Mayoral Candidates Respond to Questions

Three candidates are vying to be Highland Park’s next mayor. The winner will serve a one-year term to fulfill former Mayor Minkoff’s term, expiring 1-1-16. The candidates are:

  • Herbert Gross (Republican)
  • Gayle Brill Mittler (Democrat, Incumbent, appointed in June 2014)
  • Bruno Oriti (Independent)

The responses appear in alphabetical order according the candidate’s last name. As of the publishing of this article Mr. Gross had not responded to our request. We will update the article if he does so.

Question 1: What motivated you to run for mayor of Highland Park? I assume that your motivation was fueled by your vision of how you wanted to improve/make a difference in the community. So please in your answer elaborate on the area (s) that in your opinion need change/improvement and then delineate one or more specific initiatives that you would like to implement to build community and/or a build a more fulfilling life for all the residents of Highland Park.

My name is Herbert Gross, I am a veteran, member of the American Legion and Veterans Of Foreign Wars (VFW), and am very active in all veterans affairs. I am a long time resident of Highland Park. Over the years, I have seen the quality of life decline in Highland Park, and I want to try and reverse that trend.

Property taxes are so high that they are stifling growth and driving people out of Highland Park. I used to be a home owner, but had to sell my house due to the extremely high property taxes, and am now a tenant. One of my motivations for running for mayor is to take steps to reduce our property taxes, and to try and prevent others from having to sell their houses, and from suffering the same fate as I did.

Every resident of Highland Park must also be treated with dignity and respect,
and I intend to make this town once again a place where all residents will be proud to live. I feel that residents were not treated in that way during the recent sidewalks fiasco. The way that those people were treated was terrible. As I sat in the courtroom while many Highland Park residents were being called and fined up to $2000, this annoyed me very much, and I vowed to do something to stop it.

One reason why I am running is this:As your next mayor of Highland Park, I pledge to every resident, I will never again allow, and never again permit, any resident to be insulted, humiliated, or abused, to be brought into a courtroom and fined up to $2000 for their sidewalks, because of something that the resident had nothing to do with.
Since the abutting sidewalks  are owned by the Borough, and the damage was largely caused by trees, that are also owned by the Borough, I feel that the Borough should be the ones to pay for sidewalk repairs or replacement. A group of residents should not have had to sue the Borough to stop the sidewalks persecution against residents. I pledge to you, as your next mayor, that the sidewalks vendetta against residents is over.

I also feel that the job of mayor needs to be a full time job, and another motivation of mine is to intend to serve as a full time mayor with the same salary.

Lastly, I intend to ask for more feedback from residents. I want to increase communication with residents. I will assure the rights of every resident to have access to voice their opinions, and for them to be heard, by the mayor and council of Highland Park.

Question 2: How do your background and skills particularly qualify you for the job?

My qualifications are that I am a graduate of Rutgers University, with a degree in Business Administration, and want to put what I learned into practice.

I spent 40 years in the trucking industry, and 20 years in management, which makes me qualified to manage the affairs of the Borough Of Highland Park.


Question 1: What motivated you to run for mayor of Highland Park? I assume that your motivation was fueled by your vision of how you wanted to improve/make a difference in the community. So please in your answer elaborate on the area (s) that in your opinion need change/improvement and then delineate one or more specific initiatives that you would like to implement to build community and/or a build a more fulfilling life for all the residents of Highland Park.

I am running for mayor because I want to preserve this community that instantly felt like home for my husband, Uri, and me when we settled here 30 years ago to raise our two children. Highland Park’s walkability, its tree-lined streets, its downtown, its neighborhood feel, its diversity, and its fine schools were all so compelling to us and continue to be a major draw for the residents of our community. It was here that I raised my family and made very close friendships, and my children went to school here. It is also the place where my husband and I brought our parents to live when they could no longer live alone. Highland Park gave so much to me and my family. I want to give back to the community that has given me so much. It was a natural progression for me from PTO to grass-roots activism to serving on Borough Council and now as Mayor. There are things that I can do as mayor to help maintain and expand those qualities that bring so many of us here in the first place. Through smart downtown development, budget and infrastructure planning, tax stabilization, and attention to residents’ quality of life and community building we can make our home of Highland Park an even better place.

