Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee on 2021: ‘There Is Truly a Light Ahead’

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The following address by Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee was delivered at the 2021 Maplewood Township Reorganization meeting on January 1, 2021 at Maplewood Town Hall.

Happy New Year Maplewood and Good afternoon.  

The Township of Maplewood is well positioned for a strong 2021 and beyond and will continue to be one of the most desired townships in the state of New Jersey to live and grow.  

I want to express my gratitude to my colleagues on the Maplewood Township Committee for re-electing me unanimously to serve as your Mayor in 2021.  

I want to thank my family, my amazing wife Marie and my talented daughter Madison. They have made tremendous sacrifices especially this year to allow me to serve everyone in our township. But make no mistake they have not been sitting on the sidelines. Whether it’s creating care packages or face shields for healthcare workers in Essex County, organizing Clothing and supply drives for families who have been impacted by the economic downturn, being a huge advocate and ambassador for our local small businesses, or speaking out against race and social injustice, they are actively involved and care deeply about our community. This is in addition to balancing their day-to-day responsibilities which for Marie includes leading communications at a global fortune 20 technology company and for Madison navigating the trials and tribulations of homeschooling, auditions, and being a teenager in a virtual COVID world.

I love you both deeply thank you thank you thank you. 

I also want to congratulate Committeeman Victor De Luca and Dean Dafis on their reelections.

No one can argue about their dedication, contribution and commitment to our community. Thank you both for your service and I look forward to collaborating with you in the years to come.

As we embark into 2021 a year ago no one would’ve even imagined that this is where we would be today. How all of our lives took a drastic turn in mid March of 2020 to a new path – unparalleled – unprecedented and unknown. A pandemic that would impact our community like nothing in our lifetimes.  

It has been an honor to lead our great community as your mayor during this most challenging and most unprecedented time. And while our Township’s COVID crisis response has included working in close collaboration with our Essex County leadership, the Governor’s office, our Sister community, South Orange, our Assembly representatives, and our Congressional and Senatorial leadership, not to mention you our community – there is no playbook to prepare for the phone calls when absolutely no one is watching, like the calls that I’ve made to the family members who have lost loved ones as a result of this awful virus. And at this time, I’d like to take a moment of silence to recognize the 28 individuals in our Township who lost their lives to COVID in 2020.

As we start 2021 we are moving in the right direction and there is truly a light ahead of us regarding this pandemic. 

The vaccination process has begun. To date, over 1,000 healthcare workers, first responders and volunteers have already been vaccinated and more to come in the weeks ahead which will include our seniors. The Essex County infrastructure built can handle 250 persons per site per day and will ramp up to nearly 2,000 persons per site per day as we move toward the phase that includes the majority population of our community. 

I for one plan to take the shot as soon as possible and I strongly advise every person eligible in Maplewood to do the same. To return to the new normal we must all do our part and take the vaccine. This is not a hoax, this is not false medicine, this is survival for our community and our country.

And I want to thank our community for their sacrifices and for doing their part in 2020, so many of you practiced social distancing, wore masks, served others or simply sheltered in place. Your great generosity and service to our community by preparing meals, creating face shields and masks, making donations to deserving families and supporting our local small businesses, first responders and health care workers. There is no doubt that your actions have saved lives, saved livelihoods and in some cases saved our sanity and restored our faith in humanity.

One year ago today, I communicated that our Board of Health promotes wellness in our community and is an advocate for mental, social and physical health and we look forward to the leadership of Candice Davenport, our new Health Officer. Today, I want to say thank you to Health Officer Candice Davenport and Health Nurse Anna Markarova on behalf of our township for your leadership, guidance, and collaboration on keeping our community informed, safe and helping over 744 Maplewood residents fight their battle with the COVID-19 virus.

But even during a pandemic our local government must go on. And with that I also want to thank our Township Team for their efforts in maximizing our operations in 2020. Our first responder EMS firefighters conducted over a hundred hospital runs during COVID, our first responder police officers conducted crowd control in key business areas and parks, our DPW first responders put up signage and snow fencing in our parks and performed other physical measures including the removal of over 90 trees and tree limbs impacted by a hurricane-like storm in August caused by ongoing climate change, which resulted in several residents living without power for nearly a week, and our health department first responders who personally delivered hundreds of aid kits to families dealing with positive cases of COVID in their homes. 

