Presiding over his first regular council meeting as mayor Monday night, Jerry Clifton wasted no time laying out a number of initiatives he hopes to tackle.
After thanking Newarkers for their overwhelming support in the April 9 election, Clifton used the allotted mayor/council comment time to discuss his ideas and call for unity.
“I think we ought to move toward mutually assured success, and that’s with council, the public and our staff. Only through that collaboration can we reach that plateau of success,” he said. “I think together, over the years to come, we can continue our drive to offer community values and have a more diverse, inclusive community where hate will never have a home and where we have a lot of pride in our past but we have a lot more faith in our future.”
Repeating a promise he made on the campaign trail, he called for having more frequent council meetings in an attempt to make each meeting shorter. In particular, he wants to see development projects considered at separate meetings to “make it a little more streamlined so the public doesn’t have to wait here until 1 in the morning to exercise their right to comment,” a reference to a recent vote on a Main Street hotel project, which took place in the wee hours of the morning.
Clifton’s comments proved to be a bit of foreshadowing, though, as Monday’s meeting dragged on for more than five hours. Council didn’t start discussing a Benny Street development proposal until 11:40 p.m., long after most residents had left, and didn’t vote until 12:15 a.m.
Nothing on the agenda was particularly controversial, but two presentations – one from the Wilmington Area Planning Council discussing results of a recent transit survey and one from Christina School District officials promoting the upcoming referendum – took more than an hour combined, and council spent 90 minutes discussing a potential electric rate study.
Among Clifton’s other priorities is having discussions about zoning and comprehensive development plan concerns that arose during last month’s vote on the hotel project. At the time, Clifton voted for the project, noting the project met the legal standards, but said it highlights the need for the city to revise its comprehensive development plan so council has more discretion on future projects.
Clifton also pitched two green initiatives during his comments Monday, which was Earth Day. He said the city should make it easier to recycle Styrofoam, suggesting a collection station on the STAR Campus or at the city’s maintenance yard on Phillips Avenue.
He also hinted that Newark could soon replace certain city-owned vehicles with electric vehicles and charging stations.
“We need to lead from the front and set the standard on this,” he said. “It works well in a town this small.”
He said all city-sponsored events need to be branded as Newark events, a reference to former mayor Polly Sierer, who organized an annual Mayor’s Bike Ride and last year debuted the Mayor’s Harvest Festival.
The events raised thousands of dollars for the Newark Parks and Recreation Department, but some critics on council and in the public claimed that by putting “mayor” in the title, Sierer was using them for political gain.
“The events belong to each and every one of us,” Clifton said. “I think we need to return to that mindset that they do belong to the people of the city of Newark.”
Clifton also wants to standardize the membership of the city’s various boards and commissions. Under his proposal, each board would have seven members – one nominated by each council member and the mayor – to “equalize representation” through the city and tap into a broader diversity of thought.
The city also needs to review the board of ethics, he said.
“I hope we never need to use it, but I think it needs to be in place under those same parameters,” he said.
Monday also marked the first meeting for new council members James Horning Jr. and Sharon Hughes.
Horning sought to show he has hit the ground running, encouraging residents to sign up for his email newsletter and providing an update to residents’ concerns about trees that could be removed at the Rodney site.
Hughes said she is excited to get started and noted the learning curve new council members face.
“The information is like drinking from a fire hydrant,” she said before adding, “I’m up to the task.”
Longtime councilman Stu Markham congratulated Clifton.
“You have rented that seat before,” Markham said, referring to Clifton’s brief stint as acting mayor in 2013. “But now it’s yours. You own it now.”
He also had a piece of advice for the new council members.
“Even though we may disagree up here, we are still a team here for the city of Newark to get all the city of Newark business done and do the best for our residents,” he said.