MAPLEWOOD, NJ — There are two open seats on the Maplewood Township Committee, with three candidates vying for them Tuesday, Nov. 7, each with their own ideas on how to improve Maplewood. Incumbent Mayor Vic DeLuca is running for his seventh term on the committee after serving for the last 18 years, 12 as mayor. Compared with DeLuca, fellow Democrat Dean Dafis is a relative newcomer to town, having lived in Maplewood for 2 1/2 years. Mike Summersgill, the lone Republican on the ballot, moved to town nine years ago. The varying amounts of time each candidate has been involved in the community are not hindrances, as they said in their interviews with the News-Record.
Redevelopment has been a topic of debate in Maplewood for some time, as the addition of apartment buildings has created concerns about pedestrian safety and property values. Dafis believes Maplewood has reached the saturation point of development.
“Where are all of these people going to go?” he asked in an Oct. 13 interview. “We want to make Maplewood more walkable, and if there is nowhere to walk to they won’t shop in Maplewood.”
Dafis said the town has been shortsighted in terms of where residents shop; additionally, too much development will create congestion in neighborhoods. He also thinks that when an area of Maplewood is developed, it should benefit both the town and the developer.
“Development doesn’t mean we should give everything away and not get anything back,” he said.
DeLuca agrees with Dafis up to a point.
“In the Hilton neighborhood, I think we’re done,” the mayor said in an Oct. 19 interview. “Mixed use is the way to go. We’ve looked at abandoned places and properties that can’t be used for anything else. That could bring more buyers to town, or empty-nesters that don’t have kids anymore.”
DeLuca thinks Springfield Avenue could be developed more, citing last year’s opening of Wawa as a model.
“Before that, Springfield Avenue was not very welcoming,” he said. “I think we should bring people there so that the businesses will relocate there because they see the customers.”
Summersgill is not opposed to redevelopment, but has concerns about high density in some sections of Maplewood. He said that the town has not seen the financial benefits of what has already been redeveloped, and there is no room to support the traffic that comes with redevelopment.
“Springfield Avenue hasn’t improved. If you’ve been there, it feels the same,” Summersgill said in an Oct. 20 interview. “It’s not for lack of effort but it’s not doing that same thing. We have to relieve some of the saturation in the village.”
For Summersgill, finances are a top consideration when considering any project. This certainly applies to his thoughts on the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act, a public question to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot throughout the state; this act would provide funding to build or expand public libraries across the state, if it passes, the first time in 15 years that funding would be available for New Jersey libraries.
“The library has already proven to be successful, but I have concerns about the cost,” Summersgill said, adding that he would rather spend less money to build onto the Maplewood Library, even though a large chunk of funding will come from the state if the bill passes.“To add to the library, I would want to look closely at how it’s utilized before we add new space.”
However, Dafis said he believes the benefits of expanding the library outweigh the cost. He sees a real need for the new and updated space.
“This is not a vanity project,” he said. “We need a community space that is viable and that has computers and technology, because 15 percent of Maplewood residents don’t have internet at home.”
He added that the expansion to the Main Library would add a second floor and a Children’s Room, along with other adult space. Dafis also wants to make sure that both the Hilton and Main branches reap the benefits of the hoped-for state funding.
“It would be silly to pass it up,” he said. “It shouldn’t be either-or, they’re both priorities in different ways. We could combine the libraries and use some of the money for Hilton.”
DeLuca is also a proponent of improving the library.
“It’s absolutely critical,” he said. “People move here and they want a first-class library. The library opens up into the park and the community, and there’s so much more now.”
He also cited the 15 percent of Maplewoodians who do not have internet access at home as a reason that he wants to expand the library.
“Hopefully the bond passes, because it’s a huge plus for the future. They want something that we can have right now,” he said.
DeLuca also has ideas about how Maplewood can be more environmentally conscious. He said Maplewood is leading a group of other municipalities in pursuing collective energy aggregation, in which the towns would act as electricity buyers for residents; under this plan, residents would receive cheaper and possible “greener” electricity. DeLuca is also a proponent of putting solar panels on public buildings, a move that would not cost the township any money, he said, because a third party would pay for them.
“Electric cars are a way of the future,” DeLuca said, expanding on what he wants to do in Maplewood to make the town more Earth-conscious. “More charging stations for those can be put around town.”
Summersgill has his own ideas about what Maplewood could do to be greener. He thinks recycling and compost services can be better utilized and that Maplewood can work to reduce emissions from vehicles and equipment.
“Under the larger objective, we can justify those costs,” he said. “When we’re replacing cars and equipment we can look at what other options are and make sure that they are more environmentally friendly.”
An active member of Maplewood’s Green Team, Dafis said that changing day-to-day practices is the best way to make sure the town stays environmentally conscious, as well as increasing the teamwork between local entities.
