On Tuesday, May 12, South Orange voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots for three seats on the Board of Trustees as well as for Village President.
Recently we asked the two candidates who are running for Village President to answer a series of questions.
Candidate Emily Hynes responds here:
Tell us about yourself: Where are you from? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you do for a living? What has been your civic involvement thus far in South Orange?
I am an attorney, a mom, and a long time resident of South Orange. My husband, Joe and I made our home in South Orange because of the small town charm and because we wanted to live and raise a family in a place where we would know our neighbors, where our children could get a first class education and where people had a commitment to the community.
My family is from Staten Island and Washington DC and South Orange gives us easy access to both. Election Day will be our eleventh anniversary in our home on Tillou Road. Our two children were born here. They attend our local public school. And we are committed to our community.
After earning my law degree from St. John’s University School of Law, I began my legal career as a litigation attorney focusing on environmental and pollution litigation including TCE water contamination cases. Following that I honed my advocacy skills litigating in the courtrooms of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
I left private practice to go to AIG in 2005 to pursue interests in contract law and mass tort litigation. At AIG I specialized in coordinating complex toxic tort cases across the nation, while managing relationships with stakeholders during litigation. I specialized in building consensus in a volatile environment.
At AIG I was the coordinator for emerging toxic tort risks like the dangers of TCE exposure, potential risks associated with electromagnetic frequency emitted from cell phones and cell towers, and possible risks of artificial food flavoring. An important component of that job was assessing long-term financial impacts of the decisions we make today.
After a decade at AIG, I left to spend more time with my family and in my community. I am an active volunteer in the community in my children’s classrooms and through our PTA. As co-chair of the school’s annual fall festival, and Girl Scout Daisy Troop leader, I am an involved parent who strives to support my children, our school and our community. While my children were in school at the South Mountain YMCA, I was a co-chair of their annual fundraising auction, and “storyteller” for their annual scholarship fundraiser. I recently became involved in the CERT Program and look forward to continuing their training courses.
One reader asks: Do you or any immediate family members have any contracts or other business with or concerning the local government?
What is your position on development in town? How much development should be allowed? What kind? How will/should the town deal with traffic issues? How can the town foster development without negatively impacting the character of the town? Is declaring the entire town as an area in need of rehabilitation a good or bad thing?
I stand for Smart Growth for South Orange. We need to ensure that new construction is appropriate to the surrounding spaces – preserving the integrity of existing neighborhoods, and green spaces. Smart and responsible growth will increase the values of our homes, support our local businesses, and ensure the long-term health of our community.
There are new developments being planned across our small village at Orange Lawn Tennis Club, on Irvington Avenue, at Fourth and Valley Streets in addition to the already 215 apartments under construction on Third and Valley Streets right now. We have added hundreds of new housing units in our downtown area, yet granted thirty-year tax abatements to both the Gateway project and the development at 3rd and Valley. How much will we need to increase our fire and police department budgets to support that growth? The current rate of development is unsustainable in the long-term.
The 2009 Vision Plan describes the downtown South Orange that drew so many of us to this village as “…compact and walkable, with charming 1800’s architectural character and a historic train station that is among the busiest in the New Jersey Transit system.” We have to retain the architectural integrity of our Village, including the Village Hall and other historic structures, and ensure that new construction is in keeping in size and scope with our distinctive neighborhoods – including green space, and the surrounding residential and commercial communities.
In March, the current board unanimously designated our entire village – every home – a Rehabilitation district under the Blighted Areas Clause of our State Constitution under NJ Rev Stat § 40A:12A-14 (2013). I disagree with labeling our homes this way.
The purpose of the law is to “arrest deterioration” and “eliminate substandard conditions”. The whole of our village is not in a state of deterioration. This unanimous action by the Board provides them significant powers to give grants, make loans, and enter into planning agreements that permit more variances, abatements and PILOTs. It allows the Board to circumvent the public bidding process and eliminates public notice requirements under some circumstances. While there might be short-term benefits to such a broad sweeping approach to rehabilitation, it is shortsighted to think that such an over-broad action will not have significant long-term consequences to the values of our homes.
For many of us, our homes are our most valuable investments. Zoning protects the integrity of our neighborhoods and provides certainty to our investments. Public notice ensures that we can voice our opinions when builders seek special treatment from village government.
Let’s get back to basics. Our Master Plan needs to be updated to reflect the changes in our community and the recommendations of the 2009 Smart Growth Vision Plan.
How are you planning to improve the South Orange train station if elected? In particular, how will you deal with the homeless issue? What is your overall vision for public safety? How will you work with the police and other public agencies to reduce crime?
These two questions are so closely related that I would like to address them together. I spoke with Police Chief James Chelel about the challenges faced by law enforcement in our community, and I laud our police force for their efforts in reducing crime in South Orange. There are additional steps we can take. We need to install cameras in our commercial district and improve lighting, especially in areas where we know commuters are walking to their cars late at night.
We need to bring New Jersey Transit to the negotiating table. They have a responsibility and an obligation to maintain the train station and some of the surrounding property. We need to enlist them to ensure proper maintenance of the facility. It is in their financial interest to ensure increased ridership along the Morris and Essex lines, and South Orange is one of the busiest hubs along the line.
