Vernon Richardson is probably best known as an aide to the late Ward D Councilman Michael Yun. Most recently, Richardson took a job at City Hall as as an aide to Mayor Fulop. In June, word leaked out prematurely that Richardson was preparing a run for the Ward F seat currently held by Councilman Jermaine Robinson. What follows is our interview with Richardson. We cover everything from affordable housing to his proposal to tax empty storefronts.
JCT: You came into the race a little bit later than the other people in Ward F. And some people felt that maybe you were pushed into it or encouraged to do it to play a spoiler role. Do you want to swat that away right off the bat and explain what made you get into the race and speak to that concern that some people have?
VR: No, actually I don’t run from that. I actually fully embrace it. I am in this race as a spoiler. My intention is to spoil it for Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Robinson. That’s what my goal is. Anything short of that, I think it sets my community back a great deal. The reasoning behind my late entry was primarily that I was waiting for someone else to step forward. I looked at the candidates, one that jumped in the race for re-election last January and another one that jumped in in February. There had been talk about former candidate Michael Griffin entering this arena, but I believe he’s since moved out of the ward, and I think he’s working with Mr. Gilmore, so I’ve been looking for someone that has some substantive experience that would be able to deliver for our community, and absent that I jumped in now. The question of whether I jumped in or whether I was shoved in is another story. To a certain degree, I did get a little bit of a shove because there was a network of supporters and friends that were urging me to run that were providing assistance to me. And I think a number of them thought that perhaps I wouldn’t jump in, and they kind of went through the press and let them know that I had created a website. And that’s what kind of pushed me in prematurely to what I had initially intended.
JCT: Was the mayor one of those people that was pushing you in?
VR: Absolutely not.
JCT: Has the mayor been supporting you financially or otherwise in any way in your run?
VR: When the website was leaked to the media, members of the media reached out to the administration to get their feedback on it and I was summoned, and I was asked, basically, what the heck are you doing? And, I told the mayor in real time, this candidacy isn’t about him; this is about my community. And, I had severe doubts about the candidate that he had supported for this upcoming race.
JCT: Well, this is a great segue then. So, let’s talk about that candidate he supports, Jermaine Robinson. Where do you think Jermaine Robinson is failing or has failed?
VR: There are a number of fronts. One is the whole embarrassment of having a councilman accused of throwing an employee that he was sleeping with down a flight of stairs. That is at the top of the list. But, you know, the incident where he legislated for reducing the amount of time that constituents appearing before the council had to speak at one meeting. And then the very next meeting, someone who comes before the council to speak and is adhering to the time limits… he cuts them off by encouraging the gentlemen to meet him outside in the parking lot of City Hall to fight him him. That kind of thing is embarrassing. I mean it’s one thing not to have a representative that’s actually representing our community. It’s another thing to have someone who layers on another additional layer of embarrassment.
JCT: Putting aside behavioral embarrassments, what substantively do you think he should be doing that he’s not?
VR: The number one role of a council member is to legislate. Over the last five years that he’s been in office, to my recollection, he’s only authored two pieces of legislation: one a prohibition on fruit-flavored e-cigarettes — and he did that three weeks before the state legislature was backing a ban statewide anyway — so, he just wanted to kind of get out in front of that. That’s number one. Number two, he authored a resolution that passed that named June “Black Lives Matter Month” in Jersey City. And ultimately those two pieces of legislation had virtually no effect on our community whatsoever.
He doesn’t really bring anything to the table when it comes to the budgeting process, which is probably the number one element that a councilman can participate in. So what is he doing for the city? At the debate what he said was as to crime, he’d keep he’d keep doing the things that he’s been doing. By definition that’s insanity, to keep doing the same thing that has no positive outcome.
JCT: What would your top three items legislatively be if you were voted in as councilman for Ward F?
VR: The number one thing I would do is offer an ordinance that would provide the city council with its own legal counsel. Right now we are beholden to the mayor’s appointee as a corporation counsel. And, you know, you can’t have two clients. You just can’t. When I was chief of staff for Councilman Yun, that was one of our priorities, trying to get that done. Their job is to write our ordinances. They refused to write an ordinance that would create such a legislative research officer. They said it’s illegal. And I said, well, other communities like Hillside, New Jersey, that has the same form of government have this position.
JCT: What is the second priority you would have as a councilman?
VR: I would try to do something about crime. And that is especially along our main corridors, but it probably could be something that we could do citywide. And that is to create a commercial property vacancy registration fee. If you have a commercial property that becomes become vacant on the first floor, you have to register with the city and you would have to continue to register every three months until it becomes occupied again. And the fee for registration would become progressively more expensive.
That really puts pressure on the owner just sitting on that property, just waiting for The Gap or Starbucks to arrive. They would be pressured to take less money for rent to get that place occupied. Doing that creates a situation where those who have the entrepreneurial spirit that would love to open up a shop, but the cost is just something they couldn’t do, they can get in there now.
Number one, it creates jobs. Number two is that as the store becomes operational and more and more of the stores become operational, they become less of an eyesore, and it’s less likely that you’re going to have a criminal element standing around that vacant property as they do now. So you’re tackling the crime problem. You’re tackling job creation. You’re tackling creating a better economic environment for the community. You’re doing all of that with one mechanism. And I’m not saying that every single shop is going to be always operational, but it will be a big improvement.
