UNION – There is a new group in town that is giving residents a voice and opportunity to keep each other informed.
The Union NJ Residents Forum may only be a year old, but the group that began on Facebook has grown by leaps and bounds in recent months to more than 440 online members.
Spearheaded by township resident Chris Hackett, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for a township committee seat two years ago and an assembly seat last year, the forum is a bi-partisan effort geared specifically toward resident participation.
Although originating on Facebook, this past Sunday 32 members met informally for the first time at La Gondola Restaurant on Morris Avenue where they were treated to dinner by Hackett along with several hours of discussion and planning.
The meeting began at 6:30 p.m. when those attending dug into a delicious meal of chicken Marsalla, Lasagna and salad.
“I mean, who doesn’t like a free meal,” Hackett said with a chuckle, explaining that while this first dinner meeting was his treat, the next meeting members will all be chipping in to help share the expense.
“We decided our meetings in the future will be monthly and we will make the rounds at various restaurants in Union,” Hackett said, bringing up that even he was surprised how many people showed up for this first forum meeting.
“I was very pleased with the turnout, especially since 20 people signed up to come and by the time the meeting ended, 32 actually showed up,” he said.
Hackett said he started the online forum in response to the concerns he was hearing from residents regarding township issues. However, he stressed that politics does not play a role and, in fact, is not one of the topics that comes up.
“The forum provides an outlet for residents to air their grievances and suggestions,” Hackett said Monday, pointing out the entire purpose of this medium is for residents to feel comfortable in a bi-partisan atmosphere.
“The problem with going to a township committee meeting is that you only get five-minutes to ask questions and grievances or simply inquire about issues that are pending,” Hackett explained, adding that while this township forum is important, residents needed more.
“I wanted a place where residents could present their concerns as a group and eventually present proposals to the township,” the resident said, pointing out that he was surprised how quickly the forum grew.
Initially residents used the Facebook forum to air grievances about snow removal and frustrations over the number of pot holes throughout the township, but Sunday those attending the first meeting looked to the future, Hackett said, and came up with many positive avenues to pursue.
“Now that we have members, we will have more power as a group and we can tackle some issues that are of concern and hopefully illicit change,” he said, but again mentioned this is not a political group.
“Actually this is how politics should be; a forum where you drop your political affiliation at the door and come together to discuss issues at hand,” Hackett said, adding that he is “very strict about ensuring this is a bi-partisan group, because then we are more powerful as a group.”
On Sunday, some of the issues residents brought up, he said, were focused on the school district academy, which has been very successful in past years, but apparently will not be taking place in the spring. Hackett said parents with school age children attended the dinner meeting and they were very upset about this move by the board of education.
“There were former teachers at the meeting and they seemed to think board politics were holding up the academy,” Hackett said.
“Now that we actually have a group, we will have more power as a group so going to a board of education meeting and speaking as a unit will carry more weight,” the Union resident explained.
Other issues the forum hopes to tackle included connecting local businesses with Kean University students.
“If the township or Special Improvement District won’t invest in this, our members have expressed interest in connecting a bus with Kean ourselves,” he said, adding that one way to do that is connect with businesses who will give discounts to Kean students.
“This is a topic that will be discussed further,” the township residents said.
Members also brought up a desire to learn more about their government.
“People overwhelmingly want to learn more about the type of government Union has and how it works in comparison to other local governments,” Hackett explained.
As for how residents attending the meeting felt, Hackett said he believed everyone left more energized. Anyone interested in joining the forum can go on Facebook under Union, NJ Residents Forum, where they also will find a weekly listing of town meetings such as zoning and planning board meetings along with when the governing body meets. Those who are not on Facebook can email Hackett directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This is a very grass-roots approach, but I thought it could work and Sunday night proved it can,” Hackett said, admitting he feels the forum will be a great success and a help to residents who feel they have no voice.