Downtown development—We have an excellent master plan in Highland Park that was developed with broad based community input and provides a blueprint for a robust, economically sustainable downtown. That plan has not yet been fully enacted, but as we emerge out of the Great Recession, we are once again in talks with developers who share our vision for our downtown. It’s time to make our master plan a reality! Developing the downtown is our first, best action to generate revenue, increase services, and broaden housing options for current and new residents, as well as to provide increased support for our local stores and restaurants.

A key component to attracting new businesses and developers is ensuring that our existing downtown is a compelling place to be. Over the last several years, with significant improvements to our streetscape, and with the addition of new public spaces and critical anchor stores, downtown Highland Park is a place where people want to be. It is wonderful to see that level of interest spike in a matter of a few, short years.

Access to and from the Borough is important, too. While we are fortunate to be near mass transit hubs and major roadways, so much of what makes our town tick is every day pedestrian and bicycle mobility. This is why I have negotiated new and brighter lights for our downtown streets and sidewalks from PSEG (at no cost to the borough) that should be in place by the holiday shopping season. We are also negotiating with Rutgers University on providing a jitney between New Brunswick and Highland Park. This effort, in line with our town’s newly awarded “Complete Streets” status, will improve life for our residents, get people out of their cars, and bring more shoppers into our downtown stores and restaurants.

Planning Our Budget and Infrastructure—Proper planning must be the beacon to good development. This is why, when I first became mayor in June I immediately created a new Capital Improvements and Planning Task Force composed of volunteers, who are professionals in their fields, to assess our current needs and advise us of the impact of development on our schools, police and first responders, borough and community services, roads, sewers, and water lines. I have also included members of the school board and district administration to ensure that these needs are covered. I have reached out to the Board of Public Utilities to devise a solar-power back-up plan to keep our municipal buildings and schools open and operating during any potential electrical outage. The Borough must explore alternative sources of power.

Stabilizing Our Taxes—In order to keep Highland Park accessible to families of all economic backgrounds, it is critical that we stabilize taxes by generating new revenue, as well as working with our neighboring governments. I have visited with mayors from surrounding communities to expand shared service agreements in an effort to reduce some of our basic costs and I am proud of the fact that we have enacted a shared service agreement with the Highland Park Public Schools for custodial services. We also share our Housing Authority administrative duties with Woodbridge Township and we have several agreements in the works with Edison and New Brunswick. I am working with our Council Finance Committee to identify additional tax savings and with our state legislators to bring needed state funding back to our Borough.

Providing quality of life for our residents and building community—Through a combination of stabilized taxes, robust services, and additional focus on the needs of our teens and seniors, we can make Highland Park an even better town for our residents. For example:

  • We now have social service professionals working out of our municipal buildings to assist our residents.
  • I recently signed an agreement for Highland Park’s first Habitat for Humanity house, built on former Borough land.
  • I am enhancing and expanding our teen program.
  • We are in the process of creating a Senior Advisory Committee comprised of experienced, retired members of our community who will work with us to improve services and communications.
  • I am committed to promoting our town’s diversity, and our Human Relations Commission is re-energized and hard at work to bring all segments of our community together.
  • We have an active Arts Commission that is responsible for murals and public art. This is critical to our downtown’s appeal and creates identity, promotes arts and culture, and improves commercial property values.
  • I was responsible for creating our successful “Give Back” Park Partners Grant Program which allows residents to present grant proposals in the areas of health and welfare, environmental programs, human relations, safety, and the arts. The program allows all our residents to vote on and select the top five grant ideas. The municipality then awards the winning proposals a grant of $2,000 so these ideas can be turned into realities that will benefit all our residents.
  • I have applied to the County for Open Space funds to preserve undeveloped sections of our municipality.

Question 2: How do your background and skills particularly qualify you for the job?

I have extensive volunteer and public service experience in Highland Park. I have served on Council since 2009 and served as Council President in 2012. Prior to that, I was a founding member of Main Street Highland Park, a board member of the Highland Park Education Foundation, President of the Black History School Challenge Contest Fund (an organization that was created to help make African American history a part of the regular history curriculum in NJ public schools), and National Vice Chair of United Synagogue’s Social Action Committee. My long history of volunteerism, commitment to community, and willingness to take on the responsibilities of a leadership role have taught me how to work with people of different backgrounds and opinions, and at times different needs, in order to build consensus and reach a positive outcome.

