Maplewood TC candidates debate issues at HNA forum

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Maplewood Township Committee candidates, from left, Dean Dafis, Mayor Vic DeLuca and Mike Summersgill, participate in a candidates forum hosted by the Hilton Neighborhood Association on Sept. 28.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The police department and residential development took center stage at the Hilton Neighborhood Association’s Maplewood Township Committee Candidates Forum on Thursday, Sept. 28, at the DeHart Community Center. Incumbent Mayor Vic DeLuca, and challengers Dean Dafis and Mike Summersgill answered prepared questions about the community, then the public had an opportunity to voice their concerns and get to know the candidates running for the two open seats on the committee. Committeewoman India Larrier is not running for re-election.

To start off the forum, the candidates gave some background information about themselves. DeLuca, who has served on the Township Committee for 18 years, 12 as mayor, recounted some past accomplishments. Dafis and Summersgill introduced themselves to the community. Dafis moved to Maplewood two years ago from New York City; Summersgill has lived in town since 2008 and previously ran for Township Committee last year. DeLuca and Dafis are both running as Democrats and Summersgill is running as the lone Republican.

A question that received much discussion at the forum, which was moderated by HNA President Carol Buchanan, was about police force training and what the town can do to make sure that Maplewood police officers are racially responsible.

“The incidents of the past year have really damaged the public’s trust in our town’s institutions,” Summersgill said, referring to the July 5, 2016, incident in which Maplewood police appeared to use excessive force to herd rowdy teenagers toward Irvington. “The video and audio of the police behavior was shocking, and the Township Committee’s lack of action for over a year was more shocking. It sent a terrible message to our community that they’re not valued and that we’re not concerned about their safety.”

Summersgill continued to say that now that action has been taken, with police Capt. Joshua Cummis retiring after being placed on administrative leave, and police Chief Robert Cimino remaining on administrative leave and scheduled to retire, he doesn’t know why those actions couldn’t have taken place sooner.

“I question why we leave someone in power if we don’t think they’re capable of doing the job and why we didn’t remove them as soon as that came to light,” Summersgill said. “The result we’re seeing now is that we didn’t execute good judgment, and now we’ve got a lawsuit for one individual and a hefty payout for the other. You look at those damages and that dollar amount and that’s a good indication of the quality of decision making and judgment that was being made in that situation.”

DeLuca challenged Summersgill’s position on why action wasn’t taken immediately, saying that when a complaint is filed with the department and a police officer is brought up on charges, it has to be sent to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The town followed those regulations.

“We took the action that we were allowed to, according to the law. Mr. Summersgill just doesn’t understand the state law,” DeLuca said. “I think you’ll find when the report comes out from our independent experts looking at this, it will confirm that we took the appropriate steps in handling this.”

That report was released Sept. 29, the day after the forum.

DeLuca said he was disappointed with the way the prosecutor’s office handled the complaint, saying that he was not sure it was investigated. He added that he was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled internally.

“That’s why we decided to move forward and release the tapes, and when we took action it was decisive action,” DeLuca said. “Within 90 days now we have a resolution; we’re removing the chief next week.”

Addressing the question, DeLuca said that crowd management and control principles will be a priority with the new captain and chief. He also wants to enforce procedural justice and community policing, which will focus on making sure residents feel they are being respected by police. He also mentioned de-escalation training, which 17 officers will be participating in this month.

“Peer intervention is very important,” DeLuca said. “We had captains and lieutenants and sergeants who didn’t even suggest to the chief during the event that things were wrong and should have been rethought. So we need to figure out how to give training to our command staff so they can intervene and say: ‘Slow down and let’s think about our tactics.’”

Dafis touted community policing in his response to the question.

“The answer is community policing, and we get to community policing through better training,” he said, adding the need for “anti-bias training, cultural competence training and de-escalation training,” as well as “continued procedural criminal justice training.”

“It shouldn’t stop at the academy,” Dafis said. “It should continue. It’s one of our biggest pressing issues, to reboot our police department, to make it more transparent and accountable, and to work with the community in doing so. Otherwise we’re never going to change the culture that currently exists.”

