Democratic Mayoral Primary CandidatE

Stephanie Mcgowan

Rutherford resident since 1985. 

Dean for the School of Education and International Center for Autism and Disabilities Research in Education at Felician University

1) What do you consider the most pressing issue facing our town right now that you want to focus your attention on if elected?


Rutherford is an amazing community which is why so many of us have chosen to make it our home.  As I have walked door to door across this community and spoken with many residents, some very clear themes continue to emerge:  How do we preserve what makes Rutherford a wonderful place to live, while moving her forward reflecting the cultural diversity? How do we support Rutherford in being a more present Arts hub for South Bergen County?  How can we ensure that the needs of residents are front and center when organizations wish to develop their property that may impact the quality of life of those who live in the surrounding areas? How can the Borough address the parking challenges we are experiencing across several areas of town due to our school locations, Felician University, our open space/field locations and our downtown area?  Now in my fifth year as a Councilwoman and the last year and a half as Council President, I understand the importance and need for strong leadership and I am ready to address these challenges as Mayor in collaboration with my Council Colleagues.


I can honestly say that each of the questions I shared above have been asked of me and each have equal importance based on where residents live in town.  One issue that has garnered a great deal of attention over the past year is the Felician University Planning Board application and the impact of the request on the surrounding blocks specific to parking, property maintenance and quality of life.  Since this is an active application with our autonomous Planning Board, I will allow my colleagues on the Board the opportunity to determine the validity of the application. However, I do think the issues raised outside of the actual application which are true community issues are something we need to address.  

1. Parking: In the 2019 municipal budget which was recently approved, money was allocated for a full town-wide parking study. The blocks surrounding Felician; as well as, the blocks impacted by Memorial Field, Rutherford High School and all areas along the New Jersey Transit line and Train Station need to be addressed.  Historically, Rutherford has had restricted parking, permit parking, 3-hour meters and other attempts at addressing this challenge. As we become more and more of a commuter centered community, looking at successful models of other communities and developing one that allows for community participation and ownership is essential.  As we consider development ideas, it seems logical that we need to build in parking requirements or restrictions to advocate for the residents to the best of our ability.


2. Development and impact to the surrounding community: A great deal of discussion, particularly around Felician University and Chestnut Street, specifically deals with the impact of the quality of life to residents who may be impacted by development projects and the responsibility of entities to ensure they respect those who have made their home there.  To be clear, any development in our community that does not address outstanding challenges to those who are neighbors should NOT be ignored. But in fairness, I also think we need to hold all stakeholders accountable for why or how we got here. As Mayor, I would strongly encourage the Borough Administrator and our Department Heads to review the infrastructure of our roads, sewerage systems and capacity surrounding potential projects throughout town with our Borough Engineer and provide that feedback to the governing body. As a government entity, we need to be a real partner and advocate in the process of planning so that we not only develop responsibly, but also upgrade our community and services in the process which is a solution-based approach to leadership and governance, rather than the finger-pointing  blame game which will yield no change and perpetuating the same problem even longer.


3. Rutherford as an Arts hub and supporting our cultural diversity: Rutherford has always been poised to shine in both areas. Located in a prime part of the Borough, the existing Williams Center facility lends itself to be a place where we as a community can celebrate our love and passion for the Arts; while, inviting people to our Borough to be a part of it as well. As modeled by the existing Williams Center Board and Advisory Committees, there is a ground-swell of support to advocate with our County partners in government to mutually develop a plan that preserves our Borough, supports our downtown businesses, create space that would encourage and enable our community to offer Arts opportunities that currently do not exist and to create a visually appealing site that was welcoming to our community while being attractive to potential developers.  The importance of established relationships based on advocacy of this community is essential as Mayor and in working with the County, as well as, attracting quality developers who are willing to represent the vision Rutherford has for itself that was mutually developed with the governing body and residents as well.


2)  If a person or entity came to you with a proposal to build a new piece of public infrastructure in the borough (road, bridge, etc.) how would you evaluate whether that project was worth implementing?