“There should be more collaboration with the town and the schools,” Dafis said, adding that finding a way to make technology more accessible ties into being environmentally friendly as well. “We talk about reducing paper, but we can’t do that if students don’t have technology.”
And students are top consideration for Dafis, who believes the school district is not benefiting from the current tax system. In an area where taxes are high, he thinks state representatives should be lobbied for reform.
“We need to lobby with the state representatives for tax reform. We need the tax revenue to come to us and benefit us, and there needs to be more of an open-door policy,” Dafis said, also cited the NJ Transit trains as being a reason that many people have issues with the high tax rate. “When the trains are a huge problem and commuters can’t get to work, they lose their income and then can’t pay their taxes.”
DeLuca shares Dafis’ thoughts as to how schools should be benefiting from taxes and said the town should work with the new governor in the coming years to receive better school funding.
“We need to look at ways to keep costs down so that schools can reduce taxes,” he said. “Taxes should be based on income and not on your home.”
Summersgill’s plan to keep taxes as low as possible starts with changing the committee’s mindset by setting a new goal to keep the budget low, even while realistically acknowledging that this goal will be difficult to reach.
“Using debt to fund projects is more expensive,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘are we spending time in the right areas?’ There are probably some inefficiencies there.”
Summersgill also said town departments should be asked for their suggestions about what they need and where money should be spent, taking into consideration what experts in each division think could be done.
The Maplewood Police Department has received much attention of late, due to the racially charged events of July 5, 2016. The department is now looking for a new chief, and all three candidates have ideas about what could be done to improve the MPD’s relationship with residents, as well as to address racial divides in Maplewood.
“It’s criminal that the town did not get ahead of it before it happened,” Dafis said about the Maplewood police attempting to herd a group of black teenagers into Irvington last year. “Now we have to do something about it. We need better training. Community policing is the way things are moving.”
He believes that anti-bias training should be a requirement for Maplewood police officers, as well as a possible residency requirement, under which township police officers would have to live in Maplewood or close by so they have a better understanding of the town.
“We need better public relations; we can’t hide from these things,” Dafis said.
DeLuca said the township is working to address this head-on and he apologized again on behalf of the township and Township Committee for what happened July 5, 2016.
“The police have broken their bond with the community, and that has to be repaired,” DeLuca said. “We need better training and customer service; we need to get them to interact with the public.”
The mayor added that he believes Maplewood is moving in the right direction, but more should and could be done, including hiring more female and racially diverse officers.
Finding the right police chief is a top priority for Summersgill.
“The right chief is a signal to the community,” he said. “And we have to take the opportunity to apologize and move forward as a town. We have to move past what happened, take responsibility and give both sides a chance.”
All three candidates would like the township to follow through on the recommendations made by Hillard Heintze, the independent investigator hired to look at the July 2016 incident and police operations.
The candidates also agreed that residents who are senior citizens should be better heard in the township. In addition to lobbying state representatives for assistance, Dafis wants to negotiate development deals that would have benefits for seniors in addition to the other residents of Maplewood.
“We’re giving development deals tax abatements for apartments, but we’re not trying to keep our seniors,” Dafis said. “There are senior tax rebates and reform that we can get with grants and other funding.”
DeLuca has creative solutions to encourage senior citizens to remain in Maplewood. He would like to further investigate home sharing, which would help older residents stay in their larger homes by giving them a “roommate,” which has the added benefits of people getting help at home if they need it.
DeLuca also pointed out that 50 percent of the assisted living units in the Hilton neighborhood are Medicaid-eligible, and that more local opportunities like it will provide housing for seniors who want to remain in Maplewood.
Summersgill believes financial incentives may keep senior citizens in Maplewood.
“There can be a discount on trash pickup and rebates for other things,” he said. “Getting those financial breaks, all of those things add up. They don’t cost Maplewood or taxpayers anything, and it should be a model for the town.”
In a town that has voted Democrat for the last 20 years, Summersgill believes that another perspective would be able to provide more diversity to both the committee and the town.
“There are not really a lot of partisan issues in local government,” he said. “I think having someone who is outside, of different opinions, could help the committee. I would answer to the votes of the people who elected me, not the Township Committee or the party’s end.”
DeLuca sees the Township Committee as one that is already made up of independent thinkers, regardless of political party. He said he would rather see more unanimous votes than those that are split.
“We’ve had times when we agree and times when we disagree,” he said. “I would rather see more 5-0 votes than 3-2 votes, which show division. That shows that we were listening to each other and could come to an agreement.”
Dafis agrees with Summersgill on the point that the Maplewood Township Committee should listen to voters and keep diverse perspectives.
“We should emulate our community,” Dafis said. “We need that yin and yang, especially in local politics.”
The election will be Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.