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Interview with East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor III

rsz_mayor_lester_taylor_iiiFor years, the city of East Orange was led by former Mayor Robert Bowser. However, last year, the voters chose to usher in a new era with the election of Lester Taylor III and his whole council slate. Recently, Local Talk sat down with the man in charge of East Orange.

Dhiren Shah: You have been at the helm of the city for quite some time now. What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment so far?

Lester Taylor: I'm ecstatic about the observations I've made and the potential I see. The biggest accomplishment so far is trying to reset and reestablish the culture and environment of professionalism in city hall. We set forth our administration with an expectation and a requirement that our employees treat each other respectfully and equally, if not more importantly, treat our constituents with a high level of customer service. Being friendly, responsive, and accountable to the residents. That's one of the biggest compliments I get from residents. The vibe of city hall is different now. People are smiling, people are saying, "Hello." From my perspective, that was necessary.
The second thing is the Office of Constituent Services that I established on January 1st. There are now full time employees who are responsible for servicing the needs of our constituents. We receive dozens of phone calls every day from individuals with questions, comments, concerns. If we can't handle their issue on the municipal level, we assist them in getting the information in the context they need at the county level, state level, or federal level. We also receive walk-in people coming in without appointments to address their concerns and needs. People are happy that they have not only a live person to speak to on the phone but a person to speak to in city hall, which has not happened before.
Another thing I'm happy about is our quality of life task force implemented a few months ago. It's a multi-departmental initiative - planning and development, public works, property maintenance, health and human services, public safety, police and fire - to educate the community about the standards and expectations per our municipal code and/or state laws regarding maintenance of their property. From my perspective, a clean community leads to a safe community, which in turn leads to a community where we can attract development.
The next phase of that is public safety. Our police department has responded to my call that we not only enhance the level of customer friendliness in terms of our police department's interaction with the public, but being more community oriented. Being visible in the streets, being visible in the community so that police officers are viewed more of as a partner rather than in an 'us versus them' mentality. They've also responded to my call to enhance their radar gun usage. There's a problem of vehicles speeding through our community.

DS: How has your legal background helped you as mayor?

LT: It aided my way of thinking to analyze issues. Obviously, it is of assistance in being a CEO of a municipality. Look at a lot of our congressional leaders; they're lawyers. I think that it has also helped because my background is in public sector law, both labor and municipal government issues. It helps me be able to grasp and comprehend issues very quickly because A. I may have already dealt with them on behalf of clients, and/or B. I know how to analyze the issue. Equally, if not more importantly, my level of professionalism has helped make the jobs of my directors that much easier.

DS: You have implemented programs like the Office of Constituent Services and have led the charge to bring reform to the Water Commission. How do you go about your process in bringing change, so that others can learn from your example?

LT: A person once said, 'Most people aren't used to operating in an environment where excellence is expected.' My initial observation was excellence was not the expectation in the city of East Orange and the municipal government. It is the expectation and standard by which everyone will be measured from this day forward. I don't ask people to do things I haven't done or am not willing to do right now. When it comes to operating a government, I want to operate in a transparent fashion, an ethical fashion, a socially responsible fashion, and also in a compassionate manner, taking into account the needs of the employees but also the needs of the residents we serve.
With respect to the water commission, we inherited a $3.2 million budget deficit at the water commission. There were a number of practices and procedures which exposed both the city and customers of the water commission to issues both financial and with the quality of the product that they serve. It was imperative that we take a keen business look at it from a financial standpoint and shore up the operations of the water commission so that it can continue to be owned and maintained. There's no intention on my part to sell the water commission or privatize it. My intention is to maximize the productivity of that municipally owned and operated entity to maximize its potential to service other customers so that we can in turn increase water rates, provide safe drinking water, and create jobs and experiential learning opportunities for young people.

DS: What is the biggest issue in the city right now?

LT: Trying to rebuild the financial foundation and stability of our budgeting and financial practices. The big issue is to attract and retain ratables through quality development working with Valerie Jackson, planning policy and development. East Orange has been designated as eligible for the transit village program four years ago but little was done with that. I'm excited to say that we have projects in the pipeline, like 2030 Evergreen Place, a 2.5 acre site. We seeking some mixed use development there.

DS: One long standing issue in East Orange has been parking. Is the current system working in your opinion?

LT: We are actively reviewing the issue with regards to parking in the city. There may not be a one size fits all approach, but the reality is we can't continue to issue summonses for violating overnight parking when there isn't adequate parking. That's a challenge for me as mayor to identify and develop a solution. We have a parking authority that was under - if at all - utilized in the past. There are opportunities for the parking authority to bond and finance for parking facilities. We've had meetings with New Jersey Transit the past few weeks with the attendance of Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver and Assemblyman Tom Giblin who were instrumental in getting NJ Transit to the table to not only develop a partnership with them but to have them clean up the properties they own along Freeway Drive throughout the city.

