Dhiren Shah: Mayor Hawkins, welcome to this interview. The election is only two months away. The negative campaigns have been on for the past couple of months. At this juncture, it is very important to focus as a Mayor and run for a second term. Can you tell me what inspired you to run for the second term?
Eldridge Hawkins: The housing project. The demolition of the Walter Alexander Complex and replacing it with two to three stories housing, development of the arts district, 18% to 0% transitional year budget and in 2012, a 0% increase, The reduction of crime 23% from 2007 to 2011. There is still a lot more left to do, and that’s why I am running again. We have a great administrative team. We are looking forward to redeveloping the Orange Memorial Hospital site and train station.
DS: In the beginning of your term, you appointed yourself as Fire Director, and then after there was resistance by the community and the council, you gave up that role. Also, people say that you were supposed to pay back the salary received as Fire Director. Can you elaborate on this matter?
EH: Everything I have done was by the boundaries of law. I was putting full time effort on a weekly basis. I felt that this was a full time job. I was secure with it, but I saw the push back from residents.
DS: You also appointed yourself as Emergency Coordinator. How did it work out for the city and yourself?
EH: I considered that from past practice. The last two mayors of Orange held the same Emergency Management position. My political enemies are dramatizing the issue. I am working full time for the city and making less than $30,000.
DS: Recently William Hathaway, Jr. threatened your life. His lawyer sent a notice of intent to sue the township. What kind of precautions are you taking and what outcome do you predict?
EH: I won’t predict an outcome. We have the judicial process for a reason. Let the process take its course. I and the City have taken the steps needed. The Police Department has comprehensive security for me. Two occurrences have happened with racial epithets, “Black Mayor” and “Coon.” He had venom in his voice.
We have difficult choices to make. You can make the right decisions. My responsibility is first and foremost to the residents of Orange. There were 20% tax increases, so we had to lay off police officers. These are the tough choices. That’s why we went to the union. With cooperation, we came back to the table after layoffs. We need concessions. We need straight time rather than time and a half. With collective efforts, we got grant money, funds without taxpayers’ expense, and a 0% tax increase we proposed for the second time in a decade. I want residents to judge me on my record, results not promises.
DS: In your opinion, where was Orange used at the start of your term three and a half years ago, and where is Orange now?
EH: Orange was in a state of chaos. We had unfortunate luck, and the former mayor unfortunately was convicted for violating the public trust. I walked into an 18% tax increase. That’s why I took the fire director’s position to supplement my income. I like this job. It’s not about money. It’s about changing lives in a daily basis.
DS: Orange Middle School has many violent incidents. What steps have you taken as a Mayor to control the violence?
EH: The first step is to lead from the top down. We have a service initiative and called all the residents. We have very good and qualified candidates for the school board. They selected Ronald Lee as Superintendent for bringing changes. We continued the support to recreation. We were in Newark. Kids are close to our hearts. I devoted the time for a celebrity book reading day.
DS: What is the biggest obstacle facing the city of Orange?
EH: Like most other cities, financial constrains is the biggest hurdle. We love to have the best services, but it costs money. Tax payers cannot afford more taxes. We are creative. We got 50 to 60 million dollars through the help of Congressman Donald Payne and others. We come up with a multitude of ideas without billing our taxpayers. A Police Department Grant of $450,000, a Fire Department grant of $1.2 million pays for firemen’s salaries.
DS: If you had the chance to do it again, what mistake(s) would you rectify?
EH: I have no regrets. Many times you have to make difficult choices. You have to move forward. As long as you are producing and if it’s legal, we should continue to do it. Nobody is perfect. There are two or three ways to reach a goal. We feel that the path we chose is the right path, and we should continue it. Going back, I wish we had done the tax reevaluation. Under the former mayor, taxes were double to many homeowners. By the council refusing reevaluation, they cost us $400,000 in tax appeals. It would have cost only $375,000 for reevaluation, which is $50 per year per household for the next five years. We are refunding $375,000 to $400,000 each year. We could have used that for many programs. I don’t have the authority to make the council do anything. They have their own mind. Because of the delay, the council did not approve. The mayor cannot enter into a contract without approval from the council.
DS: What do you view as your crowning achievement so far?
EH: I believe the demolition of the Walter G. Alexander complex. I was the only candidate who walked into that project in the previous election. There were a lot of drugs and lot of crime, but there were good people living at that complex too. There were roaches and drugs. We formed a quality of task force. The enforcement was by the quality of task force, police, fire and housing authority. As partners, the tenants got Section 8 vouchers and we relocated them in better housing, by the city taking action with HUD and Congressman Payne. We have 27 million tax credits. It transforms the section of the town.
We don’t have crime coming to that section. If you are a renter and if the taxes go up, your rent may slightly go up. As chairman of the management reform committee of the New Jersey League of Municipalities and as a president of the New Jersey Jaycees, we learned how to cut debt crises, how to negotiate union contracts, and leadership training. I want to thank the union despite our differences and share the credit to my employees who work each and every day.
DS: What are your future plans if you are reelected as mayor?
EH: To finish what I started. I would like to see the train station capitalized on and recruit a commuter population from New York to have city access suburban living.
DS: There has been a lot of controversy between yourself and the city council. What can be done to repair the relationship between the administration and the council?
EH: Who sits on the city council in the next election. I can work cooperatively with the council. I want residents to look closely at each candidate.
DS: What advantage does the city of Orange have over the other municipalities?
EH: We have great infrastructure. We have two train stations which are only 20-30 minutes from New York. We have everything to make the city great. Sheila Oliver, Tom Giblin and others we have a relationship with are working to help develop the city. It was not there when I took office.
DS: If the people of Orange were to re-elect you, what can they look forward to in the next four years?
EH: Us doing the best we can. We will put maximum effort to be creative and to provide services without breaking the citizen’s back. Some residents feel that there is crime in our area. We will do our best to decrease crime and do the best for our residents. Once again I appeal to the residents to look for results not promises.
DS: Thank you Mayor Hawkins, and best of luck in the election.