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 Second Ward election, voters will choose between current Second Ward councilman Robin Schlager and challenger Christina Thomas.
What do you see as the number one problem facing Montclair’s educational system? What would solve it?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: My involvement in civic duty in Montclair dates to my years as a PTA president and PTA council leader. I worked as Associate Director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) for 14 years.
Few Montclair residents have a greater track record of supporting the town’s school system. Currently, I have a major concern about the infrastructure and how we will fund the needed improvements that have been recommended by professional engineers.
I also think it’s important that we have a new, permanent superintendent in place by the start of the new school year.
I continue to have faith in the work and motivation of our BOE and our teachers, and I continue to believe in and support our magnet school system.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: The infrastructure we have and the age of our school buildings is really the biggest problem facing Montclair’s educational system. If you can’t function in your building because it is falling apart, that’s a pretty huge problem that is not conducive to learning.
We are in the process of fixing it without a strong, long-term plan. We should explore the possibility of using this time out of school to getting discreet tasks done on our properties.
Our buildings have been serving us for the past 80 years. We need to think about how they can better serve us for the next 100.
What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Montclair? What specifically could be done to help keep Montclair diverse?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: Judging simply from my neighbors on my wonderfully diverse street, I know that people continue to choose Montclair for its diversity (among many other reasons). It is the very essence of Montclair — and includes all kinds of diversity, such as racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic. We have residents of all ages and sexual orientation. The township has built into its culture and institutions that encourage diversity. We must be vigilant to maintain that culture and those institutions.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: Montclair needs to remain vigilant about maintaining socioeconomic diversity as the definition of our values and aspirations. I am a first-generation American whose Indian parents chose Montclair because it was accepting of foreigners and was itself diverse – even in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My mother was a nurse and my father a professor. As a family, we rehabilitated properties in Montclair and sold them or rented them out. We weren’t white, rich or competing with big-time developers.
We were living the American dream that so many in Montclair achieve, regardless of race, gender or religion. Gentrification is not a foregone conclusion in Montclair, but it is a challenge to maintain any level of socioeconomic diversity in an “expensive” town. It is a choice we have to keep making as a community. Things like rent control, affordable housing and excellent, equally accessible education are the keys to help keep Montclair diverse.
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?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: I believe in the 20 percent set-aside for affordable housing. I voted in favor of it.
I also support the township’s commitment to affordable housing for our work force; municipal employees and teachers.
I supported the current rent control ordinance that has been presented to the council.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: A one-in-seven set-aside for affordable units as advocated by the Montclair Housing Commission was an achievement of the Remsen administration (2004-2008). State law raised the number to one-in-five (20 percent), but these laws have rarely been fully enforced. The Siena did have one-in-seven affordable units.
I believe that adhering to the 20 percent set aside is a required minimum, and when it is not abided, that fines should be implemented sufficient to build elsewhere the units not provided.
I am a landlord that believes that rent control is a moral imperative. I am for rent control with some reasonable constraints.
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?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: Two more parking decks will be opened in the coming year. I believe this will address some of the parking issues we have downtown.
Safety is always my number one concern. Overnight parking restrictions were put in place with that in mind. For that reason, I do not believe there should be overnight parking on our streets, but I am certainly willing to consider it where applicable.
I do absolutely support Montclair residents getting priority for permits in our township lots and garages.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: Many people move to suburban Montclair and don’t expect to have cars parked out in front of their houses or buildings at all hours of the night.
I am not opposed to permitting people to build aesthetically pleasing driveways on properties. I am against lifting the overnight ban on parking because I think the ban allows for things like easier trash pickup and snow removal, but I also understand that some housing does not have adequate parking.
I believe that residents should always get priority on lot permits and street parking permits.
I also believe that bad policies adopted by a short-sighted board can’t cripple our town. Thoughtful development includes parking and infrastructure development as an integral part of any plan.
Does the new demolition oversight law go far enough in preserving Montclair’s history and character? What else would help?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: The Historic Preservation Committee that is in place does a thorough, thoughtful and professional job in the oversight of our historic stock of houses and buildings.
At the same time, I believe that each home and or building needs to be considered individually for its historic value and should not be subject to a blanket, neighborhood-wide decision.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: I think enforcement of strong laws, ordinances and zoning rules creates a more uniform and ultimately, a better experience for our citizens.
There is a positive, important role for a true historic review board, but I would hate to see you being barred from installing solar panels or using the new ecologically sustainable materials you want to rebuild your house with for non-objective reasons. What was great in the past does not necessarily work for our future.
I am all about thoughtful, sustainable development and laws and rules that can be enforced uniformly, regardless of your race, sex, or country of origin.
Montclair has undergone a huge redevelopment boom in the last five years. How do you see this affecting Montclair, both good and bad?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: Montclair has in place a master plan which includes a redevelopment plan. The plan has been worked on for 2 years, with all stakeholders having a chance to weigh in.
As years have gone by, the master plan has been reviewed and updated to account for changing needs and concerns.
All development is in keeping with the master plan, under which we have seen thriving new areas of redevelopment such as Walnut Street, Seymour Street and Church Street.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: Smart, sustainable development literally makes the town function beautifully; however, that’s not necessarily what we have. It seems like we have ad hoc development on a deal-by-deal basis. In many areas we’ve gotten big buildings without the legally required 20 percent affordable units. This doesn’t give Montclair a path to a diverse, sustainable future. We need to stick to plans, budgets and zoning rules. We need to have strategic growth, and we need smart, stubborn deal-makers with Montclair’s future on their mind to insure that development improves quality of life and affordability. When there are variations and deviations, developers need to pay for changes—they can’t become after-the-fact tax burdens on citizens. At 38,000 people, we are suburban, with multiple business districts. We need to make living, walking, working, shopping, commuting and parking in Montclair safe for everyone.
What is an issue in town (not otherwise addressed) that you feel strongly about, and how would you approach it if elected?
ROBIN SCHLAGER: Throughout my tenure on the town council, pedestrian safety has been a top priority. I started the campaign “Drive with Care in Montclair.” I will continue to look for ways to keep our streets safe for all.
I am also deeply supportive of our Environmental Commission and its efforts to achieve energy conservation and tree-planting throughout the township.
Personally, as Second Ward councilor, I have been deeply committed to the upgrades and beautification of Edgemont Park. But, when at this crucial moment in time, whoever is on the Town Council when July 1 comes around, the number one priority, it would be mine, is the challenge we will face in making sure Montclair’s residents and businesses can get back on a healthy and prosperous track once the current coronavirus emergency is behind us.
CHRISTINA THOMAS: Having an “interim” schools superintendent and an “interim” township manager are two huge problems that shouldn’t exist in Montclair. We need strong, quality “captains” for our ships, and “interim” is not the best we can do.
As a Second Ward councilor, I would prioritize the national search for permanent positions, allowing all interested parties to compete and perhaps even giving some preference to people with roots in Montclair. Families should be excited to send their kids to Montclair High and be proud of how efficiently the town is run.
Because of the strong foundation I received in the Montclair public school system, I had the opportunity to study at some of the most prestigious universities in the nation. We need new people with fresh ideas to run this town with the thoughtful efficiency and excellence we require, while creating long-term stability for our students.