HILLSIDE, NJ — Nine candidates for the Hillside Town Council debated about ways to improve the state of the township at a public, hours-long forum held at Hillside Town Hall on Thursday, Oct. 24, with each individual making a case to residents for why they should be elected into one of the four open seats.
Many of the candidates expressed a desire to “work together, as a team, in order to bring solutions to Hillside,” as 1st Ward candidate Andrea Hyatt put it, and to change a perceived lack of coordination within the council. A recurring theme was that council members need to improve their professional relationship with the mayor, as well as each other, in order to accomplish more.
A need for more ratables, attracting businesses to Hillside and filling administrative jobs — such as the vacant CFO, DPW Director and Business Administrator positions — were also widely stressed.
Many of the candidates were in favor of the “you work here, you live here” ordinance, which would require public employees to live in the township.
Some candidates maintained that, hiccups aside, Hillside is still moving in the right direction, and voters “shouldn’t believe everything you read in the paper,” as 3rd Ward incumbent Donald DeAugustine put it.
The quality of Hillside Public Schools, the character of the community and other oft-overlooked positives were among the reasons the candidates believe in Hillside, they said.
Below is a brief breakdown of the debate, seat by seat, for the Hillside Town Council.
With no incumbent running for re-election in the 1st Ward, the only such seat in this year’s election, first-time candidates Tyrese Wooten-Outlaw and Andrea Hyatt took took turns sharing their ideas for Hillside Town Council. A third candidate for the 1st Ward, Karen Reid, was unable to attend the debate.
Wooten-Outlaw, who has lived in Hillside for 45 years and owns a local salon, talked often about the need to improve Hillside’s economic development. In an early question about addressing the township’s infrastructure, business and crime problems, Wooten-Outlaw said residents should try to keep their money within in the township.
“There is a dire need for how our businesses are being supported. Buy Hillside, in Hillside. A lot of residents, they do not go to ShopRite, they go outside of our communities,” said Wooten-Outlaw. “We need to put funds back into our community, instead of going elsewhere. That would help our infrastructure, that would help stores that are dying.”
The idea of keeping money local came up again, including when candidates were asked about the hypothetical “you work here, you live here” ordinance. Both Wooten-Outlaw and Hyatt, who owns a management consulting firm, agreed in spirit with the ordinance, although Hyatt said that “as far as actually enforcing it,” there might be an issue.
More prevalent issues on Hyatt’s agenda included high taxes and the township’s vacant administrative positions, issues which “can be resolved,” said Hyatt, if the council works together and plans properly.
“You have to have the ability and the know-how to create a plan, that you can implement effectively through action. We need to hire individuals in order to move any process forward,” said Hyatt, in response to the question about infrastructure, business and crime. “If we start to hire qualified, competent individuals, that would lend support to infrastructure.”
Making plans and problem solving is what Hyatt does professionally, she said, and her experiences and sense of maturity would help her on the Hillside Town Council. Hyatt also supported overtime police work, re-evaluating how Hillside markets itself, consideration of developing residences for seniors, and selecting a partner to televise bi-weekly council meetings.
That last topic was mostly agreed upon by candidates at the debate, except for Wooten-Outlaw. Televising the council meetings as they are, said Wooten-Outlaw, would only serve to emphasize the negatives in Hillside, rather than the positives.
“I think I stand alone on this, and I apologize, but I’m against it. Until there is a code of ethics put in place, until the council treats each other — it’s embarrassing. I don’t want to be represented like that,” said Wooten-Outlaw. “If we can offset that with the positive things that Hillside does, then I would be for it. But since it’s so negative, I’m against it.”
Running against Town Council President Salonia Saxton, who at one point gave the audience a long list of achievements while in office, two other candidates talked about the need for change in Hillside.
Angela Menza, who has served three terms on the Hillside Board of Education, mentioned how Hillside government is making “bad headlines,” saying such cases are not good for the community and that “even worse, to some extent they are true,” in her opening statement.
The council needs to exhibit a greater collaborative effort, said Menza, if it wants to prevent those kind of headlines in the future. Other responsibilities include making seniors aware of the tax freeze, according to Menza, and potentially supporting the “you live here, you work here” ordinance. Public employees would “bring your revenue back to Hillside, and your tax dollars stay in Hillside,” a win-win for the town, said Menza.
