WEST ORANGE, NJ — The four candidates running for the two open seats on the West Orange Township Council debated in a question-and-answer session on Sept. 28. Hosted at United Presbyterian Church, the debate was organized by the West Orange African Heritage Organization, United Asian Voices of West Orange and the West Orange Hispanic Foundation, and moderated by the League of Women Voters. Running for the council’s open seats are William Michael Barbee, Ron Charles, Asmeret Ghebremicael and Susan Scarpa. Questions were submitted by the audience and included the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion, local business support, and senior citizen services.
“I think we have to concentrate on good economic development and stay away from residential,” Charles said when answering a question about what kind of development the town should focus on. “The residential developments will have an impact not only on our schools and on our services, but we need to bring commercial ratables back into West Orange. I don’t want to get into being overbuilt as far as residential. I think the way to go is being smart about commercial property.”
Ghebremicael said she believes each project would have to be evaluated individually before she could decide whether to vote in favor of it if elected to the council.
“Every project stands on its own,” Ghebremicael said. “I would have to look at the specs, see if it financially makes sense for our township, and if it doesn’t, I won’t vote for it. We should not consider any project unless there is a public amenity and affordable housing.”
When she answered the question, Scarpa said she is concerned about the overdevelopment of residential property in town. An employee of the school district, she is worried about the already overcrowded school buildings becoming more crowded with expanded housing development.
“The residential development has to stop,” Scarpa said. “We need to look for a town planner who has commercial real estate development experience, who can attract some businesses to our township. We need to do a much better job.”
Barbee is in agreement with Scarpa that West Orange needs a full-time planner. He said in his answer that part of the problem is the current lack of one.
“One of the issues is that we make false comparisons to other towns,” Barbee said. “West Orange is different in structure and layout, so not having a full-time planner is part of the problem and why we’re facing these same concerns. When we talk about the tax burden and who pays the taxes, I think having a planner and a professional full-time to lay out what it looks like to have these projects developed is the start.”
Public safety was also a topic that the candidates discussed at the debate; a recent shooting on Main Street and a robbery at a restaurant were mentioned as concerns for residents. Scarpa said she wants to give more support to the West Orange Police Department.
“I don’t think they get the support they deserve,” she said. “They’re wonderful human beings. In other towns they hang out waiting to give you tickets; here our police really do serve and protect, and so do our firefighters. Just the humanity and the depth and breadth of experience they have, I think we can’t let them walk. We have to do better than the way we’ve treated them during COVID.”
Barbee said he wanted to support public safety agencies through resources and not just through promotions and financial gains.
“I want to bring education and resources to our local law enforcement and first responders,” Barbee said. “They really need our support. Certain areas of the community are impacted more. So having the police presence, which we do have now, will lower or reduce people’s tendency to do certain crimes. Having a police force with the resources needed for them to do their job is important.”
Charles brought up staffing levels when he answered the question.
“I think we have to ensure that the police and first responders are properly staffed with the amount of officers and firefighters that meet national standards,” he said. “We have to ensure that they’re receiving proper resources and support. The council currently has not voted on a capital budget, which will hurt resources in the coming year if we need fire trucks or if we need police vehicles. We have to support the police not only openly but in the budget and on financial terms as well.”
Charles and Barbee weren’t the only candidates who brought up more training and resources; Ghebremicael also said she wants to find more funding for the WOPD and West Orange Fire Department when she answered the question.
“We need to work with local law enforcement and police chiefs, the prosecutors in Essex County and in the state,” Ghebremicael said. “There could be more patrols, education and training. Education is key and public safety is key. We need to see if there’s funding to help with these resources. We need to consult experts and work with grant writers.”
The full debate can be watched at tinyurl.com/5yz5hxhk. Election day is on Nov. 8.