Election Government South Orange

After a Contentious Election, South Orange Leaders Say ‘No Grudges,’ Only ‘Hope’ Going Forward

Sheena Collum takes the oath of office for her 2nd term as South Orange Village President, administered by Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee. May 20, 2019. Celina Herrero holds the Bible. Jenna Hwang records. Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis and Greg Lembrich look on, as do South Orange Trustees Howard Levison, Mark Rosner and Steve Schnall. Photo by John Gil.

“Win or lose, there is always a seat at the table. You are welcome always, 100%.”

With those words, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum capped a South Orange Board of Trustees Reorganization Meeting that was at times tense, sad, jubilant, hopeful and ultimately healing.

Collum’s words came near the end of the meeting, and followed on one of the most contentious South Orange election seasons in recent memory. “We don’t hold any grudges,” said Collum in her closing remarks, but at the beginning of the meeting it was clear that there were still some raw nerves.

Before the Board of Trustees welcomed three new members and re-inaugurated Collum for her second term on the main stage of the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Monday night, the three outgoing Trustees were each honored with proclamations and each spoke about their time on the Board.

First was Deborah Davis Ford, who waged an aggressive and well-financed battle against Collum for the Village Presidency — but was ultimately defeated in a 3-1 drubbing. During the proclamation reading and subsequent remarks, the two women were polite to each other but the warmth of their 12-year relationship — during which they had campaigned for and with each other — was not fully on display.

Sheena Collum reads a proclamation honoring Deborah Davis Ford’s 12 years of services on the South Orange Village Board of Trustees.

In her remarks, Davis Ford spoke of her pride in the work she accomplished on the BOT, along with her colleagues. She was particularly proud of the fact that South Orange had not laid off any employees during the recession. Davis Ford stated her belief that “the mosaic” of South Orange could serve as a model for the country going forward and announced her intent to continue to serve the community.

Howard Levison, who resigned as Trustee in April to take the job of water utility director, spoke of his pride in shepherding work to improve the township’s infrastructure over the past 12 years. Mark Rosner, who has served on the Board since 1998, spoke of the change brought to the Village by the creation of SOPAC, which he cited as his proudest accomplishment. Rosner also had warm words for Collum, whom he called a “powerhouse Village President,” and said that he left the Village in “good hands with good leadership.”

Trustee Walter Clarke called the loss of Davis Ford, Levison and Rosner a “brain drain” — noting that the three Trustees collectively represented 44 years of service on the Board of Trustees.

Bob Zuckerman takes the oath of office with his husband Grant Newman and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum. May 20, 2019. Photo by John Gil.

The three new Board members also gave statements after being sworn in. Trustee Bob Zuckerman, the first openly LGBTQIA+ member of the board, felt that his election showed the diversity and tolerance present in the South Orange community. Quoting Harvey Milk, Zuckerman emphasized the importance of hope: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.” Zuckerman said he hoped his election paved the way for kids watching who might otherwise feel marginalized. “If you’re considered an ‘other,’” said Zuckerman, “I have your back.”

Trustee Summer Jones began her statement by quoting Shirley Chisholm: “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines.” Jones said that concept spurred her to run, along with her love for South Orange and her desire to make a difference. Jones thanked her supporters, volunteers and campaign team in the election, as well as her family.

Trustee Donna Coallier was unable to attend the meeting due to a cancelled flight, but joined via FaceTime on a screen that descended from the SOPAC ceiling (Collum was so charmed by this that Clarke joked she would be missing meetings in the near future to likewise appear via screen). Coallier said she intended to “keep an ear to the ground” for constituents’ voices. Citing the election results, Coallier said she was “wowed” by South Orange voters, who “shattered turnout records in this election.” Coallier stated that this “grassroots enthusiasm” gave her “great hope.”

Finally, Collum was sworn in for her second term. As her parents could only attend via FaceTime, Collum had three Maplewood officials swear her in, with Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee administering the oath of office. The move was clearly a nod to Collum’s aggressive stance toward shared services with Maplewood, including a merged fire department, and a rebuke to her campaign opponent who charged that Collum sought to give away control of the South Orange Fire Department to Maplewood.

Collum then struck a humorous and conciliatory tone in her comments. She said she embraced being a “career politician” as she felt she was “born a 40-year-old lobbyist.” She expressed her gratitude for the youth involvement in her campaign and said she had come to realize the importance of female leadership and role models in her first term. Collum called out two young female campaign volunteers, Zoe Newman and Lily Forman, asking them to stand to be recognized. The two girls, who met the Village President through the SOMA Action Student Leadership Committee, later sang Collum’s praises: “We love Sheena!”

Collum’s statements were peppered with lighthearted thanks to her parents, campaign team, colleagues, and more. “I know we are gonna deliver some incredible stuff,” she told her audience. She also commended the work of South Orange Township employees — a notable inclusion given the fact that some South Orange firefighters actively campaigned for her opponent in the election.

In the wake of that contentious election, Collum also thanked those who ran but did not win — and singled out Trustee candidate Stacey Borden who stood and clapped enthusiastically after Collum was sworn in, despite having campaigned with Davis Ford. “Win or lose, there is always a seat at the table,” Collum said, dismissing potential grudges. “You are welcome always, 100%.”

Collum’s speech ended on a hopeful note. “We are going to turn government upside down,” she declared, saying that the usual agenda items for committee appointments were being eschewed last night for a new framework to be determined and unveiled in coming weeks. Before the meeting’s final role call, Collum enthusiastically told her audience, “This is gonna be a great governing body.”

A reception, open to the public, followed the meeting in the SOPAC upstairs lounge.

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