Four candidates vie for three seats on the South Orange BOT

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — This coming Tuesday, May 11, South Orange residents will go to the polls to elect three of four candidates to serve on the South Orange Board of Trustees. Running a joint campaign are incumbent Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, who is currently serving her first four-year term, and challengers Braynard “Bobby” Brown and Bill Haskins; they are running under the slogan “Devoted, Dependable & Diverse.” Challenger Neil Chambers is running a solo campaign under the slogan “Vote for Kids.”

Current Trustees Walter Clarke and Stephen Schnall have chosen not to run for reelection.

Brown, who has lived in South Orange for 13 years, is an attorney and volunteer youth sports coach. The former NFL player is chairperson of the South Orange Community Police Collaborative, which advises the village on best practices to ensure the village has an equitable and transparent police department. This work goes hand-in-hand with what Brown identified to the News-Record as the top issue to be addressed in the village.

“I see the top issue as equity and inclusion across various parts of our community,” Brown told the News-Record. “If elected, I would address it by identifying shortcomings, providing opportunities for all residents to suggest ways to improve, and executing a plan of action to create a more inclusive community. It is my hope that South Orange will become the example of equity and inclusion across areas like recreation and arts, police and resident encounters, affordable housing stock, and in everyday interactions between both neighbors and visitors to our community.”

In addition to improving residents’ lives through equity and inclusion, Brown feels the village can do more to protect residents’ health — and the planet’s health.

“We need to finalize a meaningful recycling plan that is consistent with our environmental needs and goals,” Brown said. “I would also want to see more open space reserved for residents to use. Smart development, that includes bike paths and pedestrian-friendly considerations, is also a way for our residents to live healthier lives that are less dependent on driving their vehicles.”

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; according to Chambers, his business grew out of his love for plants. Chambers has served on the village’s Planning Board, Environmental Commission and Green Team, and helped found the Meadowland Park Conservancy. In 2017, Chambers was vital in helping to create the “parklet” on West South Orange Avenue, and he designed and built the rain park at the Duck Pond. In Chambers’ view, the village’s top issue is that its leaders cling to the past rather than focus on the future.

“The top issue is that we are stuck in the past. It’s a past defined by party rule and red tape. I’ve found that good ideas get slow-walked to death, and that good people get overlooked because cliques are somehow more valuable than community. It’s why I talk about accountability, and why I try to give straightforward answers. It might also be why I don’t get invited to many holiday parties,” Chambers told the News-Record, adding that he felt he had to run for the board in response to what he views as a lack of response from village officials to support students during the COVID-19 lockdown. “Our education system is in crisis. The school closures failed our kids during the pandemic, while historical methods of funding and assigning kids to specific schools failed our children before the pandemic.

“It seems no one is being served,” Chambers continued, highlighting issues with ventilation in the schools, student needs not being met and student placement. “When I reached out to the elected officials in South Orange and begged — literally begged — them to speak up for the 7,000-plus kids in the district, they said, and I quote, ‘It’s not that we are silent … it’s political posturing.’ Hence my statement about being stuck in the past defined by party rule.”

Chambers also believes that development in South Orange needs to be ecologically friendly and that South Orange needs to move forward in all spheres, with an emphasis on green energy and remediating the effects of climate change.

“Along with the parks, we need to see public spaces in the downtown areas as vital climate adaptive spaces that are transformed into places people love,” Chambers said. “We need to marry things like green infrastructure with placemaking and invent new hybrids that serve people and planet.”

Haskins, a residential construction project manager who commutes daily to New York City, 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. Haskins has lived in the Academy Heights neighborhood for 15 years. When asked what he believes the top issue is in South Orange today, Haskins responded: “sustainability.”

“But not just the environmental definition — sustainability meaning the ability to meet our needs while others can still meet theirs, now and in the future,” Haskins told the News-Record. “Let’s focus on community building — hearing people and helping them. We are a village of go-getters, but also go-givers. Let’s help all our neighbors now and also leave that legacy.”

Of course though, as chairperson of the SOEC and Green Team, Haskins does have a lot of ideas regarding the environmental definition of sustainability.

“There is a lot we should do in the village, but my top priorities are: building the next phase of the grant-funded River Greenway Project, connecting South Orange to Maplewood with a nature-lined walking and biking path, including a new bridge over the Rahway River; collaborating with Maplewood on an innovative recycling and municipal solid waste plan; planting trees in our parks and on our streets to shore up our struggling tree canopy, as our tree inventory shows we have lost over 25 percent of our canopy in the last few decades; and supporting energy aggregation, an effective tool to deliver more renewable energy to residents,” Haskins said.

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. In her personal life, the 25-year South Orange resident is a nonprofit professional with a background in government finance.

“There are many ‘top’ issues of the village,” Hilton told the News-Record. “No. 1 is the balancing of providing effective and efficient public services while limiting tax increases. We must manage our finances responsibly, seeking efficiencies and new revenue sources. The village is working on responsible development, allowing us to meet our affordable-housing responsibility, along with helping to alleviate the burden of homeowners shouldering the entire financial burden of the village expenses.”

In terms of environmentalism, Hilton said the River Greenway Project and changing the village’s recycling system are the first two items that need to be addressed.

“The river greenway is a treasure that is long overdue for completion,” Hilton said. “Our current recycling is in dire need of reform, and we are in the process of a joint study with Maplewood, which I am confident will result in a more robust and efficient service. I want our residents to know that changes are coming to our village recycling!”

In the coming year, the Board of Trustees will need to evaluate, interview and select a new police chief, following the recent retirement of Chief Kyle Kroll.

