If Mayor Mark Smith ever needs a reminder of what he wants his administration to accomplish, he just has to look out his office window.
“I grew up a few blocks from here and I went to school right across the street,” he said during an interview this week to gauge the progress of the city at the turn of a new decade.
His goal, he said, is to provide for this generation and future generations the same Bayonne he and his family grew up knowing.
Surrounded by images of the past – particularly one of his police officer father – Smith has taken on a huge chore. Elected in a special election in November, 2008 to fill the unexpired term of Joseph Doria, who left to take a state position, Smith has already managed in his first year in office to change the makeup of municipal government, streamlining it to make it more efficient and more responsive to the public’s needs.
“Each department is going to have to live within its means.” – Mayor Mark Smith
Over the years, Smith said, local government became bloated, with various offices often duplicating services – and failing to communicate with each other. Residents seeking municipal services were often confused by which department they needed to seek out.
A common database will allow all departments to have access, doing away with some of the problems that currently exist with the flow of information from department to department.
Going into the new year, Smith said, the big issue will be the municipal budget and how to close the annual budget gap that has been as high as $30 million.
“Each department is going to have to live within its means,” Smith said. “This means we have to do more with what we have. But we also have to become a more communicative government, a more responsive government.”
Smith compared open government to putting everything into the store display window.
“We need to listen to the people,” he said.
So far, one of the least realized changes has been an influx of new faces onto municipal boards, people chosen regardless of local political alliance. However, one such case was the recent appointment of Mike Mazzone to the Board of Education. “Mike supported my opponent in the last election, but he has some good ideas,” Smith said.
Despite major economic challenges, Bayonne came through 2009 with some huge successes, such as the winning of the suit brought against the city by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a victory that has allowed redevelopment of the former Military Ocean Terminal to move ahead. The first residents moved onto the MOTBY since the based was closed in the mid-1990s and redevelopment began. Smith said the base is poised for significant advances in 2010, and an announcement is expected to be made within the next couple of weeks, outlining some of these.
The Bayonne Crossing mall on Route 440 broke ground in December, and it is hoped that some of its businesses will open by the end of this year. An off-track wagering facility is also expected to break ground in the next few months, which Smith said will become the model facility in the state.
Smith said the city is actively seeking responsible developers to help regenerate the local economy, and is currently in discussions with several about pending projects.
He pointed to the old Maidenform building on Avenue E, which just received approvals to be converted to residential units. This is an ideal location since it is a block up from the 21st Street Hudson Bergen Light Rail station.
The redevelopment of Broadway, the main street, will likely advance in the upcoming year.
“We have redevelopment plans that we need to move forward on,” Smith said.
No new public safety director
Smith dispelled rumors that he will name a public safety director soon, but said he was pleased with Jason O’Donnell, who took over as director of municipal services last month – one of the key positions in the new, more open government initiatives.
Some of the other changes will include an expanded use of the city’s internet web site to allow the public to access forms people would have to otherwise come into City Hall to get. Mayor Smith said one of the problems in the past is that a working person would have to take off work in order to have access to many city services. The city may consider altering operations hours so as to better accommodate the public.
“We’re in discussions with unions now about this,” Smith said.
About to begin shortly is the zone management concept Smith introduced late last year, in which a person would be assigned to each of the three wards as a kind of trouble shooter to survey the ward’s problems and then to contact the appropriate departments to rectify these issues.
Smith reached back into his own background as a police officer, using community policing as a model for this concept.
“Quality of life is important,” he said.
In this regard, the city has introduced two new ordinances – one that cracks down on illegal residences in the city and the other that adopts international property maintenance codes for the city.
Smith said during the first year, his administration has set up some long-term and short-term goals, but believes that the city is headed in the right direction.
“One of the key things will be stabilization of taxes,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers and we will make some mistakes. But we are going to fix those mistakes and we’re going to deal with issues head on. My biggest motivation are my two daughters. They deserve the same great town I grew up in. Everybody’s kids deserve that. And I’m doing my best to make sure they get it.”