HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside voters will go back to the polls for a Dec. 5 runoff election to decide who will be the town’s next mayor and pick three at-large council members.
Jorge Batista and Dahlia Vertreese garnered the most votes in the four-way mayoral race on Nov. 7, and will appear on the ballot next month. Unofficial results show Batista earned 34.94 percent of votes, while Vertreese received 29.99 percent.
No at-large council candidate gained a majority of votes either, so the top six contenders in the race will vie for three vacant seats. Three of the six candidates in that race come from Batista’s ticket, while the other half come from Vertreese’s camp.
Batista is a former Hillside councilman who currently runs a real estate law firm with his wife.
“Hillside needs to have ethics and standards, and Hillside needs someone with experience who is willing to think of solutions that are outside the ordinary scope of government,” Batista said in a Nov. 8 phone interview. “We can do better.”
Vertreese has the backing of the Hillside Democratic Committee. She has an extensive background in labor organizing and was a former teacher in Newark.
“I’m tired of my neighbors leaving or wanting to leave,” Vertreese said in a Nov. 9 phone interview about her motivation for running. “I’m responding to a lot of pain and frustration with our township and the way it’s been run for years. … I love Hillside and I want stay here and thrive here, and I want my neighbors feel the same way.”
One of the candidates will replace current Mayor Angela Garretson, who won a seat on Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders in last week’s elections.
Residents have raised concerns regarding some appointments Garretson has made during her tenure, accusing her of not hiring talent within the town for public jobs. She appointed Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss in September as a supervisor in the Department of Public Works. He has since decided not to take the position.
Both candidates said they would consider hiring Hillside residents, but would not be afraid to branch out to find the most qualified people for public jobs.
“There are a lot of vacancies,” Vertreese said. “So it’s either, do we have the talent in Hillside or Union County. … If no one was vetted and no one wanted to come and work for Hillside, then you do go to neighboring towns to find the talent and skills.”
Batista and Vertreese said they’d work to stop lawsuits brought by township employees. which cost residents money. Several public employees have sued over salaries, demotions and being denied promotions under under Garretson’s tenure.
“I’m going to make a lot smarter decisions about how we hire, fire and promote in order to avoid theses lawsuits, in order to avoid discontent,” Batista said.
At least two members of the Hillside Police Department have filed lawsuits against Garretson and the township regarding the chief’s position.
One was demoted and another claims he wrongfully denied promotion. Internal disciplinary documents were also leaked to LocalSource last month about the current police chief.
“The personnel files floating out there — hurting each other — it’s disappointing to see that kind of stuff going on,” Vertreese said. “It makes the township people feel taken for granted because they are the highest paid employees in the town, along with the fire department.”
Both candidates plan to make Hillside more attractive to developers and businesses in an effort to bring in more ratables. This would at least stabilize property taxes, Vertreese said.
Batista said he would want to hold an annual parade with businesses and bring back recreation to make Hillside more attractive to developers and potential homeowners.
Vertreese, meanwhile, said she’d consider creating a parking garage to generate revenue for Hillside and keep out-of-towners away from residents’ parking spaces.
In the future, she’d like to a see a commuter train station in town, which would make getting to Hillside easier and create more transportation options for people who may want to move to the township. NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line runs through Hillside.
The two mayoral hopefuls also said they’d like to develop the site of the former Bristol-Myers Squibb property on Liberty Avenue, but only after tests are conducted to determine whether it’s contaminated.
Batista clarified a comment he made at a debate last month about his plans for that property. At the Oct. 25 debate, he said he didn’t want to discuss whether the site was “contaminated or not” and would prefer to build a school or apartments there.
“Let’s find out how badly contaminated it is,” Batista said Nov. 8. “If it’s contaminated and if it can’t be cleaned up, let’s find a way to make it usable.”
Vertreese said she’d work to get state or federal grants to help the owners of the property remediate the area, if contaminated, so it could be sold.
“It does scare me,” Vertreese said, referring to possible contamination. “We have a lot of families here.”
Residents have also raised concerns about a rat infestation in the town and the candidates have said they would address the rat problem differently.
“I don’t think the solution is just throwing traps randomly here and there and then charging the homeowners for the traps,” Batista said, later adding that he’d like to issue a short-term study to find the source of the problem.
Vertreese said legislation regarding the way developers bait vermin hasn’t been updated since the 1970s, and mostly only applies to inner cities.
She said she’d push for stricter regulations in Trenton — using her connections as a labor organizer — to quell the rat problem.
Batista made an unsuccessful bid for the state Assembly in 2015, running for state office specifically because he “believed Hillside needed representation at the state level since we were not getting funding for programs we needed.”
“If the opportunity came up in the future, would I consider it? Maybe,” Batista said about the Assembly. “My focus is to make Hillside a better place for me and my neighbors.”
At-large council candidates on Batista’s ticket are Nagy Sileem, Joshua Greenblatt and Joseph Brown. Vertreese is running with George Cook III, Nancy Mondella and Craig Epps.
Hillside has seen runoff elections for mayoral candidates in the previous two elections. In 2013, Garretson defeated incumbent Joseph Menza in a runoff, and Menza won his seat in a runoff election in 2009.