My third priority would be to offer an ordinance that would eliminate nepotism in our city government. So, that especially if someone is elected, they should not have relatives who benefit based on their elected positions.
JCT: What to you is the greatest issue facing residents of Ward F?
VR: If every morning you get up and think about gunshots going off and people being killed … if you have to worry about that … that’s always going to be the greatest, no matter what, right? But, I think the most pervasive issue in the ward is the issue that is attacking the entire city, and that is the affordability of housing. They want to use the federal guidelines and say we created affordable housing, but it isn’t affordable.
JCT: What’s your solution to the affordable housing problem?
VR: First of all, I would vote in support of Councilman Lavarro’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.
JCT: Is that twenty percent with no give-backs?
VR: Yeah, because ultimately here’s the deal. The city argument is that they want to have the flexibility, right? Because there may be some other goodies that they may want from the developer instead of the affordable housing. But if you’re saying that affordable housing is my priority. If you’re willing to give that up for something else, then affordable housing isn’t your priority. So, it should be locked in. That is our goal, that’s our target.
I would further tighten it up even beyond what Councilman Lavarro had proposed and say that we need to have definitive breakdowns as to the average median income goals and targets for each of our wards. We need to predetermine what they are. So, that on one hand I say that a $1,700 one bedroom apartment in Ward F is not affordable to almost all of our residents. It’s not affordable. But at the same time, you don’t want to ghettoize by saying it’s all going to be low income in Ward F. So, it needs to be some kind of a palette of different choices.
JCT: What would you do about the crime problem besides the registration of vacant commercial properties? What do you think the city can do and the public safety director can do to better combat crime?
VR: I would say that anyone who stands before you saying they’re running for council and … says they can solve the problem, they’re probably lying to you. If I thought I had all the answers to public safety, I would be submitting my resume for public safety director and not for councilman. What I would say is the plan I did lay out to you attempts to achieve is by doing what we can in a legislative fashion. Because that’s what a councilman does.
JCT: Are there services that the city could be providing to lower the crime rate that it’s not providing?
VR: Listen, I’m a progressive and what most progressives believe is that we definitely could use greater resources relative to those who have either a mental illness or a drug addiction. … so we should be expanding the work of social workers. … I don’t agree as some folks do that this should be something that should be coordinated within the Public Safety Department. I think it should be something that would be out of our Health and Human Services Department. Somehow funds that go into public safety always wind up being rerouted to police overtime.
JCT: Let me ask you about Caven Point. What’s your position on Paul Fireman’s attempt to take over Caven Point and turn it into three holes for his golf course?
VR: We should not be selling state assets ever, ever … underscore ever. Now, with that being said, I think this is another instance where elected officials are trying to get into what other people should be doing. This really is a state issue. The Councilman has advocated on behalf of Mr. Fireman that he should have these extra holes on his golf course.*
JCT: Do you support the Liberty State Park Protection Act?
VR: Absolutely. He was the only one that he was the only one that voted against.
JCT: Are you taking any developer money?
VR: No. The idea is the only boss I want to answer to is the public.
JCT: What about Morris Canal Manor? The development on Communipaw Avenue?
VR: I’m opposed to it. Let me just say this. One of the things that Councilman brings up is that he says I worked for a Councilman Run who voted against everything that was a positive. And I’ve tried to make it clear that he didn’t do that. What he did was that he objected to Councilwoman Robinson’s tactic of always reaching out to developers to do the good thing for Ward F. If we need to get something done, we can do it as a city ourselves. We can build a rec center. We can build it ourselves.
JCT: What do you think the Fulop administration has done right?
VR: I oversee the development of open space and parks … along with issues dealing with the arts. I think that the city has been very proactive in expanding our open spaces across the city.
JCT: What has the Fulop administration done wrong?
VR: Three years ago the city passed an ordinance to relocate the Katyn Memorial to an unknown position at millions of dollars of expense. I headed the opposition to that at the time.
JCT: Let me ask you one more thing. If you are elected, I assume you’re going to consider yourself an independent. Is that that your intention, or would you be seen as part of a block of council people?
VR: Yeah, this is something that I’ve contested Mr. Gilmore about. He goes around saying that he’s the independent candidate for council, and I say that I’m the only independent candidate. I’m not allied with any at-large candidates … the only bosses I will have to be responsive to are the residents of a Ward F.
There will be issues, I assume, that because of my progressive positions, where I will be allied with Councilman Solomon, assuming he is re-elected. I would think there are issues that I would be I allied with Councilman Lavarro on. But I could work with with anyone that’s there.
I think the best template for what I would be as a council member would be my late boss, Councilman Yun. One of the things that I learned from watching him is that when the mayor does something that warrants it, you should be his biggest cheerleader. But when he takes a position that doesn’t properly serve our community, you have to be in the position to know how to amend whatever policies he’s trying to get done so that it better reflects our community. Thats the kind of councilman I’d be.
*Councilman Robinson has since expressed support for the Liberty State Park Protection Act.