Interview with West Orange Mayoral Candidate Eldridge Hawkins, Jr.

Monday, 06 October 2014 14:37 Local Talk News Editor


Four people are seeking to be the mayor of West Orange in the township’s recently moved November election. This includes incumbent mayor Robert Parisi, current Councilman Joe Krakoviak, Rodolfo Rodriguez, and our interviewee Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., the former mayor of Orange.

Dhiren Shah: When you were last on the political scene, you lost the Orange municipal election. Now, you are running for mayor of West Orange. When did you change your residency, and why are you running for mayor in West Orange?

Eldridge Hawkins, Jr.: I changed my residency from the City of Orange Township to West Orange somewhere around December 2012. I’ve been back in my hometown of West Orange for almost two years. The reason I’m running is very simple. After I had been out of government for some time, I started missing being able to make a difference and having an impact in my local community. It was perfect timing, because residents approached me and asked me to consider running for mayor of West Orange. When I asked them why, they simply stated they were suffering the seventh highest taxes in the State of New Jersey. There were a lot of increases in crime, burglaries, car thefts, shootings, and an abandoned factory on Main Street. When I asked them why me, they stated that the best chance they have of getting change was someone with experience who’s done it before.

DS: Recently, a case was filed against candidate Parisi that some of his petition signatures to be on the ballot were forged. What was the outcome of that?

EH: As it relates to the petitions, 280 are required to be filed by all of the candidates running for mayor. My campaign delivered over 1,000 signatures for mayor. Parisi barely did the minimum and he delivered approximately 300 petitions, in which the clerk did not count several of them. After looking at his petitions, the clerk only certified 284. Our campaign, after becoming aware that the clerk did not count several of them, had the opportunity to view some of the petitions. It was observed that several of the signatures appeared to be signed by the same individual.

It was at that time that my campaign manager Neil Cohen along with our campaign attorney and Gerald Murphy filed the appropriate paperwork to file objections to Mayor Parisi’s petitions. The clerk then decided to certify the petitions over our objections. We went to court, and for whatever reason the judge decided not to look at the petitions and decided to allow the ballot drawing to continue. Our campaign decided to let the people be the judge. We have nothing to hide. The petitions that looked improper or possibly forged, we’ve put them out in the public domain for the residents and voters to take a look at and make their own judgments. We’ve encouraged the clerk to make public the record so that folks can come in and make their own decision. But they still decide to hide behind attorneys and whatever regulations they can to prevent transparency.

DS: Did you contact one of the people with those suspicious signatures?

EH: Our campaign attorney has sent out communications to those individuals that have suspicious petitions. The exact nature of those response I could not speak to because I’m not aware of what he did and did not get back. But ultimately, at the end of the day, Robert Parisi can resolve all of these issues by allowing public access to the signatures of record so that than can be compared to his petitions. He refusing to do so, so people have to ask why.

DS: What is the main issue in West Orange?

EH: The main issues is taxes, followed by crime and education. Folks want to be safe in their homes, they want to be able to afford their homes, and with a better quality of life. We’re the seventh highest taxed community in the state of New Jersey, and we’re suffering from businesses leaving town, and we have an abandoned factory.

The school system is no longer in the top 100. We’ve had some increases in crime since Parisi’s been in office. Burglaries went up 53 percent in Parisi’s first year, and still up 13 percent in his second year in office. When you compare that to my record, during my first two years as mayor, our burglaries went down 39 percent. If you compare it with South Orange, their burglaries went down 30 percent. There’s been significant spikes in crime since Parisi’s been in office.

The factory has remained abandoned on Main Street, and that factory in particular is an eyesore. It is right in the middle of our downtown, and it’s causing problems with respect to the tax base. We need to broaden our tax base, bring in additional ratables and big business, commercial and retail, that can help reengineer the economics of our town, create jobs, and generate more tax revenue. Instead, Mr. Parisi has decided that he wanted to give a private developer $6.3 million of our community’s tax money in the form of bonding. That is something our residents have to pay back if this project fails.

DS: What will be the impact of the 600 apartments on the community?

EH: When you talk about these residential units the mayor is proposing that we bring in, they are going to come with children. If it’s two children per unit, or whatever number that is, it’s going to bring in more bodies. That’s going to overburden our school system. We already have some schools where classes are taking place in trailers, and anybody that’s paying attention to their tax bill knows that upwards of 60 percent of their tax bill is attached to the school system, so we have to be very sensitive to that.

