Three Democratic candidates are vying for two seats to represent New Jersey’s 28th Legislative District in the New Jersey Assembly: Cleopatra Tucker, incumbent; Garnet Hall; and Frank McGehee. Two candidates — Joy Freeman and Willie S. Jetti — are running in the Republican primary. The primary takes place on June 6, 2023. Village Green accepted letters of support for candidates up until May 30, 2023 at 5 p.m. The following is from South Orange Village President Sheena Collum.
South Orange and Maplewood Neighbors,
It’s my pleasure to support former-Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee to represent us as our Assemblyperson for our new 28th District in New Jersey, which includes South Orange, Maplewood, Hillside, Irvington, and parts of Newark.
Frank is my top choice, and the only way to secure a path for him to serve as one of our two assembly members is to bullet-vote him and no one else running for the seat. For those unfamiliar with this strategy, any second vote cast will work against Frank. By not casting a second vote, I will avoid diluting the vote count for the candidate I most want to see in the Assembly, and that is Frank McGehee.
I urge you to do the same with your mail-in vote or when you head to the polls.
A little about me if we’ve not met. As the South Orange Village President since 2015, I’m the longest-serving female Mayor in Essex County, Asian-American, under 40 (for now), and am a policy wonk, deeply immersed in every single detail of how state laws and policies impact local operations, our schools, and our taxpayers. I’m highly independent, equally critical of my own Democratic party, and serve one master, which is good public policy. I value work-ethic, courage, responsiveness, accountability, knowledge, and, most importantly, collaboration.
“How do you know Frank?”
I was the South Orange Village President when Frank was elected to the Maplewood Township Committee in 2016. We frequently interacted on matters of importance impacting both towns. When he became Mayor in 2020, we spoke for hours daily, navigating the Covid-19 pandemic as leaders for South Orange and Maplewood, doing our best to help our residents. It was horrific on all fronts, and Frank was there for me as I was for him.
No county line, ballot position, gentle nudge, or direct pressure would ever allow me to turn my back on what I know to be true through my experience working with Frank McGehee and why I think he is best suited to represent us.
During our overlapping times of service to South Orange and Maplewood, we’ve worked on the following together:
- Consolidating the South Orange and Maplewood Fire Departments. Some of you may remember my election in 2019 and what it looks like when you genuinely try to deliver better services at lower costs to taxpayers. Frank continued to have my back, and I will never forget it. This move towards greater efficiency is a first-of-its-kind and most extensive consolidation under the current administration. Most Democrats remained silent, given the complexity of special interests. He did not waiver.
- He was a partner in advocacy with NJ Transit. Do you remember the “Summer of Hell?” Frank and I worked together to advocate for our collective three train lines, which were impacted by mass disruptions, ongoing changes to the schedule, and more. He was a commuter, and I was not. It got resolved.
- The list of community partnerships goes on for days. I have fond memories of when we did a Facebook Live Supermarket Sweep and raised thousands of dollars and items for Puerto Rico after the hurricane. We worked together and raised funds for food insecurity in our schools and after-school programming for our youth. We identified a host of public events we could do together as “SOMA” or “MAPSO” rather than duplicate services at higher costs to each town. Our two-town partnerships remain strong today.
- We worked together on police reform locally and brought our messages directly to the County Prosecutor’s Office. We provided lengthy feedback to the legislature on the uses of force, internal affairs, reporting, accountability, and the processes for removal.
- Frank proposed a gun amnesty program initiative and tried to advance it statewide to reduce the volume of guns in our local communities by enabling people to “turn them in” no questions asked.
- We partnered on opposing the removal of the interest arbitration cap. We successfully engaged almost all towns in Essex County in our joint letter, and our legislators were responsive to our position.
- We proactively opposed the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, a major issue for our taxpayers. South Orange and Maplewood consistently rank in the top 25 highest property tax bills in New Jersey, and relief is long overdue.
- We worked with the Board of Education on the Long-Range Facilities Plan and the Board of School Estimate. We were, again, in lockstep in ensuring the final plan included the necessary repairs for fields, maintenance for HVAC (air conditioning was an “add-on” to the bond), and fixing bathrooms. These actions increased the overall bond amount, and we felt it was necessary for our students and the school’s community.
- As you hopefully know, we fully supported the Intentional Integration Plan and felt strongly that supplemental funding for bussing would be a requirement for its success which is now being provided to general education students..
- We partnered in opposition to a bill that would drive up the costs for redevelopment projects and jeopardize all our affordable housing plans. The legislation was pulled after passing both houses when local officials stepped forward and explained the unintended consequences.
Last but certainly not least, there are no words to explain Frank’s dedication to South Orange and Maplewood during the Covid-19 global health pandemic. As mentioned earlier, there was not a day that went by when Frank and I weren’t partnering to get our communities through this; all our worlds changed. We coordinated messaging, standardized executive orders, figured out ways to share services, fought for resources, recruited 1500 volunteers to work vaccination sites, and attended workshops to familiarize ourselves with terminology and be better advocates for our Health Officers. We raised money for our seniors and families, testified on immediate resources municipalities needed, and finally, worked to open our schools, literally jumping into discussions with the state, teacher’s union, administration, and all fellow elected leaders. You get to know someone when the stakes are so high and exhaustion, frustration, anger, and sadness set in. Frank and I kept each other going.
