WESTFIELD — Westfield’s mayoral candidates, Democratic incumbent Mayor Shelley Brindle and Republican challenger and former councilwoman JoAnn Neylan, outlined two competing visions for the town’s future during a debate held on October 14. Both candidates touched upon a wide range of topics confronting Westfield, including the future of its coveted downtown, crime, and future development philosophies. The event was sponsored by The Westfield Leader and moderated by Publisher Lauren S. Barr.
The debate comes in the wake of the town council candidates’ forum held on October 6 and ahead of the Tuesday, November 2 General Election that features four spots on the council up for grabs in addition to the mayoral race.
The night’s proceedings began with an introduction by both candidates.
Ms. Neylan introduced herself to the voting public by touting her 16 years of service on the town council. Currently, Ms. Neylan works as a public defender in Mountainside, with her legal career including having been the assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Republican candidate for mayor, who also is a 30-year resident of Westfield, emphasized the importance of family in her life and described her impetus for challenging Mayor Brindle for the top spot on the town dais.
“The main reason, the overarching reason I’m running for mayor is because the level of vitriol we’re experiencing at the national level has made its way down to our town of Westfield, and it’s just not acceptable,” explained Ms. Neylan. “We no longer have a true diversity of ideas.”
The candidate outlined her main policy points.
“It should not matter whether there’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ in front of my name. I’m running as JoAnn Neylan, a person who wants to keep our streets safe, keep our town financially secure, provide adequate sports fields for our children and make sure your quality-of-life issues are met,” she said.
Mayor Brindle began her remarks by highlighting her credentials in the private sector, prior to becoming Westfield’s first female mayor in 2017. A longtime resident of Westfield, Mayor Brindle worked at HBO as an executive, where she led its $4.5-billion subscription business, motivating her to bring a “business mindset” to the town’s governance during her first term as mayor.
“After taking the oath of office, I dedicated myself to being Westfield’s first full-time volunteer mayor,” noted the Democratic candidate. “To change what I discovered to be our biggest impediments to progress: an absence of long-term vision and strategic planning, a penny wise, pound foolish approach and an alarming lack of proper oversight, especially on personnel and financial matters.”
Mayor Brindle outlined her administration’s accomplishments during her introduction. These points included “lowering the crime rate by 34 percent,” according to the mayor, along with “prioritizing safeguarding the environment” and policies aimed at preserving the town’s history.
“We lowered both the tax rate and spending rate and stopped overtaxing residents by right-sizing a bloated surplus,” said the mayor. “We paved almost half the roads in town, more than any prior administration.”
The first question posed to the candidates involved the future of the downtown, its vacancies, and what the mayor and council can do to attract more businesses.
Ms. Neylan was delivered the question first, with Mayor Brindle given the opportunity to follow with a rebuttal.
While both candidates acknowledged the number of vacancies is a problem, their assessment of the downtown, its management, current state and future outlook diverged significantly.
“The failing health of our downtown is not a political issue; it’s a sad reality,” said Ms. Neylan. “All you have to do is look around and see so many empty storefronts.”
The Republican mayoral candidate emphasized instilling confidence in the downtown.
“I say there is a lot more we can do to change the current culture. That means, most of all, engaging the local businesses and property owners. Giving them real input, listening to their ideas and creating an environment where mutual needs can be met,” said Ms. Neylan.
According to Ms. Neylan, “There has not been a real dialogue between businesses and property owners. As your mayor I can, and will, set the tone. I will not sit on the DWC [Downtown Westfield Corporation]. I would allow a free flow of ideas to actually occur.”
The challenger asserted that she thinks there is “undue influence by the mayor on boards,” where a “free flow of ideas” should occur.
Ms. Neylan offered concrete changes to the downtown, including changing ordinances to allow for professional offices on the ground floor in the central business district, along with “investing in town-wide wifi.”
During her rebuttal, Mayor Brindle acknowledged that the vacancies are too high, but “did not recognize the downtown” described by her opponent, pointing to the excitement and popularity surrounding the outdoor dining on Quimby Street this past summer as an example.
“I do believe this is not the time to bring small solutions to big problems,” said Mayor Brindle. “Some of the working-around-the-edges solutions that JoAnn proposed aren’t going to fundamentally fix our structural problem. And that is the fact that we do not have enough foot traffic in our downtown in the absence of national retail stores that can support our businesses organically.”
Mayor Brindle highlighted the role of Streetworks, the owner of the Lord & Taylor property, in the future of the downtown.
“Streetworks is not just a developer; Streetworks is our largest property owner and taxpayer,” said Mayor Brindle. “Their success is our success. So, we are incredibly fortunate that we have our largest vested stakeholder interested in working collectively with us to create solutions,” remarked the mayor. “We need people living, working and playing in our downtown in order to support them [businesses] organically.”
