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 mayoral election, voters will choose between current Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville and current Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller. Incumbent Robert Jackson is not seeking election this year.
Montclair is one of the towns in New Jersey where the mayor appoints Board of Ed members and a council member to the Board of School Estimate. Are you in favor of this, and do you feel you would have any conflicts in doing so?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: Our form of government is a Faulkner II form of government. I am in favor of this form of government. It provides many choices for communities with a preference for a strong executive and professional management of municipal affairs.
The function of the mayor in this type of government is relatively the same as the other council members, with few exceptions, including: (1) she presides over the council meetings (2) appoints the HPC; (3)appoints the Library Board; (4) appoints the Environmental Commission; and (5) appoints members of the BOE, one member of the BOSE, and serves on the BOSE.
If I were not willing and/or able to execute any one of these responsibilities, I would consider it an abdication or dereliction of duty except in limited cases; a nullification of the distinguishing factors between the position of mayor and town councilors.
SEAN SPILLER: Public education is one of the most important services local government provides. Our excellent public schools are a big reason my wife Lauren and I chose Montclair to raise our growing family.
Montclair residents have voted overwhelmingly to maintain an appointed board. An informed electorate, choosing our mayor at the ballot box, even with an appointed board, provides Montclair voters with a voice. As a parent and educator, I believe in the value of public education and have a deep interest in giving our students what they need. So, who would be better for education than an educator?
As a Montclair homeowner and taxpayer, I have a vested interest in delivering value for our tax dollars.
As mayor, I will fulfill my duty to appoint independent Board of Education members who share the goal of providing the best education for our students at the very best value to taxpayers.
What do you see as the number one problem facing Montclair’s educational system? What would solve it?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: Without the consistency of a seasoned superintendent, preferably someone who is familiar with the history of how and why our Montclair public schools and the magnet system came to be, it will continue to be difficult for us to once again become “Blue Ribbon“ schools, a school district where people will use Montclair as an example of greatness.
The individual selected needs to have a background that includes being around people from all walks of life, and having an understanding of why it is important to demonstrate the diversity of our population in our classrooms.
If we can put this in place, and have that individual understand the importance of championing rigorous and diverse learning environments for all students, then I believe that we will be moving in the right direction.
SEAN SPILLER: The biggest challenge we face is the lack of resources from the federal government and state. We face underfunding from both each year and it has forced us to try and do more with less and less. This is not to understate, though, the need for more stability at the superintendent level.
That said, our students, our educators, our parents, and our community are extremely resourceful and resilient.
Our magnet system remains the envy of the state and provides an excellent education for our students.
The focus on a restorative justice culture is fast becoming an example for schools throughout the state. The work is transformative and keeps our students as the leaders in addressing our challenges, including student outcomes.
Overall, we should be proud of our public schools. Our schools remain the top reason why generations have grown roots here and why young families continue to choose Montclair.
What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Montclair? What specifically could be done to help keep Montclair diverse?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: I have seen negative gentrification in Montclair both in historically lower socioeconomic areas and with seniors on a fixed income. During the past eight years I have been intently focused on how to best address this. I was excited, when after several years of no movement by council to adopt an ordinance to give our municipal employees a priority with workforce affordable housing that would allow them to live where they work, my council colleagues joined me in voting in favor of this ordinance.
Because we met our Coalition on Affordable Housing (COAH) requirements our township decided to opt out of COAH. Instead of having local residents compete in the drawing for an affordable unit, with residents from all over, moving forward our affordable housing will be for Montclair residents.
We need to continue to work with our seniors to ensure age diversity, address the housing needs of persons who are differently abled and housing for our veterans.
SEAN SPILLER: Keeping our diversity is paramount. We have long recognized that our diversity with regard to race, socioeconomic status, religion, age, sexual orientation, and more is the key to our strength. While some at the national level seek to divide us, we remain committed to the many things that connect us.
While taking actions to ensure we remain welcoming to all, I am proud that we have also taken the first step around issues like rent control, which has never been successful before. Such controls for our residents, with specific safeguards for seniors, allow our friends and neighbors to stay in Montclair.
I am proud that because we are one of the few towns that has met our legal obligation for affordable housing, we are offering Montclair residents and township employees affordable housing, so they also can afford to remain part of our wonderful community.
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?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: I think that the 20 percent set-aside for affordability in multi-unit developments is a starting point. In order to maintain and expand our township diversity, we must begin to think beyond just economics and look at people who are differently abled, veterans, persons of all ages, people with extended-family households, and other housing needs. More affordable housing can be created through education.
The first thing that we need to do is to educate people about what affordable housing is and is not. We need to show people many of the beautiful, affordable housing options.
Rising rents and unsustainable housing costs are wreaking havoc on Montclair families. Far too many are spending more than one-third of their income for housing. Fair market rent for housing continues to rise. Without the rent control ordinance which I am happy to have worked on collaboratively with many knowledgeable people of good will for years, we were finally able to get the rest of our Council to support. We certainly can create more affordable housing in all areas of Montclair. Our failure as a township to address some of the zoning laws that create racial segregation have prevented us from creating more affordable housing and more housing options for all.
SEAN SPILLER: The ordinance allocating for 20 percent affordable housing is one I applaud for its foresight. As redevelopment plans allow for varying affordable housing percentages by law, I will strive to gain as much community benefit in any such plan without undermining the commitment to our diversity.
As noted previously, we have taken affordability a step further by specifically dedicating our affordable housing to Montclair residents and township employees. The rent control ordinance I was proud to introduce will further help to keep our community affordable.
Through our debt reduction of more than $60 million dollars, we have allowed for millions of extra dollars to go to community services, while having a municipal tax increase average about 1 percent over the last eight years (including 0 percent the last two). Keeping increases low or at zero also helps to keep Montclair affordable.