With more commercial and common sense retail development, we can create jobs, more foot traffic, there’s more individuals who can support the mom and pop shops. All of that needs an anchor on Main Street, and I believe that the Edison battery factory project. My concept is to create a science incubator attached to the Edison Museum. I think Thomas Edison and I see electricity, light bulbs, so that makes me think science, technology, engineering, mathematics, some type of public-private partnership with a corporation or a school to have an incubator there for that purpose to really allow youth and even adults to dive into this science and create new things. Attached to that, we’ll have commercial business and retail or whatever other business we can recruit there.

DS: Do you have the power to undo the contract between the mayor and developer?

EH: That is a very fair question. Anytime that you enter into a contract, there are responsibilities that both parties must uphold. If one party does not uphold their end of the bargain, then they would be in breach. So, we would be looking at this developer and if they are in breach, we could use that as an opportunity to unwind their redeveloper agreement and go in a different direction. But I’m not here to create problems or have any personal animosity toward the developer. They have a project that the old administration wanted to move forward on. I would like to sit them down and say, ‘Hey, this is the new direction we want to move in. This is what the people wanted me to do. This is what I ran on, and we would like to take the project in this direction.’ If they are unwilling, then it would be my responsibility to help bring in a developer that could acquire the property from them.

DS: Was the $6.3 million approved through a referendum on the ballot or the council?

EH: It was approved by the council, and that’s been a sticking point for residents of West Orange. There’s a variety of residents that have gotten together to sue the administration. I’m not a party to the suit. These are private citizens that have gotten together and said, ‘You are not going to gamble with our tax dollars.’ They decided to file a lawsuit presently in the state Supreme Court. The cornerstone of their argument is that the bond issue should have been brought to the voters by referendum issue.

DS: What is your take on the mayor addressing education?

EH: The board of education is separate from the mayor and government. That doesn’t mean that we cannot participate to build partnerships, create relationships, and if need be, work with the residents to hold the board of education accountable. The residents should be holding them accountable just like they hold the mayor and council accountable. I leveraged relationships with Seton Hall University to bring high schoolers there as part of a junior MBA program.

I believe that just because the mayor doesn’t have direct power to do something, doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t fight to make a change. Should I be the mayor of West Orange, I am the voice of that constituency. I should be in Trenton lobbying the legislature to find different way to fund the school system and to provide relief for our residents. If not the mayor, then who?

DS: Pleasant Valley Way had 138 accidents last year. How can you improve that corridor?

EH: We can have additional officers on patrol, walking or doing traffic control. We can have speed traps where officers are using radar, or those speed radar machines to create awareness of your speed. We can speak with the county to impact traffic signals. There’s a variety of things we can do, but we have to recognize that sometimes we have to partner with other agencies because not every street here is controlled by West Orange. We have county roads.

DS: How can you reduce crime?

EH: I don’t believe in just being reactive. The cornerstone of our success in law enforcement outside of the men and women doing the job was finding proactive measures to combat crime. Whether it was recreation to keep kids off the streets or creating jobs to construction or redevelopment projects to get them off the street and working. Some people don’t realize there is a socioeconomic component to crime. If people are unable to survive and unable to provide for their families, and they’re hungry, then they are more likely to commit crimes. Or idle hands being the devil’s workshop, like a 17 year old kid that has a choice of being on the street versus in a store working. We need to keep them busy doing something productive

DS: What can you offer the people of West Orange that the other candidates cannot?

EH: One of the things I believe that separates me from the other candidates is that I was born and raised in town, I have experience governing as mayor with a track record of success to move the township forward. Out of all those individuals running, I’m the only one that has successfully, from a governmental position, spurred redevelopment. I have reduced crime and stabilized taxes.

DS: If you are elected, where do you see West Orange five years from now?

EH: I see West Orange with a bustling downtown. A vibrant, exciting place to be that looks like someplace we want to go shop, eat, work, and spend money. I get tired of hearing from residents that we have to shop in South Orange or Montclair or Maplewood or the Ironbound or Millburn. I want them to shop on Main Street. But there are other streets besides Main Street. When I was mayor before (in Orange) I created the Arts District. That was a partnership between West Orange and Orange at the time. I want to make it so that people up the hill say I want to go down the hill to see a play or have dinner. My vision is to have a destination municipality, something we can be proud of. A beautiful place to live, work, and raise a family.

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