Our first responders — fire, police, DPW and health — showed up every day during the darkest time of the pandemic. They did not call in sick because of fear of the unknown which would have resulted in a significant financial burden not to mention a disruption to our township. Instead, they showed up with perseverance and incredible resilience. They were professionals and did a great job and I want to recognize and thank them.

And thank you to our non-1st responder departments as well for their ability to adapt and conduct the business of our town from fulfilling permits and applications to conducting the work of our court. 

And from a fiscal perspective, I also want to thank our department heads for their efforts to manage their budgets in 2020. Because of the impact of COVID, Township revenues across-the-board from permits, fees and rental activities were down compared to 2019. Understanding that, our department heads managed their costs diligently.

But we also experienced some highly unfortunate circumstances in 2020.  In August, the township was made aware of a culture at our community pool which was frankly unacceptable. We subsequently took action to address it. These initiatives and corrective measures will continue in 2021 to reassure the establishment of a new culture where employees can focus on just doing their job at our community pool. 

We are also in the process of hiring our next Township Administrator. I want to thank each and every department head for doing their job during this interim period without missing a beat and moving forward with the business of the township.  I as well feel rejuvenated by your enthusiasm and positive energy. 

I especially want to thank our Assistant Township Administrator Glenn Michalowski for his efforts in 2020. Although he was awarded with an employee spotlight, a program which I started to publicly recognize and appreciate those who work so hard for our Township, Glenn has been an unsung hero in our seamless and effective pivot to conduct town business in a virtual COVID culture. Thank you, Glenn.

In 2021, we will continue our commitment to sustainability and our quest to receive gold certification in the state of New Jersey by Sustainable Jersey.

In Q3, our Food Packaging Ordinance regarding banning plastics and materials such as straws, stirrers, and containers that are harmful to our planet became law. Because of the COVID environment, we will work closely with all of our businesses on implementing a phase in plan.

Forward thinking conversations are also underway with elected officials and environmental leaders from our sister municipality of South Orange to explore creating new efficiencies in our recycling operations including the bid process.

And our new Sustainable Essex Alliance contract goes into effect in March with Energy Harbor. Enhanced communications will be disseminated to our community including from our primary channels which are direct mail, our township website, and email deployments. We will also leverage secondary communication channels such as social media. Finally, the township will conduct a public ZOOM session on Tuesday, January 14, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. 

Although we suffered some losses of key businesses in our community including The Kings supermarket and our local movie theater, we’ve also celebrated some major successes with the opening of a multitude of businesses throughout our Township including, an orthodontist practice, the number one sophisticated and stylish Islamic apparel store in Northern New  Jersey – AL Shams Abayas , Two Bike stores – The Urban Cyclery Shop and of course the late Danny Ives’ Maplewood Bike Shed – may he rest in peace. We also welcomed the home styling store ReMerch, A body art business – Raven’s Quill Tattoo and our alternative treatment center managed by TerrAscend NJ will open in Q1 on 1865 Springfield Ave. A Community Education forum is planned and the center will provide employment opportunities for our residents.   

One of our flagship restaurants Lorena’s will be moving into a bigger space in Maplewood Village. And there are several construction projects underway or that will break ground in 2021 including and not limited to a mixed use development at 1581 Springfield Avenue, our new Dunkin Donuts at 1992 Springfield Avenue, a state of the art renovated Audi Dealership at 2195 Millburn Ave to  accommodate the number one auto dealership in all of NJ, new mixed use developments at 104 Baker St., 2210 Millburn, and 740 Irvington Ave.,  and a new residential complex at 285 Parker Ave. And after an amazing run in our community, The French fine-dining destination Verjus, has been sold and will  become a mixed use development which will include an Irish Pub on the first floor. And there is more to come in 2021 as the work continues on our Maplewood Village Visioning Plan and several investors have expressed interest in our local movie theater space.  Developers and investors continue to reach out to explore other development ideas in our township.

2021 also brings our master plan re-examination as well as our recreation open space master plan re-examination. These re-examinations occur every 10 years and these plans are important as they provide the strategic blueprint for our township for the next decade  and they also provide us with the opportunity to seek grants that can result in investments that pay significant dividends for our community in the years and decades to come.

