Interview with Irvington Mayoral Candidate John Sowell

Friday, 14 March 2014 19:52 Local Talk News Editor


Irvington's mayoral race is heating up. Those who were registered to run were contacted by Local Talk for an interview, and we are publishing the interviews of those who agreed to do so by our deadline. Here is our interview with candidate John Sowell.

Dhiren Shah: Welcome to this interview. What qualifies you to run for mayor of Irvington?

John Sowell: I have over 20 years of experience in local government. I served six years on the Zoning Board of Adjustments, eight years on the planning board, and 12 years on the Municipal Council. I earned the distinction of being the longest serving council president for 10 years. In addition, I also have 30 years of working as a manager, administrator, and director in various industries.

DS: What will you do to make sure that your decision making will be in the best interest of the citizens of Irvington and not for political powerbrokers?

JS: The best way to do that is to have a plan. Currently, there is no plan in Irvington. A lot of activities, but no real plan. A plan is specific, written, has dates, benchmarks, and a budget. It is our goal to better manage Irvington. Everything is not being properly managed, from our precious resources, which is our people, to our budget. I propose a great deal of low cost options to move the township forward. I will lay out those plans as we move closer to election day.

DS: You worked with Mayor Smith for many years as a council president. Have you ever spoken out concerning Irvington not being properly managed?

JS: Yes I have. I've brought several concerns to the mayor in my 12 years on council. He can listen to me, but it's still his decision whether he follows my recommendations or not. The mayor is in charge of everything that happens in the township, not the council. As a councilperson, my job is to legislate, appropriate, and investigate. Once we appropriate that budget, it's the mayor's budget. He gets to hire the people to do the job. That's the mayor's responsibility. I'm limited as a councilperson because we have specific duties that are defined by state statute of what we can and cannot do.

DS: You did not run in the last election for council. Why?

JS: I served 12 years on the council and I felt I had served my community well. I wanted to pursue some other endeavors. I left the council with my reputation intact, and I'm proud I can run on that reputation.

DS: Crime became a major issue in the township. How would you address this?

JS: There are several candidates running campaigns of fear, gloom and doom, and scare tactics. We have some challenges, but we've come a long way when you look at the statistics and how many crimes have happened years and how many crimes happened in 2013. My goal will be to have some low cost solutions. Hiring more cops, making more arrests, building more prisons, that doesn't help us because those are actions taken after the crime was committed. Our goal is to be proactive, and prevent the crime from happening. I ask the voters a simple question, is it easier to fight crime or prevent crime? The only way to prevent crime is alternatives: education, recreation and employment.

DS: Do you have details about the crime stats?

JS: I can tell you in 1999, there were 5,814 violent and nonviolent crimes in Irvington. In 2013, there were 2,534. We have 30 less police officers than we did five years ago. We just hired 20 rookies on the force now. There's something called the "broken window theory" which was coined in 1982. It states that there is an increase in crime in run-down, dilapidated areas. Cleaning our communities is a low cost option in fighting crime. In Irvington, the neighborhoods with abandoned properties, overgrown vegetation, garbage, debris; that's where most of the crime happens.
There were 17 murders in 2013; nine in 2012. One murder to me is too many murders. I'm big on looking at and analyzing data.

DS: The police department has been under a lot of fire lately with several issues, including Chief Chase. What is your opinion about Chase being paid while not working for the city, and what will you do to fix the Irvington police department?

JS: Currently, we have an Acting Chief. Our former chief is involved in some disciplinary matters being handled by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. We have to let the process play out in the courts. As mayor, I cannot push that process. Once that's resolved, we'll look at the department to see how it can grow.

DS: How can you improve the education system as mayor, and control the violence in the schools?

JS: Our board of education is a separate form of government. They have their own separate election, separate board and superintendent. As mayor, I'm not directly tied to the schools. I want to work with the superintendent, but there's one thing I noticed. I want to see safe and clean routes to schools. Our children walk by so much destruction and devastation. That affects them psychologically. That affects their ability to learn. In the summer of 2014, we'll make sure our children have safe and clean routes to school.

DS: How do you grade Mayor Smith's performance these past few years, and how can you improve things?

JS: I would rate Mayor Smith's performance as a D minus. I based that on the conditions of the township. We have more abandoned and vacant lots in Irvington now than in our history. You can see how filthy our streets are. How properties are not being maintained. We have laws against sign pollution, but no one does anything about it. The Mayor talks about bringing in Walgreens, but I've counted three Rite-Aids, a Duane Reade, and six neighborhood pharmacies. Is that the best we can do - in a three square mile town - another pharmacy to take business away from the ten pharmacies already here?

DS: What is your opinion about the sale of the hospital property?

JS: We were told it was sold four years ago. I hope that the developer will perform as they said they would. One million dollars; if they say that's what it's worth, then that's what it's worth. I'm not a real estate appraiser. Ten years ago, it was assessed at three million. I'm okay with it, as long as the developer performs as they say they would.

DS: How will you help Irvington compete with cities like Newark and East Orange for small businesses and other resources?

JS: One thing we have not taken advantage of is our geographic location. We have some very valuable assets in Irvington that other towns would kill for. We have the second busiest bus terminal in the state, access to the Garden State Parkway, Route 78, and Route 22. We're five miles from Newark Airport. We're one bus ride from New York City, and a shorter bus ride to Newark Penn Station. We are within five miles of six major colleges and universities.
My plan is to market these assets for those that want to live close to those assets, whether it's housing for professors or otherwise. I counted 650 abandoned and vacant properties. The priority of my administration will be to get these properties back to being occupied. Our population is down by 7,000 people. In 2000, we were 61,000 by the Census count. In 2010, we were 54,000, a drop of 12 percent. We have housing available in Irvington. Getting those properties back to being productive is a big part of my administration. Federal government funding is based on population. I'm the only candidate who has brought this forward.

DS: Everyone says they are for transparency of the government. How would make it an effective practice?

JS: When you call city hall, what happens? You have to keep calling and calling. What I propose is a tracking system. You go online. You get a tracking number, until that concern is completed. If there is no response in three days, it then goes to the director. If he doesn't respond in five days, it goes to the mayor. That's tracking of accountability, and it's low cost.

DS: What do you think Wayne Smith did exceptionally well AND did wrong during his tenure as mayor?

JS: He could have better managed the township employees. He did however work well with the council. You never read about the mayor and council fighting. That's not happening now with the current council. Some councilpersons are siding with candidates right now, and it's not best for the citizens of Irvington.

DS: Besides what we have already discussed, what do you think is the biggest issue in Irvington?

JS: The physical condition of our town. Number two is the budget.

DS: Where do you see Irvington in five years if you are elected?

JS: I see Irvington being one of the premiere small cities in New Jersey and the County of Essex. We're going to resurrect a once thriving community by showcasing and highlighting why it's a good place to live and have a business. We'll be able to compete with South Orange, Maplewood, Hillside and Union, the towns we're surrounded by.

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