DS: How would you improve the relationships between the Police Department and residents?

LT: I'm happy to say that Chief Robinson has been very open and receptive to the ideas that I have for our administration. I'm happy that the police officers have been receptive and responsive to the expectation that we deserve and owe nothing but excellence to the people we serve. We owe them courtesy and respect. Quite frankly, since January 1st to this day, at least once a week, I get stopped by a constituent who says that the interaction they've had with the police department has been much more positive now than it was in the past.

DS: What is your take on the East Orange Board of Education?

LT: I am happy to say we have forged an excellent relationship with Dr. Gloria Scott, the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Bergson Leneus, the Board President, as well as the other members of the board so that the city and board can work hand in hand together. The reality is that still, we have to do better. We have to provide our students with a high quality, free public education. If we're going to attract families to our community with the development Valerie is working on, we have to offer them a high quality education for their children.
We're working with the school district on some development options. There's a lot of land that the city or school board owns that is being underutilized right now. We're having strategic conversations on how we can help the school district apply to and/or lobby the school development authority to build a new school in the 5th Ward that does not have a school there.

DS: Some businesses have made it known to us that new code enforcement officers are overdoing their job. It goes against attracting new businesses. Are you going to work with the businesses or follow the codes?

LT: Well, everyone is expected to follow the codes. We live in the United States of America and we have to respect and follow the laws that are enacted. Following the law does not suggest that we are not willing to work with the businesses. The response and feedback that Valerie and I have gotten from the businesses has been overwhelmingly positive, because the majority of our businesses do comply with the code. Everyone wants the businesses to maintain their property within the code. My conversations with the Chamber of Commerce and individual business owners has been one of appreciation. Our code enforcement officers look professional, they act professional, and they are respectful to the people they come in contact with. The objective here is to educate and bring everyone up to the standards that are in effect, not to penalize people.

DS: What kind of businesses do you want to attract?

LT: East Orange is a city that has limitless potential. It is a city on, to quote Malcolm Gladwell, the verge of a tipping point. I think that started with my campaign, and the council slate I ran with. We have not only developed a sense of enthusiasm and optimism in our city but we have a new found professionalism in city hall. One of the main things that businesses and investors want is to see a political climate that's stable, professional, and can conduct business in an orderly and efficient manner.

Orange Greets Bill Cosby

KIMG1750Around 750 men, women and children from in and around Orange came to Central Avenue Sept. 2 in part to listen to what a South Philadelphia native had to say to them.

The South Philadelphian - comedian and educator Bill Cosby - asked the younger and older males in the streetside audience to hold each other's hands a minute after being introduced by Mayor Dwayne Warren.

"I want you men to earn a living so you can support your families," said Cosby, 77, in his unique style of delivery. "I want you to teach your sons, your children, to love and to excel."

Then Cosby asked the same hand holding among the gathering's younger and older females.

"I first want to thank the older women out here," said Cosby. "Statistically, 70 percent of you are heads of your households. I say 'Thank You,' for what you do."

Cosby, in his 10-minute address, would also reach out to school teachers, librarians and police officers before leaving the covered stage in front of the Central Playground field. He stayed long enough to watch performances by 19 of the Orange High School Tornados Cheerleading team and the Demolition Highsteppers.

The crowd, who was also there to enjoy Orange's annual Back to School Rally, depending on the source, ranged from 500 to 1,000. "Local Talk," took an average of 750 on the closed avenue between Carteret Place and Lincoln Avenue.

The audience, whatever its actual size, may have been the largest in Orange to welcome a celebrity since three-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali visited the 1924-73 Orange High School building in the early 1970s.

"Local Talk" remembers Ali, in a contemporary account, telling those in the OHS auditorium that this may have been his only visit "to this one horse town."

Cosby told "Local Talk" Tuesday afternoon that he sees "hope" in Orange.
"I'm hopeful about Orange," said Cosby while looking from his on-stage chair. "I see that in the people and in the children."

Cosby, who earned an education doctorate from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, was not making an off-the-cuff remark.

First, Dr. Cosby spent the morning discussing educational topics with Warren, other city officials and educators from the Orange Public School District. Second, Cosby was here "a few years ago, talking with gang members."
"Local Talk" saw Cosby making similar appearances and presentations elsewhere - like when he was a part of a panel discussion on street violence at Newark's Weequahic High School June 24, 2006.
Finally, Cosby accepted the invitation from Mayor Warren, Deputy Police Chief and Brother Todd Warren, the Orange Police Athletic League and the Orange Public Library.

"Dr. Cosby and I met back around 2004," said T. Warren. "He was visiting a Hudson County correctional facility that I was working at. He became impressed with my work with youth and kept track."

Cosby was not the only performing arts celebrity in Orange Sept. 2.

