Transparency, Efficiency, Economic Development: Mayor’s Batting Average High During First Months of Tenure
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.
After more than half a year in office, Mayor Eric Wilsusen is following through with his campaign promises to bring more transparency, efficiency, and economic development to the town.
Last year, Wilsusen won the Republican primary on a platform of change and the promise of a new vision for Jefferson. He became the first new mayor in 20 years after running unopposed in the general election. “Any organization that I’ve ever belonged to, I don’t come in to try to light the world on fire. I don’t try to change everything,” Wilsusen said. “I just want to make it a little bit better than I found it.”
After taking office, Wilsusen’s first priority was to bring a positive atmosphere to the municipal building. Viewing the town as a multi-million-dollar business that provides a service to the community, he believes that happy employees are more willing to help residents, making them happy in return.
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For Wilsusen, a key to ensuring that residents are well-informed is providing a transparent government that shares as much information as it can with the public. He thought performance in this regard could be improved, particularly online.
After taking office, he had old information updated on the township website and wanted to go further by revamping the site altogether, as promised during the campaign. An intern recently highlighted the disarray of the current website. “The first thing she said was that she went to our webpage and had a hard time finding anything,” Wilsusen said. “That’s not what I want to hear. I want people to be able to go there and get information.”
Wilsusen made it a priority during the budget-making process to get a web provider to develop a new site where people can easily access information. He also ramped up the process of scanning and putting on the website basic documents that could previously be received only by filing an Open Public Records Act request. Residents will soon be able to obtain this information through an online portal being developed with assistance from a management software company.
In addition, Wilsusen created a social media page to give residents an idea of his activities as mayor. He posts everything from weddings to ceremonial occasions at Town Council meetings.
In his efforts to make the municipal government more “customer-friendly,” Wilsusen wanted to consolidate responsibilities and better plan for the future, saving residents time and tax dollars. One of the biggest responsibilities is code enforcement, including issues such as property maintenance and abandoned homes – a job often juggled among three people. When Wilsusen took office, he assigned the task to one person, alleviating the dissatisfaction experienced by residents who were previously redirected under the three-person system.
“I want people to come to this building and feel customer-friendly,” Wilsusen said. “We provide a service. That’s what we do here. When somebody comes to this building looking for information or answers, they’re getting the right information or answers.”
Wilsusen is also considering a company that will evaluate the municipality’s facilities and use software to help predict future maintenance costs. He hopes this change will assist the town in budgeting for the future and controlling taxes.
Jefferson faces some unique barriers to economic development. The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, which preserves New Jersey’s open space, prevents development on a large amount of township land. The lack of sewers is also a drawback for business. “We have quite a few challenges as far as driving economic development,” the mayor said. “Now we have to be a little innovative.”
Wilsusen pushed for the Town Council to change a defunct economic advisory board from a council committee to a mayoral committee, giving him the power to appoint members and restart its work. After the council passed this change, he appointed nine people from the business community and a cross-section of the town.
“We’re basically starting from scratch,” the mayor said. The committee will gather ideas and information to create an economic development plan, reaching out to the Morris County Economic Development Corporation for help and looking at other towns in similar situations to generate ideas.
Making Good on His Promises
In Jefferson Township, the position of mayor is not full time. When Wilsusen is unavailable, the business administrator is in charge of implementing these changes. “I spend as much time as I possibly can in the office – more to direct and set that agenda and make sure those goals are being fulfilled, but it’s really creating a team,” he said. “It’s putting the right people in place to help get those goals achieved going forward.”
After searching for the right candidate, Wilsusen hired Debra Milliken as the new business administrator. He considers her a team leader who will be key in making the changes he promised during the campaign. “You have a lot of new people, a lot of new ideas – fresh ideas,” the mayor observed about his administration. “I think that momentum is really going to pay off in the future.”