Among Menza’s other ideas was to implement a grant writing system, a topic that with which fellow candidate Christopher Mobley has experience. Mobley, whose work in the public sector includes a role as grant administrator in East Orange, called for the need for a capital five-term plan, and various other adjustments in the township.
In response to Hillside’s crime problem, for example, residents should enact more community policing and help the Hillside Police Department, said Mobley; vacant properties in the township need to be identified, quickly, so they can change hands as efficiently as possible; the council needs to meet with businesses, and consider a mixed-residential strategy; and the Fire Department’s equipment, which is in poor shape, should be budgeted for.
Hillside’s Fire Department does have a capital plan in place for damaged equipment, though, according to Saxton, who was frank about many of the other problems that Hillside faces.
The township is appealing because of its location, for example, but “we have a long way to go as far as infrastructure is concerned,” and the township needs to attract businesses — a task that’s best left to an expert, like a Business Administrator, rather than the council, said Saxton.
Aside from the vacant administrative positions, Saxton identified the need for more ratables and offsetting tax losses, saying the township hasn’t recovered from losing Bristol-Myers Squibb. A large part of the problem, according to Saxton, is personnel: Members of the Zoning and Planning Boards “have been there way too long, and they’re the ones that are holding up the process.”
Hillside residents need someone on the council who feels the same way they do, according to candidate Bwana Davis-Jones, which is why the retired Essex County Corrections lieutenant is running against incumbent Donald DeAugustine.
“I’m running on behalf of all of you,” said Davis-Jones. “I’m going to work with the council and I’m going to work with the mayor to resolve our issues.”
Her first priority, if elected, would be to meet with the mayor and the other council members to develop a plan, so that the township can begin to realize its potential. Because “without a plan, we can’t do anything,” said Davis-Jones.
Throughout the debate, the candidate also talked about maintaining the businesses in Hillside — the township can’t forget about what it has, said Davis-Jones, while looking for new ratables — and creating greater accountability among district leaders and council members.
DeAugustine, a 40-year resident of Hillside, also talked about the need for cooperation. His greatest priorities for a new term, said DeAugustine, would be to fill the township’s empty administrative positions, and continue his successful strategy in revitalizing the town, economically, while following his core political values.
“I understand the value of cultivating a strong relationship with my fellow community members,” said DeAugustine. “I firmly believe in promoting my true Democratic values, such as supporting the needs and interests of working, middle-class families, especially the need to ensure health, wellness and safety.”
Four-time councilman Gerald Freedman, a professor at Essex County College, didn’t bandy about words in his debate responses.
Economically, “we’re sitting on a gold mine” in Hillside because of the nearby highways, but too many unattractive streets and locations are keeping businesses away, said Freedman, along with excessive red tape in the Planning and Zoning boards.
When it comes to crime, “any school kid can identify the high-crime areas we have in Hillside,” said Freedman. A mobile police unit should monitor those high-crime areas regularly, he added, and local residents should consider assisting the Police Department.
The Hillside Town Council should stay away from bonding problems on the fly, as well as interfering with the Board of Education, according to Freedman, who said that the day-to-day aspect of the job — responding to citizens’ individual, smaller problems — are why he wants to continue his time in office.
“I don’t expect contributions. I don’t represent any interest group. My vote can’t be bought. I don’t have to answer to anyone, except for the people of the 4th Ward, and that’s everyone in the 4th Ward,” said Freedman in his opening statement. “I expect to see a 30-second sign to go up. I don’t need 30 seconds. I need four more years.”
Opposing candidate Shelby Robinson, a former Board of Education member, agreed with many of Freedman’s points, including that Hillside needs to be more inviting to businesses. Robinson has encountered business owners who are “annoyed,” she said, which is why the council needs “to partner with our businesses and let them know we support them,” through a business network.
Robinson also supported the idea of a neighborhood watch, letting the Board of Education operate independently, and improving communications within the local government. To that end, said Robinson, she “has no problems working with anyone who believes in Hillside.”
“My family and I have learned many lessons about what makes our community strong, and what makes me strong and ready to become the 4th Ward Councilwoman,” said Robinson. “I think my experiences, along as a solid understanding of our township, is crucial for the 4th Ward, and I am ready to make a difference and continue doing what is being done now, while creating areas of improvement with a new perspective.”