By FRED T. ROSSI
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
SCOTCH PLAINS – “It was a hell of a good run,” says Alexander Smith, summing up his four-year mayoral term that wraps at the end of the month. “I took the town and moved it in the right direction.”
Speaking this week to The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times, the mayor, who was defeated for re-election last month by Deputy Mayor Joshua Losardo, looked back on his tenure, which was dominated by the start of downtown redevelopment and then, this year, by the coronavirus shutdowns and protests against racism. The mayor trumpeted the recent court decision finding Scotch Plains to be in full compliance with all of its court-mandated affordable-housing obligations, meaning the township is immune from any builders’ lawsuits until 2025.
Those lawsuits were first on Mr. Smith’s to-do list after his 2016 election when, “all of a sudden, I was dealing with suits,” something he said “defined my mayorship for the first two years.” His aim during the negotiations with developers was to avoid overdeveloping the township and to tie much of the required housing development to downtown redevelopment. “We’ve got a great plan,” the mayor said, calling the settlement reached early last year “workable” and one “that meets our affordable-housing requirements.”
He said he expects that the township will “get enough new tax ratables [from redevelopment efforts] to ease the tax burden on residents.” But he cautioned that “it’s going to be a heavy lift,” pointing to planned construction of new first-responder headquarters as well as a new library and the relocation of township administrative offices from the present municipal building. He continued to maintain that the new buildings “are not going to cost taxpayers anything” while “bringing back great revenues” via increased property-tax payments.
Speaking to The Times, the mayor was most animated when discussing social issues, especially the Black Lives Matter protests and marches that took place in town in late spring and early summer in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the African American man killed by police in May in Minneapolis. The mayor said he took part in those protest marches “to show support and to keep the community together.” He said “one of my proudest moments I had as mayor” was helping to establish the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Committee with Fanwood, the board of education, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerium and Social Justice Matters following several racial incidents at the high school and elsewhere.
When the George Floyd protests started, “we had a mechanism in place,” said the mayor, and during the summer the committee held several listening sessions where residents — adults and students — spoke about their experiences with racism at local schools and with local police officers. While the committee works to develop strategies to mitigate racial incidents and attitudes, the mayor said the Scotch Plains Police Department has been working to improve community relations via its new Coffee With A Cop events and seeking to “do a better job of interacting with the community.”
Mayor Smith said he had “laid out the palette” on a variety of issues — downtown redevelopment and the racial healing committee — “and now someone else can fill in the picture.” Another initiative he spoke of is the Mayor’s Wellness Program, in which he promoted various better-health programs and publicly recognized those residents who completed certain activities, including the 5K races held each year. The mayor also touted his use of social media as a way of communicating with residents about emergencies, town events, local businesses, coronavirus updates, etc. He said he “prided myself on” communications and transparency during his tenure.
The mayor additionally pointed to the township’s fiscal picture in recent years, noting that property-tax increases were pretty much flat during the past four years while a triple-A bond rating was maintained. He also said that “safety was always my highest priority,” noting that police had been posted in schools following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
One thing that frustrated the mayor was “the slowness of how things move in government. It’s always bugged me that it’s taken us so long to do many things,” he said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t have direct control over certain things.” He also said that changing the form of government — from the present weak mayor-council and strong manager system — should be looked at in the future. He mentioned possibly changing the makeup of the township council from an at-large setup to a ward system “for better representation.”
“I really enjoyed leading this town,” the mayor said as he wrapped up the conversation. “I’m happy with what I did.” Recalling his complete lack of experience when he was elected — he was the Republican Party chairman at the time and had been unable to find another suitable candidate — he said he had been retired for 18 years “and it was exciting to get back in the action.” Now, as his term winds down, “this experience has really invigorated me.” He told The Times he is working on getting his house ready for sale and that he plans to relocate elsewhere in the township while also keeping himself open to staying involved in whatever way he can.
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