And speaking of investments that will benefit our community for decades to come, the Murphy administration awarded our township an $8.3 million construction bond. This was the 3rd highest grant allocation out of 38 municipalities and counties awarded from the 129 applications submitted. The $8.3M grant allocation represents a 9.5% allocation of the earmarked $87.5M in funds. This is a tremendous victory for our community and I want to thank Governor Phil Murphy and his team, Mary Chute, our New Jersey State Librarian, our Library Director Sarah Lester and her team, the Library Board which includes Mr. DeLuca, the Library Foundation which includes former Mayor Ellen Davenport and the Friends of the Maplewood Library. Maplewood will break ground in 2021 on our twenty-first century library! 

The 2020 Census is completed. According to 2020CENSUS.GOV, our final response rate was 78.7% which beat our final 2010 response rate of 78.2%. Our 6 tracts had response rates that ranged from 92.3% to 69.9% all above the county final response rate which was 62.5% and the state response rate which was 69.5%. Thank you to everyone in our community who participated.

And our community is safe. For the second consecutive year, major crimes in Maplewood are down in almost all of our key major categories. Robbery, Burglaries, and Theft. However unfortunately Assaults are up 23%. These assaults are associated with Domestic Violence. Domestic Violence is real and no one should have to live in our community in an unsafe environment. The New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline is 1 (800) 572-SAFE (7233).

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, and ongoing climate change were not the only major events of 2020. This past year also gave rise to global protests including right here in our community sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We’ve also witnessed how simply the act of bird watching while Black, or more recently coming off of an elevator while Black with your Black child at a hotel is grounds for some to question whether you “belong.” So it bears repeating. Black Lives Matter. Period. And in our community this is not only a slogan placed on some well-trafficked streets, it’s not just the Beautiful poetry placed all over town by local and nationally-recognized poets. Black Lives Matter is not a political statement. And it’s not simply a headline or a hashtag. It’s core to who we are, it’s core to our values and it’s core to our humanity. And personally I’m so inspired by the young people in our two towns who have led the way and have demanded change.

And not only do we hear their calls for change, as a township we are actively making changes, including taking steps to reimagine our Auxiliary Police force. But this is only a starting point, collectively as a township and broader community we need to do a better job of working together to examine every aspect of our community where race could be used as a factor. We also need to look at ourselves and ask where am I falling short? How am I helping or hurting? We are all accountable. This includes the well-meaning neighbors who call 911 because they see two “suspicious” Black boys riding  their bikes on our streets and automatically assume that they don’t belong. This includes the parents and guardians who are up in arms over the idea that they may need to send their child to a school outside of their neighborhood in order to better integrate our schools. This includes the teachers and administrators who do not think that black students have the same potential as white students. This includes working with developers to ensure that Maplewood is an affordable place to live and that people of color do not get pushed out. This includes ensuring that every aspect of our criminal justice system from our local police force to the county prosecutor’s office operate with the utmost integrity, transparency and with the best outcomes in mind. And this also includes making room for the next generation of diverse leaders to serve because we know that talent is created equally but opportunity is not. 

So let’s not kid ourselves, racism, bias, microaggressions – whether conscious or unconscious – show up in all facets of life including right here in Maplewood.

Experience only comes from opportunity. As an African-American Mayor I embrace the responsibility to mentor the next African-American mayor so that she or he or they will have the same opportunity which has been afforded to me. I will fulfill my obligation because that is what true leadership is all about. That’s what diversity, equity and inclusion are all about – providing for others and putting them in a position to succeed. 

In closing, while the unprecedented challenges that we face are not over by a long shot, Maplewood is well positioned for a strong 2021 and beyond.  It is a safe community to live, work, play and grow.  We are a community that is thriving.  We are a community with strong leadership backed by a strong infrastructure. We are forward thinking. We are a community with world-class intellectual capital, culture and other resources needed to enhance the quality of life and opportunities for our residents.  We are a community built on service for all. Our community – Black, white, LatinX, Asain, LGBTQ, people with disabilities from Generation Alpha to Baby Boomers and beyond, we can equally call Maplewood home regardless of whether we’ve lived here for 3 months, 3 years or over 3 decades. We will continue to be one of the most desired townships in the tri-State area and in the State of New Jersey. 

Thank you. May God Bless you And May God Bless our Township, State of New Jersey and and the United States of America.

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