Candidates also discussed development in the Hilton neighborhood — a top concern for members of the Hilton Neighborhood Association — and whether or not they believe the area has become oversaturated with new buildings. Dafis said he does believe Maplewood is becoming oversaturated with development, with apartment buildings across the street from Maplewood Police Headquarters, across the street from Seth Boyden School and on Burnett Avenue.

“Enough is enough with the residential development,” he said. “Where are all of those people going to go? Where are the pedestrian accommodations? Where are they going to walk? My focus would be to focus on commercial development along Springfield Avenue.”

Dafis went on to describe the Springfield Avenue of years past, when there were more retailers on the street compared with now.

“We’ve accepted this idea that all we can do is auto body shops. We have a few great restaurants who continue to thrive and do well, but there isn’t a hot zone that promotes walkability,” he said.

DeLuca also believes that areas of town, like Hilton, have reached oversaturation with apartment development, but disagrees with Dafis about the Springfield Avenue area.

“I don’t feel the same way about Springfield Avenue, I think we can continue to develop (on Springfield Avenue),” he said at the forum. “We’ve been working on mixed-use development. I have a different perspective than Dean on this; I think that we have built commercial development on Springfield Avenue.”

DeLuca cited Walgreens and Wawa as businesses that occupy the street now as opposed to a decade ago.

“I think Springfield Avenue does have the capacity to take more residential properties and mixed-use properties, a combination of retail and residential,” he said.

DeLuca also wants to continue to develop the building that used to be home to hardware store Maplewood Building Specialties. The mayor said that the town is in talks to turn the property into 173 affordable assisted living units. Half the units would be available to people eligible for Medicaid.

“These are for folks who are not going to be able to get into Winchester, who want to stay involved in the community,” DeLuca said, referring to the assisted living facility Winchester Gardens in town. “These are for our parents who want to live close to us, if our homes are not suitable for them because of stairs and whatever else they need. I think that is a huge win for Maplewood and that’s one that I would pursue in the Hilton section.”

Summersgill rebutted DeLuca’s statements in his response, saying, “I’ve been living in Maplewood for nine years, I’ve heard the story about affordable living before. I’ve heard about senior housing before, so until it’s done I don’t think we can count that as a success.”

He added that a developer will do what is in their best interest as opposed to the township’s, and it is the job of the municipal government to set the guidelines for what the town wants so that both sides can benefit from development.

“Where I see government’s role is to set those guiderails about what we want, so that we can move the developers toward that intersection of what’s good for them and profitable and what’s good for us, our town and our community,” Summersgill said.

Summersgill said that the Avalon Bay apartments along Springfield Avenue could have had a stoop and community feel to them, instead of a garage and utility meters. He also said that Maplewood’s infrastructure can’t sustain any more development — the sewer systems have had to be updated to support the amount of people in an apartment building.

The three candidates also got a chance to tell residents what would make them qualified to serve on the township committee. Dafis described his family’s small business, a Greek diner, and his struggles of not fitting in.

“I grew up in a small business. I know what it’s like to compete with the Wawa down the street. We had to compete with the big commercial chains,” he said. “I know what it’s like to try to fit in in a neighborhood where no one else looks or talks like you. I was the gay kid who got bullied at school. I was later the gay adult who was told ‘you’re a second-class citizen according to the law.’ So I became an attorney to help others and give back to my community. I really think you will not get someone who will work harder.”

Dafis said that he went to his first Maplewood Township Committee meeting only a week after moving to town, and was inspired to become involved. DeLuca humorously took credit for Dafis being affected, though sobered up to deliver his closing remark.

“I’m running on my record, and I think the record is pretty good,” DeLuca said. “I know none of you are going to agree with me all the time, we’ve had our ups and downs. But I get in there and roll up my sleeves, I work hard, I listen, I’m out there. I provide the leadership, I get things done and I think that’s what I offer to you.”

Summersgill said that his professional experience as an engineer who specializes in efficiency and operations, as well as his work in customer service, make him tailor-made for this position.

“Basically, how do you deliver the best customer experience using the tools, technology and people that you have in place? Wouldn’t that be great to bring to government?” he said. “We could have a great customer experience when dealing with government to get more out of the resources that we have, and that’s the kind of thing that I hope to bring to the Township Committee.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.