Chris Swenson is running for the Third Ward council seat on the Real Progress Montclair slate aginst Sean Spiller—who is on the Montclair 2012 slate—and Jeff Jacobson—who is on the For Montclair slate.
Patch asked him, and has been asking all the candidates, the following questions. is a Q&A Patch recently did with Walter Springer; is one with Selma Avdicevic; is one with Bill Hurlock.
All candidates are invited to contact Patch at Shelley@patch.com to answer similar questions and readers are invited to submit questions to Swenson in the comments section below.
Q) You are probably best known around town for starting the Baseball Club and running the teeball program. How does baseball experience qualify you to be on the council?
A) Well, teeball can be pretty tough sometimes. Ha. We gave out uniforms yesterday and getting the right-size shirt on the kids sometimes takes superhuman management capabilities. Just kidding. I enjoy the program because everyone jumps in and helps. I don’t feel like I’m really running it. It doesn’t qualify me for the town council, though it has been a great way to meet a lot of dedicated parents. What qualifies me more, particularly at a time when financial issues are so key for the town is my educational and business experience. I have a master's degree in Public and Private Management from Yale. I worked with New Jersey municipalities on federal contracts and grants as a member of Bill Bradley’s Senate staff. I was an investment banker working in corporate finance with technology companies and I’ve run several venture capital-backed companies as a CFO and CEO.
Q) What is perhaps the main difference between you and your opponents?
A) I have enjoyed meeting my opponents during the campaign. I think they are very capable and all of us want to serve Montclair to the best of our abilities. There are some policy differences between us though. If we win, Karen Turner, LeeAnn Carlson, Peter Zorich, and I will challenge the status quo more than either of the other slates. However, the major difference between me and Jeff and Sean is that I believe I know Montclair and its complexities much better than they do. I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and I’ve been deeply involved in the community for a long time. I have raised my family here, had two sons graduate from Montclair High School and a daughter from Glenfield. Recently I served on the Board of Education Budget Working Group and the Board of Education Revenue Committee. I co-chaired the Third Ward Action Group that stopped over-development on Llewellyn Road and changed some zoning laws to help neighborhoods protect themselves better a few years ago. Besides founding the Montclair Baseball Club I also founded the current iteration the Football Booster Club at Montclair High School. For the past six years I’ve been a local business owner, operating the Montclair Tutoring Club—now known as Montclair Tutoring. My opponents have only lived here about five years each and have not served on any local committees or had any involvement with Montclair’s public schools as a parent or volunteer that I know of. I think you need to do some of these things to get a deeper understanding of how Montclair works before you serve are on the town council and are entrusted to make decisions that can a huge impact on the town. I’ve shown that I know how to get things done here, that I am committed to making Montclair a better place. I know the Third Ward very well and I'm very committed to making sure that constituent services are paramount during my term.
Q) A lot of candidates are being asked about outsourcing. What is your stance on this issue?
A) Real Progress Montclair is willing to put everything on the table and do the hard work of thoroughly analyzing all of our options. If too many areas of the budget are considered sacred cows, pretty soon you own ox is gored. The magnet school system is maybe the only thing off the table and that is better left for the Board of Education to work on the details for improving it. Over the last 12 years, Montclair’s debt has tripled and taxes have doubled. As a result, our debt service costs have limited our ability to fund programs and institutions that reflect our values like the Library, early childhood education scholarships, and community policing. Taxes themselves have forced family, friends, and neighbors to leave town and this is hurting the fabric of the township. It’s not just those with the largest houses or tax bills that are affected. It’s people like the retired postal worker who lives on the south end of the Third Ward whose taxes on his part of the two-family home have gone from $4,000 to $8,000 in a few years and now tells me that after 60 years he is going to have to move out. It’s the single mom of the MHS football player whom I know from our SAT prep program who is leaving as soon as her son graduates from MHS. We’ve made Montclair unaffordable for too many people on the lower and middle economic levels. The mismanagement is hurting everybody.
Q) If your whole slate is not elected ... and you are ... how will you work with the other people running?
A) In good faith. Like Bill Hurlock, I was asked to be on all three slates and I got to know almost everyone running. Councilor Renee Baskerville and I have known each other for years and I have tremendous respect for what she has done for the Fourth Ward. I have two good friends, Robin Schlager and Walter Springer, running against each other in the Second Ward and I have gotten to know Selma Avdicevic because she’s a new teeball mom. I’ve known Rich Murnick since the last election and Bill Hurlock and I got to know each other during the slate-dating phase of the campaign and we agree on most issues. I know most of the at-large candidates as well. I can work with just about anybody even if there are differences of opinion on specific issues. I think Real Progress Montclair is the slate that is most likely to bring a new and energetic prospective to the governance and long-term planning that the Township needs, but I do think that all the candidates recognize that the last eight to 12 years of town government has been characterized by dysfunction and I believe that everyone wants to work well together.
Q) What would you do immediately upon taking office?
A) I’d start working immediately following the election before taking office with my fellow councilors-elect to draw a definitive plan of action for the first 90 days. Real Progress Montclair and I are committed to re-establishing and empowering the Capital Finance Committee and the Operating Budget Advisory Committee within the first 90 days. We will issue a moratorium on non-essential debt. We will require that complete budgets be placed on-line within 90 days along with a comprehensive debt schedule and township organizational chart. We will start working on five-year projections similar to what the Budget Working Group implemented at the BOE so we can stop managing just budget-cycle to budget cycle. We are committed to giving everyone in the community the tools and knowledge they need to be advocates for good government, long-term financial planning and open communication. No seven people are going to be experts on all the issues facing the town so we need to engage the experts we have in our township to help. We need to change the governance culture immediately to do this. It took us awhile to get into this financial mess where our debt is larger than some cities; it will take us a while to get out of it.