We need to find humane solutions to help our homeless find a home. We should reach out to organizations like the Elizabeth Coalition and other privately funded groups to help us find homes and social services for the homeless.
What will you do to ease the tax burden?
Homeowners like me pay some of the highest taxes in the state. Every year village government is asked to make hard financial choices. We need to closely examine our budget, continue to explore ways to share services and reduce redundancy.
More specifically, we need to examine the property the town owns at 41 Third Street and 13 Second Street and get them back on the tax rolls. We need to stop giving tax breaks to big business like JP Morgan and start thinking of the long-term consequences of thirty-year abatements and PILOTS.
Finally, I am concerned that we may be faced with major infrastructure costs associated with our water system due to the failure of the East Orange Water Commission (EOWC) to perform basic maintenance on the system. We need to make sure that the termination of our contract with the EOWC does not allow them walk away from the consequences of their actions. As part of the designation making our town a rehabilitation district, the village engineer has certified that the water system is in need of significant repairs and maintenance. We must negotiate a termination that protects the financial interests of the people of South Orange and we must investigate our legal options carefully.
What will you do to attract new businesses and help sustain existing businesses?
I believe in small business growth. The one thing I hear universally from the business owners I have spoken with is that South Orange places its small businesses at a disadvantage when compared to neighboring communities by over-regulating, and by failing to have a fully transparent process for opening a new business. We need a roadmap for small business, one that will place all the steps and costs to opening their doors in a clear and open process so that it can be applied equally and fairly. We want a walkable community, and that means supporting small businesses that want to open their doors in our empty storefronts.
Next, I think we have a parking and traffic crisis in town. We need to conduct a traffic study and make sure that we are prepared – in advance- to divert the new traffic that will be created when the parking structure on Third Street opens. We may need a new driveway exit from the existing lot, or a new traffic signal to alter the flow of traffic during rush hour. With respect to parking, we continue to grant variances on the parking requirements for apartment buildings, and we need to stop. We also need to end confusing parking zones – your quarter doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. Confusing parking rules and a lack of available spaces is a deterrent to shoppers and diners. We will not attract diners and shoppers from neighboring communities if they are deterred by the parking and traffic gridlock.
What are you thoughts on working with the South Orange-Maplewood School District?
As a parent of children in our public school system, as a volunteer in my children’s classrooms and as a member of the PTA, I see first hand how exceptional our schools and teachers are. I want to see Columbia High School listed as one of the top rated schools in the state reflecting the effort of the students and teachers and the investment of our community.
We need to build a better relationship with the Board of Education. The existing animosity between the Board of Trustees and the Board of Education, as displayed at a recent Board of Trustee meeting, needs to end. We should be working together on whether we can both save expenses through ensuring shared services and preventing redundancy. For example, the Montrose pre-school program is beginning and the town offers a pre-school program through the Baird. We need to find opportunities to save costs by sharing. Their budget this year was announced at $123 million. There are places we can work together to support the schools and reduce costs.
What do you envision for future animal shelter needs? And what vision do you have for the future of the former JAC building?
The first step in any decision is listening to the stakeholders involved. I recently attended a Board of Trustee meeting where a “TNR” (Trap Neuter Release) program was recommended. I am doing my homework on this issue and right now it looks like both the humane and the fiscally sound approach to handling feral cats.
Before we make a decision about one parcel, let’s make sure we have looked at the whole – including the needs of NJ American Water as they build infrastructure behind Farrell Field, the need for an animal shelter in South Orange, and the needs of the community at large.
What is your vision for the future of Village Hall?
We should not be selling Village Hall. It is a cultural and historic asset to our community. Current proposals include a boutique hotel and restaurant. These proposals are shortsighted and will not ensure the preservation of this historic landmark. The cost overruns have already occurred. We cannot rewrite history. We can finish the job and move back in to that facility so that we are not continuing to pay rent at the PNC building across the street, and so that we are not selling off valuable parking situated behind the building. Maintaining the historic charm and beauty of our village increases property values and local business revenue. We should not treat historic significance as if it were a mere add on. Preserving unique architecture, a walkable downtown, and sense of community has proven fiscal benefits to local business districts.
Are there any more shared services deals to be made? police? fire? or are we all tapped out?
We should always be looking for innovative solutions to reduce costs in the long term. While our police and fire departments currently have relationships with the surrounding communities, we can continue to look for opportunities to share services – for example sharing in legal costs, insurance programs, and IT services are avenues to explore.
How will you work to increase community engagement and provide more and better communications with the public?
Let’s start by treating the public with the respect they deserve. Cutting off the microphone at community meetings and putting up a basketball style “shot-clock” tells residents their input is unwanted. Starting each and every Board of Trustee meeting with a closed executive session while the public waits endlessly outside goes beyond disrespectful.
Our village website lists Frank Lautenberg as our U.S. Senator. If the information is so poorly updated we cannot expect the public to rely on its accuracy. We need to fix the website, we need to do it now. We accepted a $16,800 bid with nothing to show for it 2.5 years later. Now we are starting at square one. Let’s choose better sources for public notices. Right now we publish in the News Record, but only in the print copy. Considering how many people obtain their news from electronic sources today, it is ridiculous to think that publication in a low distribution paper newspaper constitutes adequate notice.
Read more about Emily Hynes’ campaign platform here.