“Can I adopt you?”
The woman was clearly enamored with South Orange Village President Sheena Collum.
On a quiet weekday morning at the Dancing Blender Smoothie Company, Collum was busy creating an impromptu map, diagramming bridges and counting out traffic lights for the woman who was lost and needed directions to Millburn Avenue.
Moments before, Collum was seated with us near the storefront window for an interview. We had been in the middle of discussing the projected tax and allocation calculator on the township’s website.
Collum quickly returned to her seat, cradled her detox drink, and picked up immediately where she left off. “I can’t just tell people where their taxes are going. I have to show them,” she said. “We can make it clear by providing detailed line items.”
From Starkville to South Orange
Two years into her tenure as South Orange’s first female Village President (after two years as a Village Trustee), Collum is a well-known figure throughout town, entrenched in every facet of civic leadership. “I’ve always been a political junkie,” she said, explaining that her desire to enter the world of politics could be traced back to when she became a hall monitor in elementary school.
In 2002, Collum left Starkville, MS, where she attended high school, to enroll as a Freshman at Seton Hall University with a scholarship for the Brownson Speech and Debate Team. Although her focus was on her course studies, she wanted to get involved in the community she lived in.
“The first thing I asked was, ‘Where are city council meetings at?’” said Collum.
Two years later, she was key in forming the Village Liaison Committee. “I wanted to be involved in student volunteerism and it was important to build a relationship between South Orange and Seton Hall,” she said. “We began to bring the students outside of the gates. I fell in love with the community.” Collum was also a founding member of the Citizens Public Safety Committee.
Collum believes the relationship between Seton Hall and South Orange has greatly improved, despite continued tensions around student housing in neighborhoods. “There’s less of a tendency now to view students as transient. It’s a very different administration,” she said.
And while Collum has been the Village President since 2015, she still sees room for improvement concerning the way in which the South Orange governmental body functions. In one instance, a charter change approved by the Board of Trustees last year will change her title to “Village Mayor” and the governing body’s name to “Village Council” once approved by the State Assembly.
We asked Collum to discuss the history of the governing body. “The structure was previously based on the white male reflection of a corporate board,” she said. “We need to change with the times and make it easier for South Orange to understand our roles and responsibilities.”
At age 33, Collum is tireless and tough. She’s the Executive Director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association where she puts her public policy acumen to work on a daily basis.
“I have a background in city planning and I’m a believer in smart growth principles,” she explained. “There is always a lot of controversy over economic development.”
Collum is right: development has been the most controversial issue in South Orange in recent years. Her plan to sell Village Hall and develop it as a restaurant, catering hall and beer garden has been applauded by many, while some preservationists have lamented the sale of an iconic historic monument and at least one adjacent property owner has voiced concerns about parking and traffic. Other development projects have made locals question whether they are contributing to overcrowding in the schools while not supporting the district due to abatements. (Collum cites data controverting these arguments but also a willingness to work with the district.)
In a hot real estate market, Collum spearheaded the hiring of a financial analyst to evaluate financial deals for projects and has notably turned away some proposals: a proposed 72-unit project on Irvington Avenue was nixed, Meridia’s original 300-plus unit proposal at 4th & Valley was rejected, the HubRealty/Lustbader project on South Orange Avenue has been told to come back at a smaller size, and, at a recent development committee meeting, Collum told developers that a potential 5-story student housing building was a no-go at that height.
But a mix of housing and retail, including bringing SHU upperclassman and graduate student housing, to the business districts is important to Collum, who looks to other towns as examples. “I think we can model ourselves after Morristown and Montclair. They don’t shut down at 9:00 at night,” she explained. “Providing affordable housing in our community is also very important.”
Her enthusiastic support of the workforce in South Orange has earned her many accolades. “Sheena’s constant ‘talking up’ of the town, village government, businesses, university, etc., is so important,” said Alex Torpey, who preceded Collum as Village President. “For example, it supports all the employees who work so hard to make everything happen, helps to encourage business owners to re-invest/engage in the community, and generally forwards the feeling that we’re all in this together and working towards common future goals, an important value which seems harder and harder to find these days.”
“Politics and boxing seem to have a lot in common these days.”
Collum has displayed the ability to garner respect from those who may not always see eye to eye with her. “I think Sheena is intelligent and dedicated to South Orange,” said Nureed Saeed, a recent candidate for South Orange Village Trustee. “We may disagree on some issues, or how we would handle things, but absolutely no one can doubt that she goes above and beyond the call of duty for an unpaid position that she treats like a second full-time job.”
And then there’s the other type of tough. She regularly attends a Muay Thai Boxing Class at D&I Fitness. “Politics and boxing seem to have a lot in common these days,” she wrote on a Facebook post last month.
“I view myself as being a perpetual diplomat,” she explained. “But I didn’t realize how much a Trump administration would affect us locally. I view this as a full-on fight. There is zero room for flexibility when it comes to basic human rights. Women have every right to be totally pissed off and fight back. If we don’t stand up for ourselves right now and stand up collectively, the future for our children is doomed.”
So is Collum preparing to focus on district leadership? “Only if I’m not content with the leadership that’s there,” she said. “We’re well-represented here. It would be different if I were in [Congressman Rodney P.] Frelinghuysen’s district. Right now, the greatest necessity is mobilizing on a local level.”
A Tale of Two Towns
While South Orange and Maplewood share the same school district, there has been much discussion concerning the possibility of unifying the two towns.
Collum points out her close working relationship with Mayor Victor De Luca of Maplewood. “As soon as I got elected to office, I met with Vic,” she said. “We share such a common population and I knew that a study of a merger or consolidation of the two towns was high on my list. I consider Vic and I partners in crime.” Currently, South Orange and Maplewood are early in the early stages of merging fire departments. Other efficiencies have been found in the towns’ courts, first aid coverage, IT services, age-friendly initiatives, and more. Of course, the towns share a school district — and the disparity in school funding formula for the two towns has been an issue that may also prove to be a roadblock.
Collum presses for the importance of data and facts. “Until a study is actually done, we won’t know where the best efficiencies are to be made,” she said. “But the question that we have to ask ourselves is ‘are we stronger together or are we better in silos?’ Collectively, South Orange and Maplewood have tremendous assets. There was a similar analysis done for the merger of Princeton [Borough] and Princeton Township.” (It should be noted that, in 2006, a two-town referendum to approve the formation of a commission to study consolidation of the towns was defeated, with South Orange residents voting to approve and Maplewood residents voting against.)
“I’m looking forward to the work.”
Collum is a self-described workaholic. However, she also displays a coyness and sense of humor when speaking about herself.
“I often get confused as an intern because of my age,” she said. “I still get carded at bars the day before I issue their liquor licenses.”
However, there is an unspoken sense from Collum that she has to remain tough to keep up. She discussed in detail her daily regimen, which involves waking up at 5:30 a.m., drinking three cups of coffee, trying to run five miles, responding to about 250 emails, tags, and text messages, and kick boxing. “Residents who want to reach me should get in touch at 1:00 a.m.,” she said. “It’s my quietest time.” She estimates sleeping about three hours a night.
When asked what she was most looking forward to this summer, she took a quick sip of her detox drink. “I’m looking forward to the work. We have a master planning project, looking at land use patterns, investing in commercial corridors, undertaking a branding initiative,” she rifled off without a beat. “I’m trying to get a customer service portal that will automate.”
She paused and took one more sip of her detox drink.
“You have to try one of these. Oh, and I like to have fun, too.”