HILLSIDE, NJ — The fifth time just might be the charm in Hillside, where the township’s latest business administrator, longtime public servant Stephanie Bush-Baskette, has been doing her part to give “a small town with a lot great people” cause to be optimistic.
Since being appointed by Mayor Angela Garretson in early January, Bush-Baskette’s top priority has been to identify Hillside’s most pressing, day-to-day issues. These include the need to revamp town hall — the building requires a new roof, telephone servers and computer services — drafting an efficient budget for 2016, and reaching timely agreements with Hillside’s labor unions, who have been working without contracts for years.
“There’s a lot, but it’s all doable. It has been a pleasant experience working with the mayor and the CFO and the township attorney, and our directors and director heads, as well as with the council. People are very interested in moving the township forward,” said Bush-Baskette.
The tremendous welcome she’s received from everyone in town, from Garretson and her staff to the residents who attend council meetings, is a credit to Hillside, Bush-Baskette added. “It’s been a good, positive first month,” she said.
Hillside’s various union contracts are expected to be finalized within the month, according to Bush-Baskette, who says this long-overdue development will be “major” for municipal workers. Updating the communication services in Town Hall, meanwhile, will pave the way for an improved dialogue between residents and their representatives, which in turn will help the mayor, council and others figure out what needs to be done in Hillside.
Another idea Bush-Baskette wants to potentially implement is a reverse 9-1-1 system, which would enable the police department to send emergency notifications to Hillside residents, on the fly. Improving communication in town is a point of emphasis for the current administration.
None of these responsibilities, from operating town hall on a day-to-day basis to balancing a budget, are new to Bush-Baskette, who’s spent decades of her professional career in the public sector.
Having spent three terms in the New Jersey State Legislature as an assembly person and then as a cabinet official with Gov. James Florio, and more recently as a mayor’s aide and a business administrator in other municipalities, Bush-Baskette brings a wealth of relevant experience to the table. In November, she received the “Outstanding Woman in Government” award from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which is when Garretson approached Bush-Baskette with the opportunity of working in Hillside.
“The mayor, she and I have known each other for a while, professionally,” said Bush-Baskette. “She began to discuss, with me, if I would be interested in coming, and we talked for a while about the needs of the township of Hillside. I have friends who live in Hillside, so I was familiar with it. What has so often happened, in my professional life, is I’ve received a call from someone totally unexpected, and it becomes an opportunity.”
Serving as Hillside’s business administrator was a chance Bush-Baskette couldn’t pass up, she says, because of the potential to solve meaningful problems in a positive working environment. In the coming months, she’s looking forward to “identifying, planning and executing” strategies with the rest of the administrative team in Hillside.
Many of the township’s previous business administrators have served as short-term stop-gaps, or resigned prematurely for one reason or another. The last person with the job, former Irvington Police Superintendent Joseph Santiago, left after his 90-day acting term ended in August. Since 2014, there have been five acting business administrators in Hillside, including Bush-Baskette. Another former business administrator, William Lee, lasted three days in April 2015.
This is a position with a checkered past. But Bush-Baskette is clear: She expects to bring enduring, long-term stability to the position.
“When I look at what might have happened, in past experiences, with other people — because I wasn’t here, I don’t know the full context — you hear it, you listen to it,” said Bush-Baskette. “But I really focus on the here and now, and I’m here for the long run. I’m here to get things done, and I’m enjoying the experience.”
Among the reasons Bush-Baskette accepted the job is, simply, that she likes Hillside. It has a “vibrant business district,” and the town itself is a like “a small hometown in the middle of urban, suburban New Jersey,” with people who deserve the quality of life normally associated with hometowns.
For the few months of 2016, and beyond, Bush-Baskette aims to help deliver exactly that.
“I like working with people. I like providing the tools by which people can empower themselves. I like being a part of the solution so people have a good quality of life, which you should always have in your hometown,” said Bush-Baskette. “So it was something that fell in line with the experiences that I’ve had, both professional and personal, problem-solving and working with people and I’m looking forward to doing what I can for the people of Hillside.”