Montclair’s 2020 municipal election is underway right now, with voters asked to mail in their ballots by May 12. Voters will choose a new mayor and six Township Council seats in the town’s nonpartisan elections. To help Montclair residents make an informed choice, Montclair Local asked all 14 municipal candidates a series of questions on some of the key issues facing the town going forward.
In the First Ward election, voters will choose between current First Ward councilman Bill Hurlock and challenger John Hearn:
What do you see as the number one problem facing Montclair’s educational system? What would solve it?
JOHN HEARN: The single greatest issue facing Montclair’s education system is the lack of consistent leadership. In the last eight years, our public schools have had six superintendents. Each has brought their own expectations, their own way of working, and their own vision for the future.
Imagine how disorienting that must be for our talented principals. Picture how demoralizing that is to our extraordinary teachers. Staircases are not the only thing collapsing in our schools.
We need a school board composed of strong leaders who are capable of working together as a team. They need to present a face to the community that’s both confident and inclusive.
Together, they must appoint and then support a new superintendent who is a seasoned manager, an accomplished educator, and a racially literate policymaker. To make any of that happen, we need to elect Renee Baskerville as Mayor.
BILL HURLOCK: Consistent leadership of the top school administration is crucial. As a member of the Board of School Estimate for the last eight years, I worked with five different superintendents and six business administrators. This leads to not only a lack of continuity, but a lack of consistent planning which must be addressed going forward.
Such persistent change has a deleterious impact on the administration of our schools.
What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Montclair? What specifically could be done to help keep Montclair diverse?
JOHN HEARN: Diversity is what makes Montclair shine. It’s the reason many of us choose to live here. Diverse communities are more productive, more creative, and more resilient in times of trouble.
In recent years, our hard-won diversity has come under stress. It has become impossible for some people who were raised here to stay here, and for some people who work here to live here. And choices made in planning, zoning and other parts of government have pushed people—of every description—into their separate corners of town. Gentrification isn’t just about pricing people out; it’s also about boxing them in.
The solution begins with safeguarding affordable housing, and establishing more of it. It entails creating more local jobs that pay a living wage. And it’s about championing local institutions with the power to bring people together and provide opportunity to all—places like our schools, our libraries, and the YMCA.
BILL HURLOCK: I worked with my colleagues to pass measures that address these important issues, including supporting the rent control ordinance. It is also important to effectively manage the operating and capital budgets to ensure that the tax burden does not become yet another factor forcing people to leave town.
As a member of the Board of School Estimate, I fought to keep and fund those programs that serve our most vulnerable children.
Many recent developments have not set aside 20 percent of new residential units as affordable as required by a township council ordinance. Do you believe in the 20 percent set-aside? How can more affordable housing be created? Are you for or against rent control?
JOHN HEARN: Fair housing is the first line in our battle to defend Montclair’s diversity, and we’ve been falling down on the job. The 20 percent set-aside began as a guideline set by the council a decade ago. It became an ordinance only very recently, after residents protested that little progress was being made in solving our local housing crisis.
First we need to enforce the ordinance now on the books. Then we must adopt a sensible rent control program, of the kind long advocated by Renee Baskerville, which is both crucial to residents and viable for landlords. We should also explore applying such controls to some commercial properties, because the problem of affordability doesn’t end at home. And we need to build or find new affordable housing. What if we looked into repurposing the 70+ abandoned properties that exist around town?
Whatever we do, we should give preference to fellow Montclairians.
BILL HURLOCK: While it is always possible to do more, under all applicable standards, Montclair has met or exceeded its state-mandated affordable housing obligations.
Much depends on the specific project. I worked hard to meet the targets the town adopted, which I support. While we may not like it, it has been said that sometimes it is better to have 10 or 15 percent of something than 20 percent of nothing — if it cannot be done.
We have also looked at other issues, such as making certain affordable housing programs available to Montclair residents only and creating affordable housing options for municipal employees — police, fire and school personnel.
I voted yes for the rent ordinance advanced by my colleague Councilor Spiller.
What ideas do you have to solve parking problems in Montclair? Are you for or against lifting the overnight ban and should residents get priority on lot permits?
JOHN HEARN: The lack of parking drains business away from Montclair shops and restaurants. It can spoil a day of shopping or a night on the town. It creates headaches for commuters. And, for some residents without garages or driveways, it makes living here next to impossible. We need a radically new approach.
We should give people who live or work in Montclair preferential pricing for parking on the street or in a public garage. To make the most of every spot, we should rethink the permit parking program, guaranteeing permit-holders a space if they need it, but releasing it to the public if they don’t.
