At the Rainbow Push Wall Street Project & City of Newark Economic Summit, on June 2, a panel of New Jersey mayors answered the question, posed by Newark Municipal Council President Mildred C. Crump: “How has technology impacted your city?”
The event, which took place at Rutgers University-Newark, was sponsored by the office of Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., who lent his perspective to the panels and discussions that took place during this day.
The panel members included the mayors of Newark, Clinton, Hillside, Plainfield, and Logan, who talked about their technology journeys.
Baraka led off the discussion, citing the impact of the fiber-optic network already buried under Newark’s streets. The city now provides free Wi-Fi in three community centers, has allowed some families to obtain free Internet in their homes, and offers Internet at a reduced rate to others.
“We are going to soon announce the expansion of the technology superhighway under the ground, which will help us bring more startup companies to the City of Newark and give many more people access to the Internet,” he told the audience.
Newark is concentrating on education, for instance, by running a coding camp this summer. “We are heavily focusing around tech jobs and tech education with STEM,” he said.
The citizens of Newark can now pay their water bills and property taxes online. “Before, we were in the Stone Age. We weren’t able to do any of these things. We have now automated most of the processes and services in the city,” said Baraka. For example, he said that code enforcers would soon be entering data into tablets rather than using paper.
Baraka also mentioned the 311 system for reporting issues; and he described the MyNewark App, which provides citizens with access to open data and enables them to report “anything from illegal dumping to crime” directly to the directors of the departments involved.
Janice Kovach, the mayor of Clinton, spoke next. Clinton is a town in the northern part of Hunterdon County, with a population of 2,700. “When I think of technology, I think first of health and public safety,” she said.
Clinton’s population includes a lot of seniors, and during floods and natural disasters they don’t have the ability to get out of their homes. “It really hit home to us during hurricane Sandy.” Kovach said that it was almost a month before people could get back into their homes, and during that time the city used social media to communicate with residents and keep them updated.
She then mentioned that the city had own sewer utility, and had automated its functions so that meter readers wouldn’t need to go into people’s homes anymore. Also, the police are now doing e-ticketing. “We are slowly but surely getting to where we need to be,” said Kovach, who noted that, thanks to technology, the town doesn’t need to replace staff when they retire.
Eventually, Clinton would like to have an app like Newark’s that residents could use to directly contact the mayor’s office, the police commissioner and the city’s business office.
The Township of Hillside isn’t in the Dark Ages anymore when it comes to technology, according to Mayor Angela R. Garretson. It is coming into the light. Hillside is surrounded by Newark, Irvington, Elizabeth and Union.
She noted that many mayors from the area went down to Washington, D.C. and met with White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to learn about the resources available to municipalities.
When Garretson became mayor of Hillside, one of the first things she did was reduce the number of servers the town was using. “If we had ten departments, we had ten different servers. I was able to bring it down to three,” she said.
Hillside also partners with universities. Kean University, for example, has been able to provide a number of useful resources to the township.
During the panel discussion, Garretson mentioned that Hillside had just experienced one of its many flash floods, this time affecting the state highway. “We are working with another university to have an app to inform us when the flooding starts,” she said.
Garretson described the computers the township was using as outdated and outmoded. “When we don’t have the facilities or the money, we go out to our neighboring universities,” and ask for help.
Finally, Garretson said that she was also partnering with fellow mayors of nearby towns. “We realize we don’t have the money to do it alone, but that we can grow our municipalities together,” she told the audience. Hillside is looking for innovative ways to work with its neighboring communities on solving tech infrastructure problems, she explained.
Plainfield Mayor Adrian O. Mapp said that his municipality, the 35th largest in New Jersey, has “embraced technology for the advantage of our residents.” The town had recently acquired a customer-relationship-management package that provides residents with access to all the public records kept at City Hall, such as permits, property information files and birth certificates.
Another innovation is a mass communications system the town deployed last year to disseminate information to the public. “We use it in conjunction with Nixle, and in the course of the hard winter months we were able to communicate instantly with the members of the public to let them know…what roads were blocked, the conditions of the roadways and so on.”
After participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year, Mapp brought back to Plainfield Google’s Get Your Business Online program. “We know that only 51 percent of all small businesses have an online presence, in spite of the fact that 97 percent of customers search for products and services on the Internet. So we brought this to businesses in Plainfield, who can now have a free website,” he said.
Logan Township, situated in Gloucester County, in southern New Jersey, is known for its industrial parks, according to Mayor Frank Minor. “We have the largest industrial parks in the state of New Jersey. I have 350 corporations that call Logan Township home, and I have 18,000 people that travel in and out of our township on a daily basis.”
Much of the technology is in support of the corporations. “We know that technology is important because many of the companies are technology-based or use equipment that is centered on technology.”
The most important thing Logan Township does in the tech field is maintain a strong public school system, said Minor. “The companies that come to town want to know how strong the workforce is. Can they do the jobs that we want to relocate here?” He believes that having a strong public school system is the way forward.
Tech has been a double-edged sword for Logan Township. Many older people have been left out of the technology revolution, he explained. Some truck drivers who serve the industrial parks, for example, can’t get jobs because they don’t know the new tech systems. But Minor added that the town was working with industry to help these people get the computer skills they need.