West Orange mayoral candidates debate the issues

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Election season in West Orange began on Sept. 28, when the four candidates running for mayor participated in a debate at United Presbyterian Church. Hosted by the West Orange African Heritage Organization, United Asian Voices of West Orange and West Orange Hispanic Foundation, the debate was moderated by the League of Women Voters. Running in the election are Township Council President Susan McCartney, Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, Councilman Bill Rutherford and former Councilman Joe Krakoviak. Topics discussed included redevelopment, public safety, supporting local businesses and term limits. 

When talking about recreation programs and facilities, Rutherford said that two of his three daughters who are old enough to go out on their own generally don’t spend time in West Orange’s parks. 

“They generally go to South Orange, Maplewood, Montclair, Livingston or Millburn,” Rutherford said. “While we do have some spaces, we certainly don’t have enough, and none of them are conducive to young people hanging out and having a good time. We had one at Essex Green, we had a movie theater there and young people would gather every single weekend. Then we turned it into an adult movie theater with alcohol being served, which minimizes the opportunity for young people to gather. We can certainly do better in that regard.” 

Matute-Brown talked about the potential development in downtown West Orange and the green space that could come with that development that young people can use. 

“We do have great parks, but we absolutely need some green space downtown, and I think that would be beneficial,” she said when she answered the question. “Whether it’s a soccer field for young people or a pickleball court, it is something that is necessary.” 

McCartney also talked about a potential downtown redevelopment plan, which would see Manhattan Beach Studios, a builder and operator of film studios around the country, build sound studios adjacent to Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The plan has not been finalized or voted on by the township council yet. 

“There is a film service overlay district proposed there, and there are outstanding programs for our youth to participate in,” McCartney said. “We did not pass our capital improvement budget; there is a five-year plan that I would reintroduce to refurbish our recreation facilities.” 

In his answer, Krakoviak said there are many fields and recreation facilities in town along with many athletic programs. He agreed, though, that there is not one central location where young people gather on a regular basis. 

“I coached all kinds of leagues — basketball, soccer, baseball,” Krakoviak said. “There’s a lot to do here, even if you’re not an athlete.” 

He also pointed out that the township council voted against a $40,000 grant being awarded to the West Orange Community House, which provides youth programming and open gym time. Rutherford said he voted against it because the organization did not provide financial statements, and he believes it is irresponsible for the council to fund groups that will not share their financial information. 

“Let’s look at who it really hurts,” Krakoviak said. “It hurts the kids, the less advantaged kids who no longer have the $40,000 to fund counselors or programs.” 

The candidates were asked what their plans to increase senior services would be as mayor, and Matute-Brown began by talking about the two senior services director positions in the town that were funded by a grant; Laura Van Dyke is the senior services program coordinator and Noelia Perez is the senior services program assistant. Matute-Brown wants to fund those positions permanently. 

“Permanently funding those positions that we have by grant is absolutely something that is necessary, because we’ve seen that this effort from the municipality has actually been effective. I think we should grow that department so that they can have the capacity to oversee and work with a senior advisory board.” 

McCartney said she wants to expand programming for seniors, agreeing with Matute-Brown that the senior services department in town should be expanded to include more staff. 

“I want to encourage our senior services coordinator and staff to expand our senior services with education classes, technology classes, mentoring, physical fitness programs and townwide community events,” McCartney said. “I want to improve the communication process to distribute the information in a user-friendly and informative, accessible manner.” 

Krakoviak has long been a proponent of creating a senior citizen advisory board, which currently does not exist in West Orange.

“I advocated for seniors shortly after joining the council, and one of the first things I did was propose the senior citizen advisory board, so they can tell us on the council and the mayor’s office what they want and what they need,” Krakoviak said. “I’m going to try my best to get this created so they can start telling us what they need.” 

Krakoviak mentioned the importance of transportation for seniors who don’t drive at night or at all, as it protects them from accidents that have injured or killed residents in the past.

Rutherford agreed with Krakoviak and Matute-Brown that a senior citizen advisory board is needed to help craft any future plans.

“We need a senior advisory board, and they should drive those decisions,” Rutherford said in his answer. “But in addition to that, we need expanded jitney services to help get them around town and help get them to where they need to go in town. We also have a unique opportunity at the golf course we recently purchased to use the pool facility there. There’s a perfect opportunity there to provide days for seniors only. We can do that at that pool with minimal additional cost to the township.”

The full debate can be watched online at tinyurl.com/2324xbzt. Election Day is Nov. 8.