James Kern III and Alex Torpey have things in common few under 25-year-olds do. As mayors of New Jersey towns, they’re embroiled in the everyday details of local government: trash collection, leaf and snow removal, planning and zoning, public health and safety, and maintaining budgets to stem tax increases. Town business consumes their days and many nights.
Yet for these two elected officials, worrying about how to improve the towns where they grew up and attended school, is a passion that drives them to motivate others, especially young people, to consider running for office.
23, Mayor of Pohatcong, and Torpey,
25, Village President of South Orange, about 18 months into their four-year terms, local government offers challenges beyond anything they imagined.
While a student at Rutgers University, Kern won a seat on the town’s four-member council. After his term ended and he graduated with a degree in political science and history, Kern returned to Pohatcong, a Warren County township in the eastern Lehigh Valley. Living at home and working nights at Shop-Rite and days at a furniture store to pay off his student loans, he attended a meeting about the proposed merging of two shopping centers that would have impacted traffic through his neighborhood. Observing how business was conducted, he felt he had nothing to lose and perhaps something to offer, and ran for mayor.
He made transparency in government his big issue, and has since upgraded the town’s website. By giving residents easier access to meeting agendas, minutes, and other town alerts, he’s seen an increase in involvement in town affairs, he said.
Despite his ease with social media and belief in its potential in government, he campaigned door to door, talking to as many of the town’s 3,500 people as he could.
“People still want you to talk to them, to tell them in the five minutes you might have on their doorstep, who you are, what you want to do, and why you want to do this if you’re so young,” he said.
Torpey, fresh out of Hampshire College with a degree in political science and American law, returned to South Orange, in Essex County. He started a website design and media consulting business, Veracity Media LLC, and joined the town’s library board and rescue squad. As student government president for two years during college, he gained experience organizing events, working with budgets, examining policies, and collaborating with the community. “I found it fascinating,” he said, and wanted to continue. He debated whether to run for mayor or council, and opted for mayor, winning by 14 votes.
“I felt I’d regret it if I didn’t do it now. There was an immediacy of things that needed attention that I couldn’t wait,” he said.
Like Kern, he canvassed door to door, made phone calls and talked wherever he could, trying to reach the town’s 16,000 residents. He found as he campaigned, that while people had opinions about what had to be done, some couldn’t name one elected town official and had little idea what local government did. He vowed he’d try to encourage more residents to get involved and attend meetings.
Both mayors expressed surprise at the high expectations people have for their locally elected officials. “It’s a strange double standard,” said Torpey. “People expect that we can solve everything. No matter what the problem, it’s our responsibility.” Faced with severe storm damage, flooding and power outages following Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and the unseasonal snowstorm two months later, both mayors encountered the wrath of citizens impatient with the utility companies. Torpey, who is unpaid, and Kern, who receives $2,000 annually, spent countless hours telephoning electric companies on behalf of their constituents. “We can’t control PSE&G or the weather,” said Torpey, “I wish we could.”
The amount and variety of issues every day keeps Kern busy. “Every day there’s something new. I have to know about the environment, understand budgets, prepare for public safety, and follow the school board. It makes the job interesting,” he said.
And consumes their time.
Kern installed a separate phone line in his parents’ house with a unique ring for mayoral business. He works part-time, having left Shop-Rite; he plans to substitute teach and continue in the furniture store. He attends as many night meetings as he can in addition to the monthly council meetings. An avid ice hockey player and New Jersey Devils fan, Kern coaches a youth hockey team.
Torpey said he tries to keep his town work to about 30 hours a week, devoting the rest of the time to the rescue squad, his business, and graduate school where he’s pursuing a Master of Public Administration in emergency management.
While each town is different—Pohatcong is rural and South Orange more urban, each faces similar challenges: maintaining a balanced budget while providing the services citizens expect without raising taxes. Torpey is working to improve downtown South Orange, hoping that more high residence housing, close to the train to New York City, will attract businesses and deter crime. Kern is trying to balance his budget as he negotiates with town unions and non-union employees. He wishes he could convince residents about the value of municipal consolidation.
“New Jersey has 565 towns. We can combine so many of the services we offer and save money,” he said.
Both mayors have become adept public speakers, traveling the state attending mayoral conferences and speaking to civic groups, scout troops, colleges and schools. They use these opportunities to encourage others to get involved in local government.
“Many college students want to do something but many don’t see running for office as an option,” said Torpey.
They emphasize the importance of voting. “I hope what I’m doing shows you can make a difference. I tell everyone to vote. They have a say in the future,” said Kern, who has created a mayoral internship for high school students.
Torpey has founded a non-profit organization designed to assist young people who want to run for office. Kern sits on the board. “We’re young mayors. We get to work on some interesting projects; I tell people if they want to make a change in your community, you can do this,” said Torpey.
Living in town leaves them with little space to hide. Often discussions about town problems occur while they’re buying groceries, having a bagel and coffee, or eating at a restaurant. They’re “Alex” and “Jim” to everyone; and citizens assume that if they’re in town they’re working.
“A simple trip to buy a quart of milk can turn into a half hour,” said Kern. Yet both admit that’s what they love about the job. “I don’t have a driver. I live in an apartment. People see me all the time. It keeps me accountable,” said Torpey.
To escape town politics, Kern plays hockey and visits his girlfriend, a graduate student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s reading “1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies” by David Pietrusza and listens to classic rock and country music on his IPod. Torpey, in addition to graduate school and the rescue squad, is reading “The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards” by Paul Woodruff and Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)”. His music tastes run from indie rock, to jazz and country.
Will they run again when their terms end in 2015? It’s what everyone asks them they say. And the answer? They’re unsure.
“There are things I want to accomplish this term. If I can get them done, there may not be a need to be mayor another four years,” said Kern.
“The answer I’m supposed to give is, ‘of course.’ I have to figure out my goals. It’s only been just over a year since I was elected. I want to see where it goes,” said Torpey.
Until then, they’re satisfied with the progress they’ve made, the amount they’ve learned, and the rewards leadership can bring.
(I interviewed the mayors for the October issue of JerseyMan magazine. Alex Torpey was my student when I taught 8th grade at South Orange Middle School, South Orange, NJ.)