Of course, I am constantly looking for ways to do even more.
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?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: We are in the process of building several parking decks, which should give us some relief. As we revisit our affordable housing and create opportunities for our young, first-time employed millennials to return to their hometown, we will notice that we will get some relief in parking. Many of our millennials will prefer Uber or Lyft. When we finally get the Pedestrian Safety Plan into our master plan and get “Montclair Moving’” people will begin to appreciate, more, the value in them walking. We will be able to use technology more and be able to locate the nearest parking spot by an app.
I am not in favor of an across-the-board removal of the overnight parking ban. I know that we have work to do regarding overnight parking. While I am still exploring options, I am intrigued by the idea that people who have special needs to park on the street overnight may make a case for so doing. Many residents who live in Montclair do so because of the beauty of our suburban township. They enjoy the tree-lined residential streets with beautiful flowers. They enjoy the quiet evenings of not listening to cars pull up to park in front of their homes and listen to the radio at a level loud enough to wake them up or worse, idling.
SEAN SPILLER: The master plan, which is developed through community input and reviewed by state law every 10 years, calls for two new parking decks. I am thrilled about the fact that we are currently adding two decks and what that means for my neighbors and our residents. The addition of well over 400 new parking spaces will be a huge help in alleviating some of the challenges we have all experienced.
Specifically to our streets and lots, I hear from many residents that are looking for more restrictions with regard to parking in front of their homes and equally as many that want to ease those restrictions. As such, we are probably at the balance needed. I do support residents having priority for permits for our lots.
Does the new demolition oversight law go far enough in preserving Montclair’s history and character? What else would help?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: The Demolition Oversight Law is just one of the ways that we address preserving history and character in town.
We have the Montclair History Center and various community groups in town that are dedicated to helping to preserve the history of our township, photographers, authors, people doing oral histories, our museum, people doing movies are a few of the other ways that we preserve history.
It would be very helpful if we give more thought to preserving the character of a neighborhood when folks want to build things that clearly change the character of a neighborhood. The DOL will be adequate when it is passed with “the teeth.”
I think that the final decision should be at the council level.
SEAN SPILLER: Thankfully, we were able to pass this ordinance to help preserve the history and character of Montclair’s structures. It is as strong as legally possible, and we worked with our township attorney and others to be sure of that.
But there are many roads to the same end and I also keep in mind the big picture. While we fight for diversity, affordability, small businesses, and strong public schools, it encourages people to stay here and come here who care and respect our rich history. Preserving our charm is an attitude, rather than a single ordinance.
Montclair has undergone a huge redevelopment boom in the last five years. How do you see this affecting Montclair, both good and bad?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: In the past 5 years the development projects we undertook were Seymour Street in 2016, Hackensack UMC Mountainside in 2016, and we most recently amended the Hanes Redevelopment Plan in 2019.
Although the Seymour plan was given an Achievements in Planning Award, it will significantly change the character of that neighborhood. Seymour will have 200 units and 20 affordable units, 224 parking spaces and 30,000 square feet of retail in one building, and two stories of office space and five floors of parking in another building. The vision is for the area to be a regional arts and entertainment destination including the Wellmont Theater. While this is very exciting, I recognize that home will never be the same for the near homeowners and residents who have lived in that neighborhood for decades.
HUMCM was a collaborative plan with Glen Ridge. This redevelopment project transformed a 68,000-square-foot nursing home into a 45,000-square-foot medical office space. We lost the battle to maintain some homes in that area that could have been used for affordable housing. Another concern we overcame was figuring out how to minimize heavy trucks passing through our residential neighborhoods. The rest of the project provided a welcome addition and a better pedestrian safety plan for that area.
SEAN SPILLER: While seeing towns around ours growing as well, there is no question that Montclair remains the place that people want to be. With our numerous train stations, our diverse community, and our progressive values, we proudly embody what many want to be a part of.
Capturing the upside of that for a vibrant downtown while providing the infrastructure needed — in the process of adding two new parking decks for example — is the balance that is needed.
As the tag line for Montclair notes — “Where the Suburb Meets the City” — we need to preserve our spot in the middle. It is part of what defines us, so we need to and will remain committed to that Montclair ideal.
What is an issue in town (not otherwise addressed) that you feel strongly about, and how would you approach it if elected?
RENEE BASKERVILLE: You have done a great job in asking questions pertaining to things that I feel are extremely important. I thank you for this.
In addition, I continue to feel very strongly about trying to offer a universal pre-K for our early learners from age 3 on. We will need this more than ever as we begin to recover from the recession/ depression that will result from the effects of coronavirus. An opportunity for our early learners to sit side-by-side in pre-K beginning at age 3 and learning with and from people with diverse backgrounds will better position us to close the 70,000-word gap between students of differing socioeconomic strata, and otherwise assist in addressing the overall education gap. We can achieve this as a collaborative partnership and perhaps a public/private partnership. Because of this it will be necessary for the elected officials and the appointed officials and all of our residents to work together
SEAN SPILLER: As we come through the devastating consequences of this global pandemic, our community will face unprecedented challenges. Our immediate focus is and must remain on saving lives. We must also assist residents in need due to the economic and emotional devastation that COVID-19 is also causing.
But as we do move to the horizon of a new day, we will need strong leadership that harnesses the immense power of our community. We will need to rely on our small businesses, our non-profit groups, our faith leaders, our government and all of us together to help each other up. I can lead us.
I have proposed a coronavirus task force, comprised of individuals noted above, to assess our need, determine our community resources and become a one-stop-shop for our rebuilding efforts.
This will not be easy, but we are Montclair. We come together when needed and this will be no exception.