The same Back to School Rally organizers arranged for actor Danny Glover to the Valley Arts Firehouse Gallery on Forest Street 7-9 p.m. Glover, before a reported audience of around 200 people, talked about the importance of the arts on individuals and in the community.

Back before 400 Central Ave. - now the Orange Preparatory Academy - Cosby urged the gathering to use the local library.

"The library is a wonderful place," said Cosby. "There are books to read or listen to, videos to watch. It can change your life."

Cosby spoke directly across the avenue from a VIP tent, where Orange Public Library Director Timur Davis was listening.

"Every time someone of note visits the area, we see more checkouts of that person's books, DVDs or movies," said Davis. "We're prepared for a run on Mr. Cosby."

Cosby, towards the end, thanked the police and asked the public to assist them in their work.

"I want you young people to remember that there was a time where people like us would be punished or killed for learning to read," said Cosby in his conclusion. "I want you to come back to me and tell me how far you've gone from the street corner. Our ancestors paid a price for you to ride on this bus."

East Orange General Takes Ice Bucket Challenge

rsz_1rsz_dsc_1123 On August 19, 2014, East Orange General Hospital President Kevin Slavin joined two other employees to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Greg Nkwodimmah, Director Cardiovascular & Diagnostic Imaging Services, and Guy Angelbeck, Manager of Cardiology Patient Transport Services took the Ice Bucket Challenge with Mr. Slavin to raise awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

ALS causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body due to degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons. People affected by the disorder lose their ability to initiate and control all voluntary movement. In addition to Lou Gehrig, other noted figures with the condition include physicist Stephen Hawking and People's Republic of China founder Mao Tse Tung.

The "Ice Bucket Challenge" was devised by former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who has been living with ALS since 2012. A person who is challenged has the option of either making a $100 donation to the ALS Association or dumping a bucket of water with ice on themselves. The ALS Association has reported donations of over $15 million within the last month, compared to just under $2 million during this time period last year.

In August 2014, the challenge went viral, and many celebrities and public figures have taken part. Some of the participants include current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who was challenged by former Mayor Cory Booker. Senator Booker himself was challenged along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by NJ Governor Chris Christie. Other participants include the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Dr. Dre, LeBron James, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Robert Downey Jr., Lady Gaga, and Bill Gates.

Employees gathered outside to see this unusual challenge. The EOGH employees nominated three other persons each, with most of them being hospital employees.

Community Activist Mary Weaver Passes

080714_Mary_Weaver_Passed_AwayOn Friday, August 1, the community lost one of its most committed, powerful, and bravest leaders.
Mary Weaver fought to get for her beloved son, Randy LaMont Weaver (1977-1999), who was shot by East Orange police officer. Randy Weaver was a passenger in a stolen vehicle and killed by a bullet.

Since then, Mary Weaver's main goal was to fight for justice for victims. She joined the People's Organization for Progress and became a very active and dedicated volunteer.

"They don't come any better, stronger or more committed than Mary Weaver," said a deeply moved Lawrence Hamm. "She was the embodiment of the best we have ever had."

Weaver, who was also the Second Vice Chair for the Oranges Maplewood Branch of the NAACP, came to the People's Organization for Progress tragically as a victim, as a consequence of losing her only son, Randy Weaver, to a police shooting in July 1999.

The manner of her son's death and her enlisting the support of P.O.P. led to a period of sustained protests that embarrassed the city of East Orange and highlighted a brutal year in terms of police brutality cases. 1999 was the year of the savage police killing of Amadou Diallo in New York City, Stanton Crews on Rt. 78 by state troopers, and the vicious beating and killing of Earl Faison by corrupt Orange police officers, whose case became an important civil rights case, among others.

Weaver, incredibly, not only became a P.O.P. member, she helped establish its East Orange chapter, serving as its chair. When the organization established its administrative posts, she became its Vice Chairperson of Internal Affairs. She held both posts at the time of her passing.

"Very few people could do what Mary did," said former Black Panther national official Baba Zayid Muhammad.

"She turned the unfathomable pain of the loss of her only child at the hands of the police into a power that made her a force to be reckoned with on this front all over the country," finished Muhammad, who also does press for P.O.P.

Ingrid Hill, the corresponding secretary for the organization, echoed those sentiments. "Mary was a phenomenal woman who used her tragedy, the loss of her son to the police, to become a real force for justice."

Weaver became an ambassador for the annual Stolen Lives Project, a project that has documented the scope of police killings all over the country. The Project would annually memorialize victims or their families in a moving ceremony.

"Mary Weaver was a true hero of the working class right among us," said Larry Adams, P.O.P.'s vice chair of external affairs.

Weaver was a veteran of the U.S. Army, a retired social worker and an avid bowler.

She was one of the nicest people in the neighborhood. Local Talk prays for her soul and sends condolences to her family and friends.

