With Morristown fully back on grid, Mayor takes aim at trees; council clashes over housing appointment

Utility crew making repairs on Oak Street in Morristown after nor'easter, March 3, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Utility crew making repairs on Oak Street in Morristown after nor'easter, March 3, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Only God can break a tree.

And he broke a lot of them in Morristown during this month’s two nor’easters, according to Mayor Tim Dougherty.

“The basic facts are this: Most of our power went out … because of trees. And nine out of 10 were hollow or diseased. It’s that simple,” Dougherty told the town council on Tuesday, hours after he said the last of hundreds of outages in town was restored by Jersey Central Power & Light.

After praising firefighters, public works crew and police for an “amazing job” during winter storms Riley and Quinn–which he blamed for local damage equal to Superstorm Sandy–Dougherty challenged the council to help him devise a way to replace hazardous trees across town.

“These storms are going to continue to get worse…. we have to start thinking for ourselves, in terms of what can do, with our Shade Tree and Environmental commissions, our council, in how we deal with these trees,” he said, noting that trees on private property pose an especially tough challenge.

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, left, thanks Deputy Fire Chief Robert Whitehead and Fire Chief Robert Flanagan for the bureau's extraordinary response to two nor'easters. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, left, thanks Deputy Fire Chief Robert Whitehead and Fire Chief Robert Flanagan for the bureau’s extraordinary response to two nor’easters. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

JCP&L should be part of the solution, Dougherty said.

While thanking repair crews from Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, he asserted that is part of the problem: First Energy, JCP&L’s parent company, is based in Ohio and its personnel are spread across the northeast. New Jersey-based Public Service Electric & Gas has crews much closer for faster responses, he said.

With many power lines criss-crossing backyards in Morristown, Councilman Robert Iannaccone suggested JCP&L should re-route these lines along streets for easier access.

Iannaccone also recommended involving insurance companies in any talks about tree maintenance, a preventive approach he estimated would be about “200 times” cheaper than paying out damage claims after storms.

This vehicle was in a caravan of utiity repair trucks that rolled into Morristown from Sumter, SC, on March 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
This vehicle was in a caravan of utility repair trucks that rolled into Morristown from Sumter SC, on March 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

When residents’ memories of week-long power outages fade, however, so too might their focus on trees, hinted Councilman Stefan Armington. He recalled post-Sandy complaints about overly aggressive tree-culling by JCP&L.

Yet if trees are Public Enemy No. 1, underground lines, at a cost of $1 million per mile, are no guarantee of uninterrupted power, either, according to Councilwoman Alison Deeb. Half her neighborhood lost electricity this month despite subterranean lines, she said.

Deeb said JCP&L deserves scrutiny about whether it has lived up to conditions imposed after Sandy in 2012. Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered the BPU to investigate the utility’s response; public hearings are coming, Dougherty said.

To its credit, he said, JCP&L invested millions to upgrade a local power substation and Morristown’s underground network in the business district after Tropical Storm Irene and Sandy.

Even so, Morristown has become a land of emergency generators, in an era of increasingly violent winter and summer storms, Dougherty said.

“I don’t remember growing up with generators,” he said. “What have we become?”

IN OTHER BUSINESS: SNOW, CROSSWALKS AND LETTERS

In other storm related news… the town has not yet calculated the costs of downtown snow removal for last Saturday’s Morris County St. Patrick’s Parade, or for the ongoing town-wide clearing of the 18-inch snowfall of March 7, 2018, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick.

Pedestrian safety was another stormy issue. When resident Bill Byrne warned that pedestrians who obey crossing signals may get killed by motorists making turns through crosswalks, Deeb sided with motorists.

“Doesn’t a car that has a signal, with a green light, have the right of way in a crosswalk?” she asked, recounting a close call on her drive to the meeting. “What about my rights as a driver?”

Things heated up again over the council appointment of Alton Robinson to the Morristown Housing Authority, a quasi-independent agency overseeing 470 public housing apartments and 184 Section 8 rental vouchers. The authority’s director, who died last fall, launched a federal probe of the organization in 2015. No outcome has been announced.

Deeb backed Cecilia Hale for the unpaid appointment, and tried to postpone a council vote, citing a letter she obtained that was addressed to the Mayor.

Councilwoman Alison Deeb shows letter addressed to Mayor, March 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Councilwoman Alison Deeb shows letter addressed to Mayor, March 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The correspondence from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development referred to an upcoming HUD meeting with the Mayor to discuss, among other things, procedures for appointing and removing housing authority commissioners, “substandard performance” and a “potential lawsuit,” Deeb said.

She did not disclose how she got the document.

Asking why the Mayor had not shared it with the council, Deeb contended the vote should wait until council members could see this “extremely valuable resource” pertaining to public housing residents.

“These are really poor people,” Deeb said.

“No they’re not,” shot back Councilwoman Hiliari Davis. “I’m actually one of them.”

The letter was not shared because it responded to questions the Mayor sent to HUD, and was a mayoral matter, said Dougherty and Assistant Town Attorney Elnardo Webster II.  

Proceeding with a vote, without first seeing the letter, nonetheless would be “in furtherance of the letter’s objectives,” the lawyer advised the council.

Robinson’s appointment was unanimous, except for Deeb’s abstention.

Also noteworthy: Morristown’s first African American church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The Mayor proclaimed October as Bethel A.M.E. Month. Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. asked for help persuading Evergreen Cemetery to allow a tombstone for church founder Frances Jane Raye, buried “in shame” in an unmarked grave.

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1 COMMENT

  1. “To its credit, he said, JCP&L invested millions to upgrade a local power substation and Morristown’s underground network in the business district after Tropical Storm Irene and Sandy.”

    Let’s remember this is only after they blew up our library and various manholes around town. This was not done as regular maintenance, it was in response to some seriously neglected infrastructure. Same old story with JCP&L – paying investor dividends is the number one priority, not customer service, not maintaining a safe and reliable infrastructure.

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