“Thanks for some history, Sheena, but Frank is running for Assembly; what makes him the best candidate for the seat?”
Great question! I’ll start by saying that I think universal shared values exist among the Democratic Party and progressive voters. In fact, I find very few differences among candidates in this regard, not just for this race but all Democratic candidates seeking higher office. Supporting women’s rights, gun control, opposing book bans, supporting voter’s rights, celebrating diversity, lifting marginalized populations, and elevating the importance of our environment and planet. There are many more of these shared values that I believe any candidate representing a progressive district will add their name to a bill if asked!
With that said, the following are legislative priorities for South Orange and Maplewood, in my own opinion, where I know Frank will be a voice for us because he has been talking about these issues throughout his campaign and while he served in public office.
- Restoration of Energy Tax Receipts: Taxes on gas and utilities used to be collected by municipalities. The State took over as the “collection” agency and slowly began diverting the funds into the state budget. South Orange and Maplewood are owed close to $2M annually, which is over six tax percentage points in our respective municipal budgets. Just imagine the property tax relief and cost avoidance to our municipalities (including Irvington, Hillside, and Newark).
- State Health Benefits Plan: The unprecedented, unexpected, and irresponsible 23% increase in our municipal, county, and schools state health benefits plan was crushing to our local budgets. Despite our local protests and ongoing letter-writing campaigns, no legislative action was approved.
- Liquor License Reform: We need progressive policies to address the manufactured scarcity and overregulation of archaic liquor license laws in New Jersey that perpetuate a monopoly and disproportionately impact minority-owned businesses. These licenses go for over $500,000 in South Orange and Maplewood, and even if one could afford a license, the limit on population doesn’t permit more to enter the market. We need reform now to build economic vibrancy, support small businesses and create more access and equity in the market.
- Affordable Housing and Fourth-Round Obligations: Development is on the mind of so many residents. As part of each town’s “fair share” obligation to construct affordable units, the numbers we must meet will drive development and redevelopment in our municipalities for many years to come. South Orange has a required 20% “inclusionary” affordable housing ordinance and leverages both density bonuses and tax incentives to achieve our numbers. The fourth round of numbers will be coming out in 2025, and a significant consideration should be given to permitting a percentage of units for local preference, which will enable residents of their communities to remain. Lottery systems are statewide with only a “regional preference.” To put this into context, South Orange residents are competing with 10,000 other residents from Morris, Union, Warren, and Essex for housing. I imagine the waitlists are no different from all municipalities in the 28th District.
- Funds for Lead Line Identification and Replacements: Governor Murphy signed into law a piece of legislation in the Summer of 2021 requiring the identification and replacement of all lead (and galvanized lines) by 2031, addressing 10% each year. With over 600 community water systems, municipally owned systems (such as South Orange) will need to bond considerably for the “service side” (public), and homeowners may need to spend up to $7500 each if the homeowner side is lead or galvanized. The alternative is privatization which a Task Force is currently reviewing in which larger operations can share the costs of the unfunded mandate among all ratepayers.
- Changes to Recycling Laws: The state requirements for recycling do not reflect the current market, which has changed dramatically over the past four years. Municipalities are paying more (in some cases over 200% more) in recycling costs while less material is recyclable. Rather than addressing the root cause, the legislature approved a town’s ability to increase expenses outside its appropriations cap. While South Orange and Maplewood were able to make improvements, the cycle of poor environmental outcomes at higher expenses will continue without better state laws.
- Advocacy for Consolidations, Shared Services, and Regionalization. As a proud “home rule” state, New Jersey is the epitome of inefficiency and duplication of services at a high cost to taxpayers, with 564 municipalities and over 600 school districts. It’s time to have voices in Trenton that are not beholden to special interests and will work to incentive and compel greater efficiencies among towns and regions. Taxpayer-subsidized inefficiency needs to come to an end.
School District Priorities
- State-Aid: While the South Orange and Maplewood School District (“SOMSD”) received $1M more in state-aid this year, it is still under the threshold for full funding as per the School Funding Reform Act.
- Categorical Aid: SOMSD has roughly 650 students with 504 plans and 1330 students with Individualized Education Programs. Special service needs in our district need more funding and resources not only to continue to meet a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) but to exceed the standard. Special consideration should be provided to school districts whose special education demands exceed averages throughout New Jersey.
- Categorical Aid: An additional funding mechanism of categorical aid should be considered for districts prioritizing intentional integration and equity as part of their mission and subsequent actions. One example would be transportation funding that helps effectuate intentional integration work for general education students. As one of the most segregated states in the county, let’s put a premium on districts doing the hard work.
- To date, the SOMSD has yet to receive any state grants to support the Long-Range Facilities Plan, in which $160M is being fully funded by taxpayers. We need a voice for our projects.
In closing, if you have made it this far, this is my personal assessment of what is needed from our next Assembly Representative that is substantive and will have immediate impacts on our local towns and schools. I’m sure a letter filled with platitudes and generalities would be more pleasing to the eye, but brevity has never been my strong suit.
On Tuesday, June 6, I will be voting for Frank McGehee, Line B, for Assembly, and I urge you to do the same. Please give me a partner in Trenton who speaks my language and can hit the ground running on day one.
South Orange Village President