She is survived by her granddaughter, Paige Weaver, her comrades and friends from the People's Organization for Progress, the NAACP, Essex County Welfare, her bowling league and a whole lot more.

Former Top Official of East Orange Water Commission Pleads Guilty

William_Mowell Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that a former top official of the East Orange Water Commission (EOWC) pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate testing of the agency’s water supply to falsify results and report lower levels of a regulated contaminant in the drinking water supplied to customers.
William Mowell, 52, of Wyckoff, the former assistant executive director and engineer for the EOWC, pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree conspiracy before Superior Court Judge Carolyn Wright in Essex County.  Mowell was indicted on Feb. 12, 2013, along with Harry L. Mansmann, the former executive director of the EOWC.  Mansmann is now deceased.  Mowell pleaded guilty to a charge that he conspired to engage in a pattern of official misconduct, tamper with public records, and violate both the New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Act and the New Jersey Water Pollution Control Act.  Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Mowell be sentenced to three years in state prison.  Judge Wright scheduled sentencing for Mowell for Nov. 7.
In pleading guilty, Howell admitted that he conspired with Mansmann to falsify mandatory testing of the EOWC’s water supply to hide elevated levels of the contaminant tetrachlorethene (PERC), an industrial solvent used for dry cleaning and other purposes which is classified as a probable carcinogen.
Deputy Attorney General Phillip Leahy prosecuted the case and took the guilty plea for the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau.  The charges stemmed from an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice, which began with a referral from the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Compliance & Enforcement Program.
“Mowell had a duty to ensure the quality and safety of the drinking water supplied to tens of thousands of residents, and instead he deliberately falsified test results to cover up elevated levels of a potential carcinogen,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman.  “He showed a complete disregard for the people he served and the harm that might have resulted from his conduct.”
“Mowell should have used his expertise to act as an environmental watchdog, protecting the water supply and alerting the DEP and the public of problems,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice.  “However, he chose to use his knowledge and skills to cover up a significant contamination issue.  Prison is the right punishment for this type of environmental crime.”
“We have a high standard of accountability in this state when it comes to the safety and reliability of drinking water,” said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin. “It is imperative that water providers maintain and provide to us accurate records of water system operations. Any deviation from those standards is a violation of the public trust.”
The EOWC supplies drinking water to East Orange and also has a contract to supply drinking water to South Orange.  The water is pumped from well fields in eastern Morris and western Essex counties through a pumping station in Millburn to two reservoirs, from which water is distributed to customers.  The utility blends water from its various wells at its treatment plant before water is distributed to customers.  The EOWC had encountered problems with elevated levels of PERC in several wells.
In pleading guilty, Mowell admitted that he took water samples for testing after the contaminated wells had been turned off for several days.  He admitted that he knew that meant that the test results would not accurately reflect the water supply once those wells were turned back on for pumping to the reservoir.  In this manner, he falsified test results to comply with the DEP requirement that the running annual average level of PERC under normal operating conditions not exceed 1 microgram per liter (ug/L) or part per billion (results up to 1.49 ug/L are rounded down to 1).  The false sampling occurred in March and April 2011.
The state’s investigation also revealed that the defendants, in an effort to flush out PERC, directed that the well with the most contamination – which had been found to have PERC levels as high as 25 times the permitted level under the New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Act and nearly twice the level permitted for discharges in connection with remediation projects under the New Jersey Water Pollution Control Act – be pumped to a pipe that discharged directly onto the bank of the Passaic River in Florham Park from March 24 through April 20, 2011.  In pleading guilty, Mowell admitted that he and Mansmann had water from that well pumped to the bank of the river during that period.
Mowell further admitted that when the DEP required the EOWC to issue a public notice about non-compliant PERC levels in the system, he and Mansmann issued a notice in July 2011 falsely stating that the EOWC had reduced pumping from certain wells on an ongoing basis and, as a result, tests during the first half of 2011 revealed levels under the DEP limit. In fact, they only reduced pumping from contaminated wells temporarily for sampling, and PERC levels had exceeded the limit.
By making it appear that the water system was in compliance with regulations, Mowell and Mansmann sought to enable the EOWC to avoid the need to build an expensive “air stripper” water purification plant to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including PERC, from the system’s water supply.  The EOWC currently is proceeding with plans to build such a treatment plant.
The DEP has done independent testing of the East Orange water system, showing the water quality for residents of East Orange and South Orange to be safe. The DEP is continuing to closely monitor the water system to ensure that continued safety.
The investigation was conducted for the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau by Deputy Attorney General Leahy, Sgt. Steven J. Ogulin and former Detectives Dawn Ryan, Matthew Schneiderman and Michael Klumpp.  The DEP provided assistance throughout the investigation. The East Orange Water Commission cooperated fully in the investigation.

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