Why did you first become involved in your town’s government?
I worked in the Engineering Department during the summer when I was 17 years old as a sophomore at Newark College of Engineering. Former Mayor William Hart appointed me to the Rent Leveling Board and I served with Mildred Barry Garvin, who became an Assemblywoman.
My father, Edward T. Bowser, Sr., was a City Councilman and State Assemblyman in the 1950’s. Both my father and oldest brother were architects and served the city as Chief Building Inspector and Construction Official, respectively. I was appointed Director of Public Works from 1986 to 1990 and served as Acting City Planner from 1986 to 1988. I was sworn in as Mayor on January 1, 1998.
What are the most significant challenges facing local governments?
All municipal governments are confronted with high property taxes, crime or domestic security, fiscal management with ever rising costs, quality housing at affordable costs, crumbling infrastructure and health care issues. All of these issues require services from a qualified workforce whose numbers have diminished due to substandard education.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
I would say I am a coach or band leader. To lead, you must surround yourself with people who are smarter and more creative than you. As Mayor, you need to have a plan, a vision of what you want your municipality to be in 3 to 5 years and 5 to 10 years in the future. As a leader you need to keep your team focused on those goals and get all levels to contribute. You need to know people and what makes them want to be part of the “big picture.” As a leader, you must also stop every once in a while to evaluate your progress and adjust your plan or goals if necessary.
Robert L. Bowser
President, New Jersey League of Municipalities
Mayor, East Orange
President Bowser gave the following address at the League’s Business meeting during the 92nd League Conference.
I would like to thank all of you for the opportunity to preside as President over our League of Municipalities for the next 12 months. It is an honor for me to serve the people of New Jersey and to represent my City of East Orange, which I do proudly. I am truly grateful.
I look forward to working closely with all the League members to reaffirm the League’s mission to continue to build unity among all municipalities.
Our size, population, a multiplicity of land use is what makes our great State of New Jersey unique. Of the 50 states in the United States, we only rank 47th in land area, yet we rank 9th largest in population, with a populace of 8.6 million. Our Garden State of 8.7 thousand square miles accommodates everything from farmland, to large industry, swamplands to mountainous locales, suburban and rural areas, to active urban districts. All the diversity in our compact location is what makes us great, and what makes our mission complex.
The requirements of our communities vary significantly throughout the state; this range too often makes for dissimilar ideas, obstacles, and opinions. However, the one thing we all have in common is our highest aspirations and desires for the citizens we represent. This philosophy reinforces the foundation by which we continue to build and fortify our team effort.
During my tenure, I will wholeheartedly encourage more participation to work with the League so the League can work for us. We must be willing to work together to visualize the numerous possibilities we face, instead of the problems. Succinctly stated, these possibilities are obtainable using our joined strengths through the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
In accepting election as League President, I thank all those who have held this office before me and who utilized their abilities to build the paths that have led us this far. From the League’s first President in 1915, Trenton’s Mayor Frederick W. Donnelly through my immediate predecessor Mayor Dave Delvecchio of Lambertville, I am grateful for their leadership, integrity and skill in guiding the affairs of this association, over the last 92 years.
They have set for me a high standard of service. I will strive to meet it.
I also wish to honor those who have served on the Executive Board, from 1915 to the present. I especially thank those with whom I have served; I am inspired by your enthusiasm and dedication to the League’s mission.
What do citizens want from their local government and has it changed?
Citizens want local government to be honest, responsive and accountable. These will never change. What has changed is citizens want to have more “input” into those things that affect their lives. There is more outcry now for public, community or neighborhood meetings. People want to know what’s going on. We live in an information age and they feel they need to know everything.
What advice would you give to newly elected officials?
Learn your job, by definition and purpose. Learn how your position fits into the bigger scheme of things. Inventory what you have in order to evaluate what you will need. In order to solve problems, you need to know what the problem is. Get to know the people you work with so you can draw on their strengths and experience. Don’t take everything you hear as “fact.” You need to be able to separate gossip and rumor from fact. Remember everyone has an opinion, but that opinion may not help to improve things.
What are the biggest legislative challenges facing municipalities?
The “School Funding Formula Reform” will have a major impact on urban, suburban and rural communities. It is assumed if done properly, it will offer some property tax relief. We need to be part of the planning process because this is a very complicated issue, and is surely compounded by the Abbott v. Burke court decision. We also need to be on the alert for any new unfunded mandates through judicial, legislative or administrative order. It is also in our best interest to request more input on an antiquated “Municipal Aid Funding Formula.” Housing will continue to be a major issue and COAH needs to open up the process to ensure meeting affordable housing goals.
What are your goals as League President?
My goals as League President will all be directed to finding ways where all of our membership can participate to strengthen our mission through unified efforts. Our voice needs to be increasingly strong in resisting ineffective legislation and mighty when causes are right. Small and large municipalities; urban, suburban and rural municipalities; Democrats and Republicans must work together for our constituents. As an organization we need to be more creative, more innovative by opening up our educational workshops to new technologies, new thinking to provide what works to service all of our citizens. The late great Whitney Young wrote, “It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.”