During her rebuttal, Mayor Brindle also highlighted bringing in 60 new businesses to the downtown during the last four years, among them Warby Parker, Bareburger and Atlantic Health.
The debate featured philosophical differences in how each candidate would manage the town, especially when it comes to redevelopment and the role of PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) programs, or tax abatements with commercial developers.
The topic was introduced to candidates that evening in the wake of Westfield entering into its first commercial PILOT program for the property known as Westfield Crossing, or the Southside Redevelopment project, under Mayor Brindle’s administration.
Ms. Barr, referencing future potential development at the Williams Nursery site, and on North Avenue, asked the candidates if PILOTs were an effective means of controlling development in town.
“I will not approve a PILOT program for developers, period,” remarked Ms. Neylan. “PILOTs open the door for corruption, sweetheart deals for developers and campaign contributions for elected officials. They are not in the best interest of Westfield.”
Ms. Neylan went on to say that PILOTs were designed for communities, specifically cities like New Brunswick and Jersey City back in the 1960s, when it was hard to attract businesses to those communities.
“The only justification for a town like Westfield to offer a PILOT is to get an influx of cash they don’t have to share,” said Ms. Neylan, who also said PILOTs are based on “projected profits that might not be realized.”
Mayor Brindle was quick to emphasize that PILOT programs are in no way geared towards all development in town. “There’s a misrepresentation that any redevelopment agreement means there’s going to be a PILOT, and that is absolutely not the truth,” said the mayor.
Using the Rialto Theatre property as an example, Mayor Brindle said the governing body declared the property in need of redevelopment, “because it protected and gave control over to the town,” protecting the site from a developer who would want to knock down the landmark site and erect apartments.
“There’s no intention to put a PILOT, but it does give control over what can happen,” explained Mayor Brindle.
Regarding Westfield Crossing, the mayor said it was unfortunate that the issue could not be viewed beyond the lens of political talking points and sees the project as beneficial to the community and in helping Westfield meet its court-mandated affordable-housing obligations.
“We had 32 affordable-housing units at Westfield Crossing, which went a long way towards satisfying our [affordable-housing] obligation, by having a redevelopment agreement, and ultimately a PILOT,” noted Mayor Brindle. Along with reducing the number of market-rate three-bedroom apartments, the agreement provided for a “much-better-quality project in terms of quality of architecture and aesthetics,” along with public benefits like a park that will be deeded over to the town after its construction, the mayor noted.
“PILOTs make sense in the right place,” said the mayor. “It was concluded by our professionals that this project could not be built with current tax rates,” she said. “The only way it was feasible is to be done with a PILOT. And by the way, we have a legal obligation, that if you don’t make an affordable-housing project financially feasible, we could be sued.”
The mayor explained that a PILOT was deemed necessary to “bring the project to fruition.”
An emerging topic discussed during the debate concerned crime, specifically the string of car burglaries affecting Westfield, and what could be done to tackle the problem, such as an increased police presence, or further education urging people to lock their cars.
“Keeping people safe and holding bad guys accountable is paramount to me,” said Ms. Neylan. “The prevailing sentiment around Westfield these days is, we just don’t feel safe and secure in our homes and with our belongings.”
Speaking to the string of burglaries, specifically burglaries targeting homes in Westfield, Ms. Neylan said, “it’s creepy to think people are casing our homes and walking around our neighborhood, going up and down our property, checking the doors to see if they are unlocked.”
The candidate advocated for a policy of deterrence and said it is critical to keeping criminal elements out. She proposed “redirecting the police forces we have,” letting them patrol the areas leading in and out of Westfield.
“And if you tell me statistics prove crime is down, then you are just not listening and are out of touch,” said Ms. Neylan. “Everyone I’ve spoken to says it just doesn’t feel safe anymore.”
Ms. Neylan said she would give the police department “all the resources they need to fight crime in this town.” She added that she would be prepared to increase the number of police officers if necessary.
Rebutting her opponent’s comments, the mayor spoke about the police department she inherited from the last administration.
“I found a demoralized police force, led by a morally-corrupt police chief,” said the mayor. “We immediately restored full funding and staffing. We hired a police chief, born and bred in Westfield — Chief Battiloro — who is committed to community policing.”
The mayor pushed back against the notion of telling the police “how to do their job” by redirecting the department’s policing efforts. “And you say stats don’t matter; I’m all about facts. Facts don’t lie,” said Mayor Brindle. “Total crime has been down 34 percent.”
The mayor pointed to the former administration, alleging that crime was worse under its watch, and commending the police department under the leadership of Chief Battiloro for achieving “state professional accreditation” for the first time in the town’s history.
“We don’t need to tell them how to do their jobs. We do need to make sure they are fully supported with staff and resources, which they have been,” explained Mayor Brindle, who said the public is hearing more about crime due to increased levels of transparency aimed at eliciting help from the community.