There are several avenues that an “entity” can use to investigate the feasibility or need for infrastructure projects.  If a public entity requires variances or changes in zoning, our autonomous Board of Adjustment and Planning Boards are designed to provide such guidance in accordance with existing Borough Ordinances and regulations.  


However, infrastructure maintenance and updates are also a part of ensuring that the Borough continues to provide key services to members of the community.  An example of this would be the Kid Spot Accessible playground that I worked collaboratively with the Mayor and Council to see through fruition in 2018. When becoming the Council Liaison to Finance in 2017, I questioned why capital and bonded money had been reserved over several budget cycles (2012-2016) for updating the playground but was never utilized or implemented, even though residents were paying interest on bonded money and seeing nothing done.


Working closely with the CFO, we determined that there was both bonded funds, capital money allocated and a small amount of grant money reserved (2012 Bond approximately $103,000; 2013 Bond approximately $164,000, 2015 Capital approximately $148,000, 2016 Capital approximately $291,000 and Clean Communities Grant money) in addition to the Bergen County Community Development Block Grant (CDGB) money utilized to refurbish the bathrooms. Understanding that taxpayers were essentially paying for projects that were never implemented going back several years, I met with Councilman Tom Mullahey, who was the Recreation Liaison.  We both felt strongly that since this money belonged to the community, it was important to have different groups involved in the decision making on what the project needed to look like, ensure that we were utilizing the money responsibility and that the end project was something that enhanced our community and increased the value of it for the residents. Members of the Access for All Rutherford Committee, Citizen Finance Committee and Recreation Advisory Board worked collaboratively with the CFO, the Borough Engineer, Recreation Department, DPW and our newly hired Borough Administrator to ensure that the changes for the park reflected the needs of our residents, supported our commitment to being an accessible community for all, and provided a welcoming space for all residents of all ages to enjoy our parks and open space.  As Mayor, I would continue this inclusive process of utilizing committees made up of residents to provide needed feedback and accountability in large scale projects that impact our community.


3) As you review proposals for development projects in town, and potential revenue streams, what will you do to ensure Rutherford not only maintains its small community character, but also has the infrastructure--emergency services, DPW--and schools--to adequately support the development, ideally with no tax impact to residents?


Maintaining the integrity of our Borough while providing opportunity for growth and development should be the priority of those of us elected to represent the interests of our neighbors. Encouraging responsible development is a delicate balance.  As our demographics continue to change, finding a balance between maintaining the charm of Rutherford that attracts so many is often met with finding creative and constructive opportunities that allow new avenues to grow for our residents and continue the evolution of our community.


Advocating for Rutherford should be the expected and I would continue to do so as Mayor as I have as Councilwoman.  It should be of no surprise that entities want to develop in our community because of its’ location, train station, beauty and diversity.  However, understanding the long-term challenges we have faced as a community can not and should not be ignored. Working closely with the Borough Administrator and the Borough Planner, we as a Borough should be seeking partners based on the needs we believe enhance the community rather than selecting projects that are brought forward by developers haphazardly for their benefit and not our own.


Since my arrival on the dais in 2015, I have been collaborative in my approach with those within the Borough and those outside of our community to create new opportunities, while be willing to be a part of the problem-solving work as well. Having open dialogue and effectively communicating needs and concerns with those who want to move small- and large-scale projects in this town should be one of our paramount responsibilities as Mayor and elected officials.  Having said that, this issue highlights the importance of having someone in the role of Borough Administrator in our form of government who is employed to manage the day to day operations of our community.


Although we as elected officials should present appropriate  questions, advocate for the needs of residents and ensure that our tax money is appropriately spent, it is the Borough Administrator who serves as the CEO of our community and should lead the discussions regarding the assurance of appropriate emergency services, fees for those who utilize our services without contribution, monitoring and questioning the impact to residents who live in the area and to be held accountable if a project is in the best interest of Rutherford. For too many years, the lines between those who were elected and those who were hired with the expertise to manage our multi-million-dollar budget and our outstanding department heads and employees was blurred. Ensuring that our Borough form of government is appropriately staffed allows elected officials to serve as the eyes and ears of residents and to make sure that the community we love and live in is preserved.    


