhance quality of life for families and the environment. In 2017, Chambers was vital in helping to create the “parklet” on West South Orange Avenue, a collaboration between the village, the South Orange Village Center Alliance, the South Orange Environmental Commission, the South Orange Parking Authority and Chambers Design.

“I decided to run because, when I reached out to the elected officials in South Orange to speak out about the school closures, they all said no. They felt it wasn’t their job to stand up for the 7,000-plus kids in the school district who have been incredibly harmed due to closures. They all gave me politically convenient explanations, and I felt it was a huge breach of trust. They lined up with the unions and stayed silent,” Chambers told the News-Record. “Even now, it’s completely unacceptable that they are unwilling to fully support the families that depend on and were promised adequate education. The fact we are fighting for ‘adequate’ education is testament to the bigger issues. We should be celebrating amazing education in the district — but there’s no accountability. I think the lack of accountability is the real issue in local government. Everyone seems to want to say it’s not their job. As a former member of the South Orange Planning Board, Environmental Commission and Green Team, I have heard this excuse over and over and over. It was only when the excuse was obviously hurting thousands of families and kids that I couldn’t stand by anymore.”

According to Chambers, if elected, his top priority is making the board accountable.

“Our taxes are going up while quality services go down. The only thing we ever hear about is amenities and services being taken away. When’s the last time we felt the town did more than expected? Just look around at the parks, parking and downtown; are they examples of excellence? Are their conditions the village’s best effort?” Chambers asked. “It seems that I’m supposed to just pretend things are going great and only getting better. People are struggling — and it’s not business as usual. We need a fresh path forward, because everyone is falling behind. As a South Orange trustee, I will devote my tenure to ensuring that our town and its elected representatives are accountable for actually making the quality of life in South Orange better, and I’ll do it in a way that is radically more transparent.”

Haskins, a project manager for New York City residential construction, serves as chairperson of the South Orange Environmental Commission and Green Team; a volunteer with the South Mountain Conservancy, SOMA Action Climate and more; and co-founder of the USA Track & Field–sanctioned running group South Mountain Runners.

“I have been the chair of the South Orange Environmental Commission for three years, and, with a growing corps of volunteers, we’ve accomplished a lot around the village,” Haskins told the News-Record. “Now is the time to step up and make sure environmental issues stay on the Board of Trustees agenda. I’m also interested in working on pedestrian safety, housing affordability, library programming and, with professional experience as a construction project manager, I’m ready to lend some expertise toward South Orange’s construction projects.”

If elected, Haskins said he is most looking forward to “improving the environmental efficacy of our recycling and municipal solid waste programs.”

“Recycling and garbage affects everyone every day,” Haskins said. “Villagers know the story: ocean garbage patches, overfilled landfills, incinerators that emit noxious fumes that are harmful to our health — all of it always in neighborhoods that never wanted them. We know we can do better. With a full community commitment, we can do our part and reduce costs as well.”

Seeking election for a second term on the BOT, Hilton is chairperson of the Finance Committee and led the charge to reconvene the Citizens Budget Advisory Board; serves on the Recreation and Public Works committees; is a co-founder of the Foundation for the South Orange Public Library; and serves as BOT liaison to the library and Senior Citizen Advisory Board.

“Another four years as village trustee will allow me to continue improving our public spaces, enhancing fiscal oversight and making South Orange a place for everyone to call home. Electing the ticket of Hilton, Bill Haskins and Bobby Brown will bring this goal to fruition,” Hilton told the News-Record. “Over the last four years, I’ve continued the work of reinvigorating our commercial spaces, as well as the renovation of the Baird Center. In the next four years, we need to continue to improve our downtown corridor; repurpose the Cameron tennis courts, which have fallen into disrepair; complete the River Greenway Project; and transform our library into the magnificent space our community deserves. In addition, I will continue to pursue all aspects of pedestrian safety; equity and inclusion; fiscal prudence; and a robust recreation program.”

Hilton is also eager to continue working with the board to bring more shared services to the village.

“We have investigated sharing essential municipal services with Maplewood, to improve the quality and the efficiency of service delivery,” she said. “In the next four years, we have to make sure we move from the planning stages and make shared services a reality wherever doing so will benefit both our towns.”

In addition to all these items on her village to-do list, Hilton is most looking forward to continuing her work with the library.

“If I have the honor of being reelected, I am most excited about renovating our public library spaces,” she said. “All of the other projects are important as well, but the library has been, and continues to be, my top priority.”

According to acting Village Clerk Ojetti E. Davis, the May 11 election will have in-person voting for residents.

“The May 11 election will be an in-person election; the ballot box is for voters who have requested a vote-by-mail ballot,” Davis told the News-Record.