Why did you first become involved in your town’s government?
I have always had an interest in government, albeit not necessarily elective office. I grew up in Englewood,
New Jersey, which always had a high level of political
and social activity. Then, while at Wellesley College, I had
paid summer internships for the City of Atlanta, Boston Housing Authority, and (during my last summer) for a
congressional group in Washington D.C. After graduation, I continued to work for the congressional group while attending law school in Washington, D.C. After returning to New Jersey and ultimately locating in East Windsor Township, I was encouraged to get involved in the local Democratic Party organization, which I did. I also decided to apply to be on the township planning board, and did some municipal attorney work.
I had the desire and belief that I could help make positive changes in the community. By this point, I knew many people and thought my background would be helpful. So, I became more involved in local politics and ultimately ran for municipal office. I have served as Mayor of East Windsor Township for the past 17 consecutive years. While much of my interest had always focused more on state and national issues, I discovered that serving as Mayor is a great way to directly impact people and events. As a Mayor, you can get real things done. I especially enjoy involvement and projects with young people in the community.
What are the most significant
challenges facing local governments?
The greatest challenges facing local government today revolve around budgeting and fiscal issues, while meeting the basic municipal responsibilities and providing necessary services. In the past several years it has become more difficult to effectively plan and manage local finances due to (1) the state and national economic downturns, (2) the decline in property values and the resulting volume of tax appeals and statutorily-required municipal tax refunds, (3) the state’s decision to withhold more and more funds which belong to towns, and (4) the many other limitations and burdens placed upon municipal officials.
Another huge challenge has arisen in the area of planning and land use control, as a result of some of the over-reaching and interference by some state officials which serve to undermine thoughtful local planning and important community goals, and create increased litigation and costs. Examples of these types of legislative/administrative actions include (1) the age-restricted conversion law, (2) repeated permit extensions, (3) the creation of new “inherently beneficial” status for non-permitted uses such as the placement of solar panels on productive farmland, and (4) attempts to “grab” municipal housing trust funds, thereby leaving taxpayers holding the bag.
How would you describe your style
My style of leadership involves a great deal of communication and information flow, formally and informally, both to the public and to other elected officials and appointees. Making available substantive and accurate information helps generate better and more positive decision making. It also results in an enhanced sense of trust and confidence by the public. I believe strong structure and good organization are important elements in effectively sharing information, receiving input and ideas, and productively guiding discussions and decisions. While no one would call me “shy,” and I take an active, visible role in much of what goes on, I am a big believer in working to create consensus. Getting everyone on board, both within the Township Council and among the public, creates a higher level of satisfaction and enjoyment for everyone in government and in the community. And in the end, more constructive things get accomplished and citizens are more enticed to get involved locally.
What do citizens want from their local government and has it changed?
I believe citizens want competent basic service delivery. Whether it is garbage and recycling collection, permit processing, policing, snow removal, road maintenance, parks upkeep, these are tangible things residents see every day that directly affect them. In addition, citizens want to get a response when they have questions, concerns or complaints. It is key to effective governing to always respond in a timely manner, even if we cannot provide them with the answer they want. Citizens also expect to see that decisions are being made and things are getting done in the community, and in a professional environment.
And of course citizens want more services and programs and lower taxes. We must strive to meet this ever-present challenge by identifying ways of continuing to serve constituents in the most cost effective manner. Communication and working together, sharing ideas and services, using great resources such as the League of Municipalities, are key to always striving to better government and thereby quality of service and “bang for the buck” for our residents.
What advice would
you give to newly
I would advise newly elected officials to become informed, watch and learn. You should speak less at the beginning and get acclimated to information, process and personalities. Do not be afraid to ask questions, seek advice and ask for assistance. Learn all you can and always admit it when you do not know an answer. Just let people know that you will find out and follow up later.
Also, take advantage of resources such as the League to become better informed and keep up to date. Spend time visiting the League website. Attend League events where you can network and meet other municipal officials. Together, we can share ideas, discuss issues, and get advice and assistance with problems and emerging challenges.
What are the biggest legislative challenges facing municipalities?
The biggest legislative challenge facing municipalities is to remain vigilant and vocal. Often state officials in persuit of what they perceive as noble goals and legislation (be it promoting renewable energy, creating affordable housing, generating jobs, seeking transparency) fail to adequately appreciate the full implications, costs and negative impacts that result from these specific well-intentioned proposals. Since many of them have never served in municipal office, they do not always understand the intricacies and consequences of their proposed actions.
The other huge legislative challenge for towns is the state’s inclination to address some of the many economically-created issues with top-down decisions. These decisions remove resources from municipalities, while imposing new burdens and increasing property taxes for our residents. State officials need to be held accountable for the results of their actions, instead of abdicating responsibility by throwing local officials “under the bus.”
What are your goals
as League President?
My goal as League President is to continue and enhance networking, educational and discussion opportunities for municipal officials. We must continue to work together effectively to further our common interests and express our positions and needs to the Administration and Legislature. As we have seen in several situations, our joint voices and efforts are much more likely to yield attention and results than any of us working solo. We also need to continue, maybe even expand, by identifying and forming alliances with non-profit organizations and business groups where our mutual interests and goals can be advanced.
My top priority remains pursuing restoration of Energy Tax Receipts property tax relief funding. These are municipal monies that were intended to provide local property tax relief. It is wrong for the state to divert large amounts to plug holes in the State Budget.
Another important priority will be to work for thoughtful, balanced environmentally-sensitive land use policies which do not further undermine municipal planning and jurisdiction, and “good government” policy goals. Likewise, programs to attract and stimulate business development and job generation through reasoned good public policy programs, incentives and actions should be developed jointly at all levels of government to enable effective partnerships.
First Published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 90, Number 1, January 2013