As chairperson of the village’s CPC, Brown has a firm idea of what he wants in a new police chief and knows that he wants public input in the process.

“While we certainly want our new chief to have exemplary experience and aptitude as determined by normal prescreening and objective testing, I think the new chief should be committed to far exceeding state and national standards of policing,” Brown said. “I think our residents should be able to ask tough questions about the candidates’ views on recent, newsworthy incidents and get a chance to actively participate in the process of evaluating the finalists.”

Chambers’ ideal police chief would be someone who reflects the community’s character, is apolitical and supports increased police involvement beyond law enforcement.

“I want them to push the police department to play a bigger role in the community with volunteer work; I’d love to see more of the police officers outdoors pulling weeds along the river with volunteers during the summer,” Chambers said. “They need to be a huge fan of accountability. They need to admit when there’s a mistake and take responsibility. (They need to) commit to do regular public town hall meetings, to take questions and talk frankly about situations in town.”

Haskins feels that South Orange’s new police chief should bring “curiosity and compassion” to the role.

According to Haskins, the new chief should ask, “for example, ‘What is safety?’ to children crossing our streets, to houseless people in our train stations, to workers in our shops and restaurants, to seniors trying to stay here, to drivers on our streets, to people at the food pantry, to everyone. And then, ‘What is care?’ The Community Police Collaborative is on it and the new chief should be eager to work with them.”

For Hilton, good communication is an essential quality for the new police chief.

“The new police chief needs to have excellent communication skills, and the ability to manage our police force effectively and efficiently,” Hilton said. “She, or he, will need to ensure that the village priorities and vision are effectively maintained.”

Taxes are a big-button issue each election season. According to U.S. News, New Jersey has the highest tax rate in the nation at 2.49 percent, and South Orange residents are certainly feeling the tax burden.

According to Brown, in addition to working to find efficiencies, if elected he would work to ensure residents know about all of the programs and assistances that are available to them when it comes to paying taxes.

“I would try to find more efficient ways to allocate our existing resources and welcome new tax sources by attracting smart development. I would also make sure struggling local taxpayers are equipped with the necessary information for personal and business relief opportunities,” Brown said, adding that future development needs to be in line with the ideals expressed in the village’s recent master plan. “Smart development based on a long-term vision is key for South Orange to thrive over the next 25 years.”

Chambers acknowledged that high taxes are a plague across the state of New Jersey, causing many people to move elsewhere.

“I, like most people here, have watched our property taxes increase as our services degrade. This is a recipe for disaster. Every cycle, candidates talk about how they can eliminate or consolidate services and amenities to reduce the municipal costs. This cycle the conversation is about eliminating curbside leaf pickup. Last cycle, it was consolidating the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments. And before that, it was selling the historic Village Hall,” Chambers said, expressing his doubt that these actions would actually reduce taxes for anyone.

Chambers recounted going to court to challenge the value the tax assessor had placed on his home, as he believed the value was too great, leading to higher taxes.

“During my visit, I got to hear dozens of other homeowners plead their cases to the court — and with every case, the South Orange attorney fought against them and sided with the assessor. South Orange should be paying professionals to fight for the residents not to fight against them,” Chambers said. “Based on my experience, eliminating leaf pickup won’t do bupkes. In fact, it makes the homeowner pay for the leaf removal twice: They won’t see a tax reduction from the service eliminated, and then they will need to pay a private company to remove them. If we want to see our taxes reduced, we have to change the role legal professionals play in the system from one where they defend assessors to one where they defend residents.”

With taxes so high in South Orange and across the state, Haskins stressed the importance of working with residents to ensure they can afford to stay in their homes.

“We should be doing everything possible to help struggling villagers stay here at home. Support Homestead and Senior Freeze programs, Comfort Partners’ money-saving energy upgrades, approve accessory dwelling units, collaborate with the Community Coalition on Race on the wealth-gap equalizer loan program, support home sharing and any other options available,” Haskins said, adding that South Orange needs to reevaluate how it looks at development, which goes hand in hand with a municipality’s financials.

“We often think of development in the following terms: How many projects are there? How big are they? And what do they look like? I think we should consider those things but also look at them as long-term relationships. The village often gives access and/or assets to these projects, and we should be always thinking what the project returns are — in multiple ways — to the community in the near term and long term,” Haskins said. “Affordable housing, public meeting spaces and park improvements are positive outcomes from development projects, and we should be asking if we can do more. Also thinking about how new residents will integrate with their neighborhoods: Will they go to the block party? Will the neighborhood association come to them? It should be about more than just buildings.”

Hilton approaches the tax issue with a holistic view, looking into various areas for possible savings, while also being realistic that cutting costs could mean cutting services.

“I will continue to pursue all aspects of cost savings wherever possible, making sure that we are taking advantage of refinancing opportunities for our village debt, and sharing services and delivering services in the most economical manner possible; one example of this is our current recycling contract. Along with our Environmental Commission, I hope we can bring about real reforms and changes to the current ineffective and costly system,” Hilton said. “I do believe that our village operations are funded at an appropriate level, and, if we need to find cost savings, we will need to be honest and discuss what services we are willing to forgo or operate at a pared-down level.”

Hilton also drew attention to the need for new ratables, which can be achieved through new development and by enticing new businesses to settle in the village.

“The new developments will help shoulder the tax burden, currently 90 percent of which is carried by homeowners, and the developments will also help us meet our required affordable-housing obligations,” Hilton said. “I am concerned about the temporary inconvenience the current development projects are placing on our streets, but I am proud that we have responsibly brought new ratables to our village.”

Polling places in South Orange will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 11.