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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.

jim August 27, 2012 at 03:55 PM
Truth is, the only answer is to move to a town that is still being run with the residents in mind.
Crafty Spiker August 27, 2012 at 05:25 PM
jim: amen
Crafty Spiker August 27, 2012 at 05:30 PM
I love the use of the word "allow". Hasn't anyone noticed that once elected our councils tend to ignore us and just do whatever they feel like. Our only course of action is is to recall them and try again. The last council virtually cried out to be recalled yet there was no organized, effective "opposition". The only conclusion that I can reach is that the average Montclair taxpayer is uninformed and not interested in the town in which they live. If they were you might actually see something positive occur.
CMFAS55 August 27, 2012 at 06:26 PM
"We have rich people who aren't really involved in the community, they are too busy breeding too many babies" no idea what the end of this comment is supposed to mean. But as to the first part - you had some of the better off residents try to get involved in the last election and what were they painted as? How about power hungry PTA moms, country club whiteys and tea party radicals all with the goal of destroying the Montclair that exists for the working man and person of color. Anyone with a divergent idea that isn't in line with the current liberal mindset is swiftly attacked by the group think in town. I don't blame the rich for going back to breeding like rabbits.
frank rubacky August 27, 2012 at 06:32 PM
The simple truth is that most residents don't care enough about downtown and prior councils have focused considerable $, time, and resources on downtown at the expense of focusing on neighborhoods. However, Watchung Plaza is a good example of turning away township involvement and preferring a laissez faire world. A litter problem in a pocket park does not rise to the level of a town wide priority. Edgemont Pond is another example of a showcase solution where a "less is more" approach is the more prudent way. This council is still leveraging their honeymoon phase, so the majority of the minority that voted for them will certainly stand by to see what they will make of their first 6 months in office. Of course, I wouldn't mind the various township bodies publish their meeting agendas so we could at least see what they are working on.
Cary Africk August 27, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Excellent point, Victoria, and I believe now we have MORE renters than homeowners! "Culture" is a big part of this. Design Ordinances help. You can see this easily. Drive down some street like Cambridge from Grove towards Glen Ridge. You can SEE where the street changes to Glen Ridge. And its not just the street lamps. Most of Glen Ridge is not only historic, so people just can't make whatever changes they want, but there also seems to be a wonderful sense of "since my neighbor's houses are so nicely landscaped and kept up I want to keep up mine!" I don't see this in Montclair. All around me are trees that snapped in the OCTOBER storm that still have hanging, broken, and dead branches. It's about a culture of caring. Cary Africk
Cary Africk August 27, 2012 at 06:43 PM
Totally agree! In the last year I visited friends in sections of Staten Island, and the Bronx that are taken better care of than Montclair. Our money is NOT going into street maintenance, trash pickup, or parks improvements. It would be nice to find out where our money IS going, but even with the money, there has to be a will. Cary Africk
Crafty Spiker August 27, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Maybe next time around "the rich" will figure how to GET OUT THE VOTE. It's a nasty truth that getting elected and effectively governing are two entirely different skill sets. But before you can govern you have to GET OUT THE VOTE.
CMFAS55 August 27, 2012 at 08:12 PM
maybe that's why they are breeding so fast - make more voters to eventually take an election in montclair.
mounties August 27, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Cary, if you like those towns move, but the towns you mention cannot hold a candle to Montclair's culture and diversity. Some people like that!!!
Jason DeSalvo August 27, 2012 at 10:13 PM
Yes, but they simply do not have to be and should not be mutually exclusive. Why can't we have a wonderfully diverse town and one that is well managed, attentive to residents' needs, clean and well maintained? So in order to have culture and diversity we need to endure pot holes, graffiti and weeds in the planter right outside of Town Hall? I just don't see them as being mutually exclusive. We deserve to have both.
StudioKids Art August 27, 2012 at 10:24 PM
As a small business owner in Montclair Center, I am glad to see this conversation. Often I walk along Bloomfield Avenue on my lunch break and observe. I have walked on the main streets of Madison, Millburn and Verona and see far less empty store fronts, street lights brimming with flower baskets, and easy (or less expensive) parking. I also see a good variety of businesses. One summer evening this month I walked along Church Street and found it bustling with people and music, but a block away it was dead, with poor lighting and dark stores. It has been frustrating for me (and I am sure my fellow business owners) who work so hard! Although the author praises Tom Lonergan, the former BID director, I want to add my praise to Luther Flurry, the present director. He and his office has provided some very good programming for my fellow business owners and myself, is responsive to suggestions and has been extremely helpful to us. The most common complaints that I hear from my patrons have been about parking (unable to find any, getting tickets, unreasonable rates, the app doesn't work), and the lack of places to sit (no benches, very little shady areas). I could add to that the overall appearance (the absence shade trees, the fake brick in the walkways which have peeled up in many locations) and dark, empty storefronts. As for the "culture of caring", we painted a bench and put it outside to help beautify... and it was stolen!
Cary Africk August 27, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Thanks, Studio! The question is "How do these towns do it?" What's needed is analysis of how money is spent. What is the total budget of these towns? How is it proportioned? And, yes, Luther is doing an excellent job! I just miss Tom. Just like I miss the MAC, Luna Theater, Unity Concerts, the MEDC, 12 Miles West, and the 40 people who helped take care of our streets,
scarletxknight August 27, 2012 at 11:53 PM
well.....if its worth anything, i still think montclair is a beautiful town -- even with the laundry list of complaints everyone listed. there can be improvements made in the best of the best --- but the town isnt as down in the dumps as some of these comments are making it out to be. we still have beauty in this town.
scarletxknight August 27, 2012 at 11:54 PM
the green one?! i walked past that every week....i really liked it. thats unfortunate.
