MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The League of Women Voters of Maplewood-South Orange kicked off its centennial year at Maplewood Memorial Library in a community meeting with Freeholder Tyshammie Cooper. Cooper is the county representative for District 3, which includes part of Newark’s West Ward, East Orange, Orange and South Orange; she was elected to the Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2018. Before serving as a freeholder, Cooper was a member of the East Orange City Council, and has been Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren’s chief of staff since 2012. Freeholder Vice President Wayne Richardson, whose District 2 includes parts of Newark’s South and Central Wards, Irvington and Maplewood, was invited to the event but did not attend. He did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Sept. 24.
Before answering questions about specific issues, Cooper discussed the functions of the freeholders and how residents can work with them. She mentioned the new voting machines the county is set to be using this election season, which she called one of the most important issues for her outside of the annual budget.
“Optimal scanners are the way to go,” Cooper said. “This is one of the most important things to me outside of the budget. When I vote, I want to know that my vote is counted.”
Cooper also gave attendees advice about how best to work with the freeholders. She suggested organizations hold events in county parks when possible and partner with the board, which cuts down on the cost of throwing an event, in addition to building relationships between representatives and constituents.
“That’s a great way to leverage the county resources against your own,” Cooper said. “The other thing is to partner with a freeholder and build that relationship so there’s a connection there. We’ll often partner with organizations that ask us, on ads or programs or something like that.”
Cooper is one of two freeholders who did not vote in favor of the resolutions at a July 10 meeting that approved the allocation of $600,000 from the Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund to determine the feasibility of building a 500-seat amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. One resolution approved the money and the other approved entering into a professional services contract with French & Parrello Associates for a feasibility study. Cooper abstained, and Freeholder Romaine Graham was absent. At the LWV meeting, many questions directed toward Cooper were about the zoo.
“I want to have a comprehensive response,” Cooper said while explaining why she abstained from voting on the resolution. “It was unclear to me what we were voting on. I love the zoo and my kids love the zoo. I’d like to see some improvements, but I’m also a tree hugger.”
Claire Asarnow, a resident attending the meeting, said she felt there was little communication about the zoo resolutions before they appeared on the board’s agenda.
“It seemed like it happened behind closed doors,” she said at the event. “And then we found out about it later.”
Cooper agreed. She also said the master plan for the zoo will be released by the end of the year, and while the amphitheater was on the old master plan, it was never built.
Kathie Abrams shared her concerns about the plan for the amphitheater, which originally included large pools in which to house animals.
“I don’t want to see the zoo hold dolphins and whales in captivity,” she said, adding that she does not want Turtle Back Zoo to be like SeaWorld. “It seems like they’re trying to make it like the San Diego Zoo and I don’t know that they have the resources for that.”
Abrams also said she is concerned about taking space away from the South Mountain Reservation and what building on it would do to the animals and natural plants that live there.
Cooper described the freeholders’ relationship with Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and said that nothing can happen in the county without the board’s approval.
“We have a wonderful working relationship,” she said. “We have a responsibility to work together for the residents of the county. The county executive has a list of things he or she wants to do. They can’t happen without the approval of the freeholders. We’re the purse strings.”
Cooper also encouraged residents to speak to their county representatives in any way they can.
“Residents have to have their voices heard,” she said. “Silence is consent.”
Photo by Amanda Valentovic