Howard Levison recently stepped down from the South Orange Board of Trustees after 12 years of dedicated service.
However, Levison will still be active in one part of the governance of the town: he was appointed administrator of the South Orange Water Utility. The new position will be part-time (no more than 20 hours a week unless approved by the Village Administrator) at an hourly rate of $67.00.
Over the last few years, along with Trustee Walter Clarke, Levison led the Township’s transition from the East Orange Water Commission to form its own water utility and enter into contract with a new water supplier (New Jersey American Water).
The appointment had caused some controversy, with some questioning whether the process had been politicized. The vote was 5-0 with one trustee — Deborah Davis Ford — abstaining.
At the April 23 BOT meeting, Village President Sheena Collum forcefully denied there was anything inappropriate in Levison’s appointment and clarified the appointment process.
Collum assured residents that the position was posted online, as is required, and the interview process “went through typical channels.” Levison “self-disclosed” to the township that he was interested in applying for the position, Collum said. She noted that Levison is “wildly qualified and has single handedly helped run our water utility,” through a great deal of tumult, including the discovery of contaminated water and the decision for the township to take over operations of the utility.
Collum said that regardless of who was appointed, the position of water administrator was vital because of the enormity and complexity of South Orange’s water situation, and the anticipated capital projects and infrastructure work set to take place over the next five years.
“We own and operate our own water utility,” Collum said, unlike, for example, Maplewood. The position “requires a lot of understanding of a municipal water utility and an engineering background,” both of which Levison has.
“The board fully removed itself” from the interview process and interviews were done blind, Collum said. She also noted the pay was lower than what someone with Levison’s experience would normally receive.
Levison’s tenure on the BOT was lauded by, among others, Police Chief Kyle Kroll. “The work he’s done for the Police Department, including the new building…without him guiding it, it could not have been done,” Kroll said in remarks made during a ceremony to swear in new and promote officers earlier in the meeting.
Speaking to Levison, Kroll said: “You are at the forefront of the ideas and changes taking place in South Orange and you have never once put yourself (ahead) of the village.”
“He is the right person for the job,” Collum said, challenging anyone who wanted to investigate the hiring process to “come take a look.”
During the roll call, Davis Ford voted “Present not voting.” When Collum asked her to explain her vote, Davis Ford simply repeated, “My vote is present not voting.”
Davis Ford is currently challenging Collum for the position of Village President, in what has been an often contentious campaign. The election is May 14.
Village Green reached out to Davis Ford to ask her to clarify her vote. She sent the following message from Moses Oliva, the communications director of her campaign slate, South Orange Forward:
“Trustee Davis Ford has tremendous respect for the years of service Howard Levinson [sic] has given to the Village. He has helped make a positive difference South Orange and is unarguably the most qualified person to be our new Municipal Water Administrator.
“Going into the vote Trustee Davis Ford was aware that Trustee Levinson had unanimous support from the Board and knew he had been asked to stay on longer than anticipated—even up to the day after the vote. Deborah Davis Ford is supportive of his move, but is also committed to her fiduciary responsibility of transparency in her votes in as Trustee, which is why she recused herself from voting on this issue. Her objective here was to protect the integrity the process and Mr. Levinson’s success as Water Administrator.”
As the vacancy Levison leaves on the BOT is occurring less than 6 months before an election, no appointment will be made for his replacement.