Cary Africk August 28, 2012 at 12:13 AM
scarlet, Of course. But the question is how to make things better. And one way to find out is to see how other people, other towns, do it. How do they fix their roads? How do they manage to get the trash picked up in the parks?
Ritesh Patel August 28, 2012 at 01:08 AM
This has been an interesting debate. As a montclair business owner myself, I am pleased that people care enough to talk about this. But talking is not enough. We have to get involved. Rather than wait for "someone" to do something, we have to do something, just like the Watchung folks are doing. This is not about generalizations, this is about concrete action if we are to make a difference. I have contributed and become involved in making sure the area around my business is as good as we can possibly make it. We have even become involved in initiatives with the friends of Anderson Park. I would encourage any and all of the landlords reading this to get involved. Ill be sending note to the new folks int he town council encouraging them to do same. Cary, what else can we do ? Specific actions ?
Jason DeSalvo August 28, 2012 at 09:18 AM
Cary, "How do these Towns do it?" Two words -- BETTER MANAGEMENT. As organizations they are simply run better and probably hold themselves and the employees running the town to higher standards. I would imagine that if our Town Council and Manager began including these kinds of things in a set of metrics that are used to keep track of how we are doing (call it a "Town Score Card") we would see very rapid improvement. If people's jobs, salary increases and compensation depended on a set of agreed to managerial metrics affecting change would be far easier. Does our Town even have a set of managerial guiding principles about what is important? How is our Township Manager evaluated? How often does he and his staff get evaluated? By what metrics? What are the consequences of poor evaluations and what are the benefits to excellent performance? Does "customer satisfaction" of our citizens with Township employees and their work even matter here? Does anyone think about it or track it? Great companies deal with all of these issues as part of how they are managed and great municipalities do the same thing. A town hall is no different than any other organization. And, as we all know about organizations, there are high performing ones, mediocre ones and poor ones. Forgetting how much I love our town and looking dispassionately at Town Hall as a managed entity, we have tremendous room for improvement.
tryintosurvive August 28, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Absolutely Jason, it does come down to management. The town manager is responsible for a lot in a structure like ours. If he is not a proficient, well-organized manager then the town is not really managed, it just kind of goes from one crisis to another. Even if our current town manager was fantastic he has been hampered by other factors. Under the prior town council, he probably did not receive much guidance. The former mayor was an advertising executive and never led a large organization. The town employees are 90+ percent union and I believe the contracts give them raises (aka step increases) whether they do a good job or not, just for years of service. Reductions in staff probably need to be done by seniority so getting rid of poor performing employees is difficult. The new town council has management experience and seems to understand how to run a large organization. Hopefully they can instill solid management of the town.
Cary Africk August 28, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Jason and trying .... You are both spot on! NO ONE in the town, be they municipal workers, police, or fire, gets a performance review. There are no job descriptions, or objectives. There are no routine meetings. I've long written about "what's needed." Even the Town Manager doesn't have a job description, or objectives, and he is not evaluated. Furthermore, in our form of Government the Town manager is responsible for the work of the town and for communicating and directing all the employees. SPECIFICALLY, Council members are PROHIBITED from even speaking to a township employee. Union work rules have specified "first in, first out." That is unlikely to change. My central issue in the last election was bringing in people with the experience and ability to run excellent organizations. I made a big deal about it. We still need that. More than ever. We cannot continue to support anyone other than excellent. Cary Africk
CMFAS55 August 28, 2012 at 04:27 PM
what a cop out. Yeah, too much to expect a diverse group of people to throw litter in a garbage can, repect other peoples and public property and not paint graffiti on everything?
Crafty Spiker August 28, 2012 at 04:48 PM
The obvious question ... assuming that the Manager isn't managing then why is he still in place?
Cary Africk August 28, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Crafty, That's a question you'll have to ask the Council! I suggest you email them with your concerns. I don't think they are "social media" readers or responders. Cary
Laura Feire August 29, 2012 at 02:46 AM
I walk my dog around the Bellevue/Lorraine/Valley block, and I'm appalled at the lack of pride and responsibility of some business owners. While many building fronts are kept clean, others are in need of major repairs, painting, etc. The astroturf in the window of Murph's Sports is very dirty and has dead flies on it. Saunder's Hardware piles their cardboard recycling so high (not properly flat and bound) that boxes blow across and down the street by heavy winds. Newspaper Plus' front door and inside are filthy. The Flatbread restaurant doesn't clean the weeds from the front eating patio. Does Bronson Design even function as an ongoing business? Da Vinci Pizza doesn't clean the garbage under and around their outside tables and neither does the bagel store. Cold Stone needs a large garbage can in front so that the municipal garbage cans don't overflow with ice cream cups. Business owners must remember that the front of their businesses extend to the curb (do not sweep your garbage into the street - dispose of it properly!!) I think many owners park behind their place, and never see the front as customers do. Personally, I do not support any business that does not present itself well - if the outside is sloppy, I figure their business is, too. Clean the weeds from around the bottom of garbage cans, sweep up the cigarettes butts from the base of trees, update and clean your front window displays, repaint your signs and front doors. Take pride in your business and our town.
roberta baldwin August 30, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Driving around Montclair, which I do alot with people who want to live here and are willing to spend a pretty penny to do so, I sometimes want to jump out of the car and pull some weeds, trim some of those trees that are sprouting limbs from the ground up, and just do SOMETHING to make the place look better. I fear that unless we we each do a little weeding and snipping around our frayed edges, this overall look of our public gathering places will continue to decline. I'm in for helping out. Are you? We just can't wait for whatever future town-budget based solutions may be discussed and put in place in the next millenium. Can we?
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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