We should do a block-by-block review of residential parking needs, identifying places where the overnight parking ban should be lifted. And we should negotiate an agreement with Lyft or Uber to provide rides anywhere in town for a flat fee, enabling us to leave our cars at home.
BILL HURLOCK: Where feasible, the building of parking decks has been of tremendous help in alleviating parking issues.
In addition, we have used creative techniques in alleviating parking issues such as opening the New Jersey Transit lots in Upper Montclair for paid parking after 10 a.m. on weekdays (when most people have commuted to work or decided to work from home). We also opened those lots for weekend use — when they sat dormant for years.
I would favor continuing to look at all options, including easing of overnight parking restrictions, in an effort to further address these concerns.
Does the new demolition oversight law go far enough in preserving Montclair’s history and character? What else would help?
JOHN HEARN: The demolition oversight law is laudable, but it’s also vulnerable to abuse. I’m a lover of history, and a fan of great design. If anything, I think we should hold a harder line on what is built and demolished in Montclair.
But restricting what an owner can do with their own property should be done only with great consideration. After all, if our predecessors had demanded too much uniformity, we wouldn’t have the many architectural styles that make our town so beautiful today.
In every instance, we have to ask ourselves, are we seeking to preserve a piece of history, or are we trying to stop what might replace it? Are we dealing with a preservation issue or a zoning issue? Both are valid, but they’re not the same. And they relate to other essential topics. That’s why I advocate stronger coordination among Montclair’s Historic Preservation and Environmental Commissions, Planning Board and Development Review Committee.
BILL HURLOCK: I have been a staunch advocate for saving Montclair’s precious historic resources.
I am proud of my efforts to maintain the Upper Montclair train station’s historic designation when the state and New Jersey Transit moved to de-list it — which would have made it subject to development.
As a lawyer, I know that there is a fine balance between effective proper historic preservation and respecting the rights of property owners. I certainly do not want to see the town subject to costly litigation that I know will most likely end in defeat.
The current system that we put in place attempts to achieve that balance.
Montclair has undergone a huge redevelopment boom in the last five years. How do you see this affecting Montclair, both good and bad?
JOHN HEARN: I’m an advocate of thoughtful (re)development. To me, that’s about balancing economic growth with social sustainability.
At its best, redevelopment has tremendous benefits. It produces short-term construction jobs, long-term employment, and new tax revenues to fund essential government services. It can also enhance people’s quality of life, making things more convenient or fun.
But Montclair seems to have a haphazard approach to development. So it’s never been harder to find a parking space or cross the street safely. Unfettered construction casts some neighborhoods in shadows, and buries others in noise. And some of it is just plain ugly.
In 2022, we’re due to create a new master plan for Montclair. It should be the most open and inclusive process we’ve ever undertaken. And it should lay out a vision for what we insist on preserving, and what we aspire to become as community.
BILL HURLOCK: The proper balance is crucial. We must weigh the need to find alternate sources of municipal funding while doing so within the town’s current infrastructure.
Current growth has helped to manage the enormous tax burden that our residents have historically faced. The municipal tax levy has stayed relatively constant over the last 8 years.
As with all projects there is going to be an adjustment period.
As First Ward Councilor, I worked with my constituents to ensure that only smart development occurred in my ward where the infrastructure is simply not present for larger projects.
What is an issue in town (not otherwise addressed) that you feel strongly about, and how would you approach it if elected?
JOHN HEARN: We all have big dreams for Montclair but, from a financial standpoint, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Much of our budget goes to standing obligations. Some of those costs, like health care, just get bigger every year—with no easy way for us to control them. Because our taxes are already intolerably high, and because New Jersey law puts a cap on how much they can be raised, every budget season begins with a conversation about what needs to be cut.
I would like to shift that dialogue. First, we need to seek out new sources of revenue. This includes attracting high-value, low-footprint business that can contribute to the tax pool. It means figuring out whether we’re receiving all the federal and state funds that we qualify for. And it’s about making our tax dollars work harder—by identifying services we can share with nearby towns or Montclair State University. These issues are more pressing than ever, in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic.
BILL HURLOCK: Due to the current pandemic crisis, things must be done differently going forward. We all must adapt to this “new” paradigm. It is imperative to have proven leadership to do so. We must develop a plan to protect our residents should this occur again.
In addition, I would continue to address our debt and infrastructure issues. We have done remarkably well lowering the Township debt from approximately $223 million to approximately $161 million in the last eight years. In so doing, we attained a AAA bond rating – up from a AA-. This saves us millions of dollars on our debt service. These funds can then be used to continue paving and curbing the streets, maintaining our parks and upgrading our libraries.