Orange candidates debate the issues at two-night forum

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ORANGE, NJ — Candidates facing off in the Orange City Council election participated in two virtual debates, on April 27 and April 28, sharing their ideas for the council with voters ahead of the May 10 election. In sessions based on the ward they are running in, the candidates answered questions submitted by the public and from the moderators. The North and South Ward candidates debated on April 27; the East and West Ward candidates debated on April 28. The events were hosted by the HUUB, University of Orange, the Community Improvement Association of the Oranges and the Friends of Metcalf Park.

Running in the North Ward is incumbent Council Vice President Tency Eason and challengers Sharief Williams and Kami Willis. Willis was the only candidate available to participate in the debate on April 27.

Development was a topic of discussion, and a question posed to the candidate asked what development issues she believes to be the most pressing. Willis said she wants to make sure that residents are involved in the planning of new developmental projects in Orange.

“Before any money is allocated, the residents will be informed as to where the money is being issued,” she said. “I will be holding meetings before it happens, not after.”

When discussing safety and health, Willis said that, in order to make sure that residents have affordable shelter and access to food and other social services, she wants to create a resource center where residents can find information.

“There will be training programs, computer classes, job placements, showers, and washers and dryers where residents can feel confident about going out into society,” Willis said.

Running in the South Ward are incumbent Councilwoman Jamie Summers-Johnson and challengers Lynval James and James Ward. All three were at the debate on April 27 and discussed development as well. James said there is too much housing being built with not enough parking, which causes residents to have to drive around looking for a space.

“We are building, but we have nowhere to put vehicles,” James said. “We should be renovating at this point instead of building, because a lot of these buildings are outdated and in disrepair. We need to plan better, and the residents need to be part of the planning.”

Ward said Orange lacks transparency and partnership surrounding development.

“Builders are often tasked by municipalities to provide opportunities for input on major works as a contingency for their approval,” Ward said. “I have witnessed municipalities and local community organizations require developers to hire and purchase locally to improve open spaces, update transit stations and directly fund community initiatives. We must legislate pathways for community benefits agreements and business improvement districts to address the pressing needs of our community and how businesses can be the engines of positive change.”

According to Summers-Johnson, one of the biggest issues surrounding development is education. She believes residents need to better understand what impact different types of projects will have on the city.

“When you hear tax abatement or PILOT, it’s always in a negative way,” Summers-Johnson said. PILOT stands for payment in lieu of taxes. “Before I became a councilperson I felt the same way, until it was explained that a piece of land might bring in $60,000 in taxes, but then when we let someone develop on that land, it can bring in a PILOT payment of $250,000 and also bring in jobs.”

Summers-Johnson also said adequate parking is needed, in addition to effective codes and code enforcement. When discussing health and safety, she said that Orange needs more community policing, so that residents recognize the police officers patrolling their neighborhoods.

“They can link up with the neighborhood watches, which are still watching the neighborhoods,” she said. “Once they can put a name to an officer’s face, it will put everyone at ease.”

She also wants to make sure that recreation programs for youths are run year-round instead of just in the summer, so that not everything is happening at the same time. James agreed, and wants to expand programming for senior citizens as well.

“We have feedback about what the seniors want and what we can do to make a difference for them,” he said. “We can have officials come in and speak with them.”

In Orange’s East Ward, incumbent Council President Kerry Coley is running for reelection against challengers Tyrone Tarver and Fatimah Turner. Coley was not present at the April 28 debate, though Tarver and Turner both were. When discussing development, Tarver said there is too much of it happening in the city.

“The redesignation of East Ward neighborhoods as areas for redevelopment is bad,” Tarver said. “This allows the city to claim eminent domain in a number of neighborhoods. Traffic issues will be huge in the coming years, and this influx of new residents who rent creates numerous parking issues.”

Tarver also does not support tax abatements; he said they create a loss in tax revenue, and, as a result, not enough money is being sent to the Orange School District.

Similar to candidates running in other wards, Turner said there needs to be more resident input.

“I think there should be town halls,” she said at the debate, also calling for increased accountability from council members. “When we have issues pressing this community, the residents are not heard, their questions aren’t answered and I think there’s a lot of miseducation. Everyone should be involved in the planning process. It should be free and open to all (members of the) public.”

Turner is a licensed therapist and, when discussing health and safety, she talked about the time she spends offering free sessions to residents of the East Ward. If she can’t take these residents on as new clients, then she recruits colleagues to see them. She wants to see more mental health programs being offered.

“I also assist the community in cleanups, for picking up trash and trying to reduce rat infestations,” she said.

Both candidates discussed food insecurity, and Tarver said that, with the recent closing of the East Orange ShopRite, the city should work out deals with other local grocery stores to increase shop-from-home services for seniors and residents with transportation hardships.

“We can work out an agreement with the school district to use their buses to do weekend grocery pickup and delivery for those with those hardships,” Tarver said. “That also creates jobs locally and at these markets. We can create safe and monitored carpool opportunities to these markets.”

Current West Ward Councilman Harold Johnson elected not to run for reelection; running to replace him on the council are challengers Jonathan Beckford, Quantavia Hilbert, Genora Jenkins and Mohamed Toure. Beckford and Hilbert were both at the debate on April 28; Jenkins and Toure were not.

Beckford said while discussing development that he wants to improve the process that leads to some developments that have been built in Orange.

“What is the due process in actually making sure that the developments are beneficial to the city?” Beckford asked. “Many times, with these developments, we have no clue how they’ve actually been awarded. Also, we need more resident participation. The residents’ voices are not really being heard when these developments are being awarded. The city is not really taking their concerns into consideration.”

Hilbert agreed that there needs to be more transparency.

“Development discussions should always include the residents,” Hilbert said. “We need a participatory group outside of our planning board, outside of our zoning board, so that residents can show up and be a part of it. That also extends to leadership with council members. We need to have community meetings on a monthly basis where you’re making sure that everyone is up-to-date on the current issues that are in Orange.”

When discussing health and safety, Hilbert said she wants additional recreation space for programming from which Orange residents can benefit. Instead of building apartment buildings, she said developers could lease land to develop spaces that would benefit both the developer and the town.

“Not only do we own the land and are generating revenue, but we’re also saying, ‘This is what we have space for in our community and you have to align with our community values,” Hilbert said. “I’m also working on creating a community garden program within Orange. I will fight for grants for vocational programs and social service programs as well, because we need to enlighten our youth on other alternatives from college.”

Addressing food insecurity, Beckford said the city needs to have better options for finding good-quality food in the first place.

“We have one supermarket in the West Ward, and the quality of the food is questionable,” he said. “That’s one thing that we need to address. The other thing we need to address is that, in order for people to afford food, they also need to have jobs. I want to give financial literacy training to these individuals so they can know how to budget and save, so they can eventually become homeowners rather than just renters.”

Election day is May 10.

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