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Keeping Up Appearances: Montclair Is No Madison, Millburn, Livingston

Former Councilor Cary Africk writes about residents' concerns that Montclair doesn't seem to be keeping itself up.


I've long commented on the look of other towns and how well they are taken care of, and what a pleasure it is to visit them. I've often commented on Madison, a town of mature street trees, well cared for homes, and a "picture perfect" downtown.

Their town has wide walks with pavers, not cheap bricks, lovely benches, proper tree pits with thriving trees, flowers, and even trash receptacles that are not only attractive but that are dumped routinely so you can actually throw things in them.

Its store fronts look the same now as they probably did when they were built. They fit with each other. There are design standards. They are painted and repaired. They achieve much of this, I'm sure, through zoning ordinances, which we do not have.

Forget these fundamentals, for even when I tried to put in place a simple sidewalk ordinance I was rebuffed, and the tree ordinances met with anger and hostility.

These fundamentals are different from the issues you raise, which relate to the maintenance of what we do have.

The knee-jerk answer from many is "Well, those towns have more tax dollars to spend on appearance and maintenance because they have more 'ratables,' i.e. more money" Well, you know, I'm not sure that's the correct answer!

The proper way to answer that question is to ask "How much money do these towns, be they Livingston, Millburn, or Madison, spend, and what do they spend it on?" I think we might be surprised.

I do think if we ask today we will find out that we do have limited funds available for maintenance. We brag how we were able to reduce the workforce by 40 people over the last four years in order to keep "taxes down." Well those 40 people were the ones responsible for the things we are talking about. Parks, shade tree maintenance, and Community Service were decimated. The workers are gone.

And key people with vision, are also gone. We've disinvested in personnel for planning, failed to hire an economic development person, and so on. And the Business Improvement District lost the key driver for change—Tom Lonergan.

But the issue is more than money. It's a matter of priorities. What IS important to the majority of the people? Does the majority care what the downtown looks like? Does the majority care that the park in Watchung, by the stores, is filled with trash and the cans overflowing? And I don't mean the people living there. I mean the majority of the entire town, i.e. all 37,000.

Tom September 02, 2012 at 04:21 AM
There are more Blacks in Montclair. Could that be one of the reasons?
Jason DeSalvo September 02, 2012 at 10:37 AM
Our town is mismanaged. That has nothing to do with the ethnic makeup of our citizenry. We have a Township Manager without a Job Description (hundreds of employees as well), township employees that appear to take little pride in the way things are maintained (one look at the front beds outside of Town Hall should confirm this), many shop owners that are comfortable with garbage and weeds in front of their stores (and no enforceable ordinances to get them to care) and (for the 15 years I have lived here) Township Councils that have failed to manage our Town in an organized, well-run, best-practices manner. Of course lack of money is often blamed -- we are way over-burdened with debt as the result of some truly horrific management in the past. However, our town still looked "dumpy" in many ways compared to other, better managed towns in our area even before the debt explosion of the late 1990's and early 2000's. Fixing this mess starts with us as citizens no longer tolerating it. Then we need to elect a Council that understands that they need to make best-practices management their responsibility to implement. Next, things like an annual Operating Plan, Goals and Objectives, Job Descriptions, Performance Evaluations, etc. can be put in place so that the Township Manager and his (OUR) employees' performance can be measured against those agreed upon documents. Management 101...super basic. But we don't even have that. Yet.
Cary Africk September 02, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Jason, What you say is right on the mark. I hear story after story. Yesterday, it was about a state grant in excess of $100K for a remediation project. Instead of taking the money and executing the project, we put the project out to bid, ignoring the money we were GIVEN. So we'll spend our OWN money and return the grant to the state! There are projects after project like this. For four YEARS we've been unable to spend the $800,000 Green Acres GRANT on Edgemont. We pay an engineering firm $30K per month to supervise the South Park work and no one ever sees him. Operational incompetence. Any change will have to start with leadership. Yes, Management 101 .... super basic.
Crafty Spiker September 02, 2012 at 03:03 PM
I've tried. So far the current council is not responding to any manner of incoming communication.
Cary Africk September 02, 2012 at 03:15 PM
There is a resistance to taking any good ideas from the outside. At a recent ASIS security conference, I discussed the use of security cameras with a company than employs the ex deputy chief of NYC's counter-terrorism task force. He had many good ideas and pointed out that there are wireless, portable, camera systems that can be programmed to pick up certain events and transmit them back to a central location. Thus, we could have a portable, around the clock, monitoring system to prevent graffiti at Northeast. Costs were $10K to $30K. It's portable. We also had a discussion re. "monitoring." Towns and businesses are moving to centralized monitoring. Why have one's OWN monitoring staff? Remote dispatch is a solution. Also, I've always doubted that humans are capable of staring at a security screen for long periods of time and actually being alert to see something. I found out in my discussion that screens can be effectively monitored by people for no longer than 20 minutes. So, having central monitoring means you can have a larger staff, highly trained. Implementing a SYSTEM to prevent graffiti is leadership. Putting a full time police presence in one location to prevent graffiti is not a long term, practical, solution. You can't stop crime with a police officer every 20 feet.

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