Wilsusen Sworn in as First New Mayor in 20 Years

Editor’s note: This story was published exclusively in The Jefferson Chronicle DIGEST magazine prior to being made available online. To receive the DIGEST magazine when it is released digitally, subscribe free.

When Lake Shawnee resident Eric Wilsusen took the oath of office at the January 2 Town Council meeting, he became Jefferson’s first new mayor in 20 years. Winning the June Republican primary, he ran unopposed in the November general election. The Jefferson Chronicle sat down with Wilsusen to discuss his background and plans for the township.

How He Got Here

Wilsusen served on Jefferson’s police force for more than 30 years, most recently as deputy chief. He was also the community services officer for nine years and the department’s first Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, affectionately known as Officer Eric.

However, Wilsusen’s contributions did not stop at the municipal building. He has been president of the high school Girls Soccer Booster Club, vice president of Jefferson Youth Soccer, board member for Morris County Prevention Is Key, alternate on the Lake Hopatcong Commission, and past chief and life member of Jefferson Fire Company Number 2. He is currently president of the Lake Shawnee Club, president of the high school PTA, and trustee at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church.

When asked if he would maintain his volunteer positions during his term as mayor, Wilsusen told The Chronicle that he planned to continue serving Star of the Sea and the Lake Shawnee Club. He acknowledged the great help provided at the club by his sister, Lisa, and a fantastic board of volunteers. His PTA obligation ends with the graduation of his younger child from high school this year.

The mayor does have a part-time position as director of child and youth protection for the Diocese of Paterson. He expects to be in the municipal building on Fridays, his day off. It would be more difficult to maintain both his volunteerism and visibility as mayor if his salaried job were full-time, he admitted.

Wilsusen expressed deep appreciation for outgoing Republican mayor Russ Felter as well as outgoing administrator James Leach for their respective 24 and 52 years of public service. The new mayor benefited from several months of preparation before assuming his office. During that time, he was able to work on the municipal budget and meet with department heads. Wilsusen credited Felter’s assistance for the successful transition.

The new mayor agrees with his predecessor’s claim that the town is in good financial condition. He will continue solid long-range planning to ensure Jefferson’s fiscal health and will keep Felter’s long-held motto. “One town, one future,” he said, “is still applicable today.”

During his first mayoral speech, Wilsusen choked up when thanking his wife, Kristine – “my rainbows and unicorn girl” – for her support. He presented flowers to her, his daughters, Karly and Katelyn, and his mother, Joan. He also thanked his other family members, running mates, and colleagues who had supported his campaign. Special appreciation was expressed for his father, a former Jefferson deputy police chief, who had encouraged him to enter public service 33 years ago and passed away in 2011. “He certainly shaped me into what I am today. I know he is smiling upon me.”

The entire family came out to support Wilsusen at the induction ceremony. (Photo: April Leaver)

Where He’s Going: Wilsusen Plans to Fulfill Campaign Promises

Wilsusen’s goal to increase Jefferson’s communication with residents begins by redesigning the municipal website and expanding the town’s social media presence. Funding has been requested in the 2019 budget for website development as well as a college intern. The student would assist with social media and a local newsletter, such as those printed by neighboring Dover and Rockaway Township.

The Chronicle was acknowledged in Wilsusen’s first speech for its online news platform and the introduction of a monthly print issue. When The Chronicle asked about Facebook, Wilsusen replied that on the new mayor’s page, unlike the former page, residents’ comments will require approval prior to posting in order to prevent the occasional inappropriate comments that occurred previously. However, residents will be able to message the mayor directly.

Economic development was a priority topic during Wilsusen’s campaign. Some of the hurdles that must be overcome to attract new ratables include the economy and the Highlands Act, which restricts sewers and limits growth in order to encourage environmental preservation. Jefferson’s economic development advisory board is on the books, though currently inactive. Wilsusen intends to work with the council to activate the board, hear from experts in the community, and share ideas with neighboring towns to stimulate growth.

Wilsusen Has an Ambitious To-Do List

During the transition time between his primary win and taking office, Wilsusen created a list of tasks in addition to the changes promised during the campaign – joking that his notes are now seven pages long. He spoke with The Chronicle about some of those projects and his goals.

Municipal management software is a priority, needed to “bring the town into the 21st century.” The mayor stated that the software is not expensive and would make municipal employees more effective. The fire bureau, billing department, code enforcement, and health department are still using paper files, although some documents are being scanned in an effort to modernize. New software could track requests, permits, and the status of paperwork. The Department of Public Works could create work orders and residents could report issues such as potholes through a phone app. Software would assist the clerk with Open Public Records Act request fulfillment. Prospective vendors are currently under review.

Previous retirement and termination separation agreements that fall outside contract terms or policy guidelines have been a hot topic around town. Wilsusen stated during his first mayoral address, “Beginning today, I will not present to the council nor will I sign any agreement that does not comply with current laws, rules, and policies.” Questioned on whether he believes such separation agreements significantly affect residents’ taxes, Wilsusen told The Chronicle, “No – 60% of taxes are due to the Board of Education; only 27% are controlled by the municipal government. However, the town often takes the heat because the town collects the taxes.” Nevertheless, he understands residents’ concerns and does not want separation agreements outside of the provided guidelines.

Wilsusen mentioned the need to investigate recycling plans. Because China is no longer accepting plastics, costs have increased. According to a June 2018 National Geographic article, China handled nearly half of all recyclable plastics from the U.S. and other countries. In early 2018, China announced it would no longer accept plastics, citing local environmental concerns. Costs have skyrocketed and left communities scrambling for alternatives. As stated in National Geographic, “China’s new policy could displace as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.” Wilsusen wants to research alternative recycling measures to mitigate the town’s expenses.

Who Are the Key Contacts for the New Mayor?

The role of business administrator is critical for the new mayor. That person oversees the day-to-day tasks, acting as an extension of the mayor by doing the “heavy lifting” to ensure that his priorities are investigated, scheduled, and implemented. The search is in process with the assistance of an executive search firm, The Canning Group LLC. With the application deadline now passed, the firm is screening applicants and will narrow the pool to approximately five strong candidates. The interim business administrator, John Eskilson, began his term in Jefferson on January 7 after serving in similar positions for Hopatcong, Hardyston, and Sussex County. He can be reached at jeskilson@jeffersontownship.net or 973-208-6102.

Also integral to the mayor’s success is his administrative assistant, Joanne Meyer, who planned the induction ceremony along with township clerk Michele Reilly. Both received Wilsusen’s high praise. Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@jeffersontownship.net or 973-208-6102.

Wilsusen can be contacted directly via email at mayor@jeffersontownship.net.

Other Appointments to Be Determined

Appointments for positions such as township attorney, labor attorney, and township engineer are in process. Appointments to volunteer groups such as the municipal alliance and recreation board are also needed. Multiple organizations have openings, and Wilsusen encourages all interested residents to submit a letter of application.

See related article: www.thejeffersonchronicle.com/volunteers-sought-jefferson-boards-committees.

Moving Forward

Mayor Wilsusen looks forward to exciting changes that will come through nonpartisan teamwork. He knows that one person cannot do it alone; with the help of a strong staff, he is confident of a positive outcome.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to identify the mayor’s political affiliation.

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