For 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.