Dear Mayor-Elect Melham,
You and I have met in person only a few times. Chances are that you know me more from my advocacy (and that of my wife) to re-open the Silver Lake Firehouse (which we fully expect to be reopened and fully operational within the next few weeks) as well as my activism — along with that of my friends and colleagues — for open, transparent government and responsible, sustainable commercial development.
It isn’t a secret that, throughout your recent mayoral campaign, I was skeptical and critical of you, and I remain so, although it is not exclusive to you. I set high standards for all of Belleville’s leaders, and I hold them to account when they don’t do what’s best for our town. Please know now that following the Reorganization meeting on July 1st, you and your council colleagues can expect the same.
During the campaign, your past record as a councilman concerned me. Your support for the wholesale designation of a large part of Belleville’s Valley as needing redevelopment, your support for ending, not modifying or modernizing, Belleville’s rent control ordinance, and the idea of making roads shared between Newark and Belleville one-way streets towards the Newark border were wrong-headed at best. Admittedly, I am somewhat new to Belleville politics, so if I am incorrect about any of these, please set the record straight, not only to me, but to all of Belleville.
You made promises to the people of Belleville: to pursue public beautification projects, to make Town Hall more transparent and responsive, to create a Stakeholder Committee (which I hope will include seats for regular citizens, as well as civic and business leaders) and to break with the less-than-honorable political traditions that have plagued Belleville for decades. Such promises are laudable, although they should be pre-requisite for all who wish to run for public office here.
As you prepare to be sworn-in as mayor, I would like to offer a few pieces of advice:
- Guard against even the appearance of being influenced by special interests or political power players. On Election Night, a Belleville resident of certain notoriety went on social media to congratulate you, referring to you as “my friend.” You certainly can’t be expected to have control over what friends and well-wishers post, but I don’t have to tell you that many Belleville residents do not regard that person fondly, given his past influence in town politics. Putting aside that individual for the moment, there will also undoubtedly be a long line of people who will want your ear for things that aren’t in the best interest of the town or taxpayers. I think it would behoove you to state, early in your administration, that the best interests of Belleville will be your sole focus; it’s an assurance that the residents of Belleville deserve, and one that is reasonably expected from anyone occupying any elected or appointed position in this town.
- Establishing good relationships with county and state officials is fine, but people will be looking to you for leadership. Meeting with and taking photos with Senator Menendez, Governor Murphy, and Freeholder Pomares is fine, and obviously having good political relationships with county and state politicians may help Belleville, but the fact is we cannot rely on them. They have entire the county or their legislative district to worry about. What will matter to Belleville voters is what you will do while in office. As I said above, you and your running mates made some great promises, and the residents of this town will be watching to see if you keep them.
- Keep Belleville’s history, aesthetics and suburban character foremost in your mind. During the campaign, if I remember correctly, one of the arguments you made to your critics (I am paraphrasing) was, “Why shouldn’t Belleville share in the success that surrounding towns have,” — implicitly through the development projects and other initiatives those towns had approved or created.
Putting aside arguments that surrounding communities are over-developing with high-density residential projects and they are having to construct additions to their schools to accommodate the influx of new children, it’s a bad idea to adopt a practice or project just because other towns are doing it. Bloomfield, Montclair, Nutley, Clifton, Kearny, North Arlington and Lyndhurst all have their own identities, their own histories and their own character. As mayor, it will be your responsibility to look at a particular proposal or idea and answer the question, “What will this change do to our community?” Not having an answer to that question will be unacceptable. Belleville must certainly be open to the future, but not at the cost of what makes our town special: its history, its character, its livability and its identity. You must be vigilant, especially in the face of people who will promise you the sun, moon and stars and a great Belleville if only you’ll approve their proposal, along with an Area In Need of Development designation and a tax rebate.
I moved to Belleville in 1997 when I married my wife – a Belleville High School graduate and Silver Lake resident. Even before that I met several Belleville residents who were friends or relatives of people with whom I grew up. Something that has stayed with me all these years is the incredible pride Belleville people have for their town. In my years of living here, I also share in that sense of pride and love. It is important — fundamental, even — that our town’s officials do all they can to maintain Belleville as a special place, a great place to live. Politics aside, my fondest wish is a livable, sustainable Belleville that emphasizes its character and history as strengths and foundations, while being open to change – gradual and measured preferably, quickly when necessary, but always befitting this great town.
Belleville voters have chosen you to be the town’s leader. I have tremendous respect for the office of mayor and respect that the people have spoken. But know that I and others will hold you and the entire Town Council accountable for fulfilling your promises and doing what is best for Belleville and its residents.
In best hopes for our town, I remain,
Frank F. Fleischman III