4) How do you see developing arts for all ages in our town?


Rutherford has historically been a hub for the Arts due to our proximity to New York City and the opportunities afforded the community through the old Rivoli Theater and later the Williams Carlos Williams Center.  For too many years, projects like the Williams Carlos Williams Center have been utilized as a political hockey puck and has laid dormant in the center of our community which has impacted our business district and opportunities for growth in our Arts community. The resurgence of those committed to providing opportunities to use the Williams Center as a cultural arts hub as a way of both revitalizing our business district as well as inviting new visitors to our community to celebrate the arts has had a profound impact on Rutherford.  


I have been honored to work closely with Councilmembers Eddie Narucki, Maria Begg-Roberson, Mark Goldsack and Tom Mullahey in advocating for the responsible redevelopment of the Williams Center that would provide greater opportunities for the Arts in Rutherford that would serve all populations regardless of their age or level of talent. As Mayor, I will be supporting a project that would enable the use of the theater for productions, advocating for shared recital rooms in collaboration with our Recreation department that would allow for dance lessons, acting instruction, creative art exhibits and instrumental music opportunities for our residents of all ages.  More importantly, enabling the residents of Rutherford through the WC Advisory Board to be active members in the responsible development of the property that would ensure both its feasibility as well as its viability for generations to come.


5) What initiatives do you envision implementing if elected that can bring in revenue streams to our town?


Something that I have worked on the past two years with my Council colleague Mark Goldsack, was supporting the grassroots launch of a new business “district” partnership.  Since the dissolving of our former Rutherford Downtown Partnership (RDP) a few years back, opportunities to attract new businesses and allow better advertisement of our current businesses has been a challenge.  We are fortunate that there have been legal changes that would allow ALL business throughout Rutherford to participate and would not need to be in one geographic area.


Focusing on building Rutherford as an Arts hub for South Bergen County, working closely with the redevelopment of the Williams Center to initiate space that could be utilized or dedicated to the Borough as a possible cooperative or public/private relationship that would enable the generation of revenue.  Ideally, space that would enable to support of art shows, scalable social events like those supported through the existing Williams Center Board and art-friendly events which would generate foot traffic for our local businesses would be a win-win for all.


6) What do you consider to be the most effective mode of communication to share news with the residents? Do you think information (such as road closures and new ordinances) is currently communicated effectively? Why or why not?


Communication has been a targeted “area for improvement”, and one we have attempted to begin addressing the past two years.  The initial start of a new web site has been a project worked on and spearheaded by Councilman Goldsack, me and the Borough Administrator.  Having a user-friendly website is essential but it is only effective if it is current. We have continued to provide more information about town wide events and need to establish policy and process in place for how to better support local organizations in communicating all the wonderful happenings about town.  Currently, information about the business of the Borough as it relates to ordinance, meetings, agenda and minutes can currently be found on our web page. As Mayor, I am also open to a more transparent process of having meetings streamed online for those who are unable to attend but want to feel informed, which is the process currently utilized by our Board of Education colleagues.

Currently, I am working with Councilwoman Begg-Roberson and Councilman Narucki to examine how we can more effectively communicate “daily” updates regarding DPW and Buildings/Grounds projects across town.  Historically we were able to use NIXLE text messages; however, that platform is no longer supported. Social media is only helpful to those who are on those platforms and may not be helpful for those in our communities without access.  Councilman Goldsack has worked hard at ensuring that road programs and timelines are now made publicly available and Councilman Mullahey has also done the same specific to the Recreation department and schedules. I would like to see something that sends out daily “blasts” with an update regarding street closures, scheduled events and weather-related emergencies if needed that is requested/initiated by the residents if they would like to participate.  The same information can be posted on our website in a more static form so that anyone can obtain that information if they do not wish to participate with the alert system.