Professionally, I created a successful marketing company in 1989, and in 2002 I was proud to move my business into downtown Highland Park. My business weathered the economic ups and downs of those decades and taught me how to be a creative thinker, a problem solver, and that with a little stick-to-itness a solution can be found. This experience is critical to my understanding of the needs of our community’s business owners, and that a successful business district is essential to the long-term economic viability of Highland Park.

Through my professional and community service I have learned the value of, and developed, effective communications skills, and that community input is critical to both identifying and meeting our residents’ needs. I have brought these skills and experiences to the Borough Council and under my stewardship, and through the work of committed volunteers, the Borough has implemented a policy of communications intended to better inform residents of municipal services and programs, as well as to encourage and incorporate resident input. This, ultimately, will produce better results at the decision-making level, from the tax cycle to promoting safe bicycling. This two way communication and regular output of information from the municipality (Enews, Nixle messaging, Highland Park News), and old-school posters on our new, strategically located kiosks keeps our residents informed of upcoming events and emergency information. The flow of information in and out facilitates in-the-moment communications between Borough Hall and our residents.

I not only resided in Highland Park all these years, I LIVE and engage here. This has given me a powerful perspective of what is possible in Highland Park. What’s more, I continue to see residents moving to Highland Park for all the reasons that compelled me and my husband to settle here: close-knit community, good schools, walkable downtown, and access to transportation, beautiful parks, and a diverse, caring community.  I look forward to being part of the efforts to move us forward in the coming years. I hope you will allow me to continue serving as your mayor.


Question 1: What motivated you to run for mayor of Highland Park? I assume that your motivation was fueled by your vision of how you wanted to improve/make a difference in the community. So please in your answer elaborate on the area (s) that in your opinion need change/improvement and then delineate one or more specific initiatives that you would like to implement to build community and/or a build a more fulfilling life for all the residents of Highland Park.

By the time the special election for mayor was announced over the summer, I had lived a life that so clearly taught me that my children and the generations to come were in trouble and the hypocrisy of those privileged to hold governmental power had too often rendered government a tool for our children’s destruction and perpetuation of the mind numbing indifference to the realities they face. So I thought that in Highland Park, I should further join with those who will put justice for all our children first. I see becoming mayor as an effective step in doing just that. The key is that being mayor is a job that first and foremost organizes people and gives them a platform, a commons, on which to perform acts of justice as a community. So my plan is to open the commons to all manner of organizing and action to make a community that clearly is effective in meeting the needs of the generations to come. For me, the main project of becoming mayor is reclaiming the commons from indifference and private financial interests. You do this by first demonstrating to people where effective ideas and plans come from by sharing governmental space with those who seek a justice based and vibrant community. This creates a commons where citizens and those elected to represent them sustain a working relationship but also maintain enough independence so that government always feels the power of citizens. As an example, several years back, my late wife Leigh and our friend and Highland Park treasure, Vickie White, had evolved plans to build a local economy around the exchange of goods and services without involving money. At the time, we came to learn about many such economies with examples all over the world. The key for us was that these economies be maintained outside the private finance system so that they could remain self-sustaining and part of the commons. An economy that serves humanity over corporate interest must be free of the influence of the private finance system that is ravaging people everywhere and limiting the formation of a justice based commons via finance’s privatization of the public domain. A part of the plan was to establish taxi and jitney services within that service based economy. This would aid the flow of people as they interact with one another. The key point here is that the mere provision of taxi or jitney services would have little positive and sustained impact unless they were operating within a commons, a space that is sustained independent of private finance and government regulation that is obliged to perpetuate the influence of private finance over local democratic rule. A transportation system within a service based economy is protected as part of the commons and can be integrated into a variety of people driven initiatives including transportation for the elderly, poor, disabled etc. and can serve the goals those people determine. Such a transportation system would not have to first serve an agenda of private finance or a political party but its sustained presence and people driven goals would clearly help sustain a cross section of businesses and cultural ventures vital to our community.

This example illustrates how local government must first orient itself to creating a commons that the citizenry can meaningfully and independently inhabit. Citizens are not pets to be cared for or meat to be consumed by government. They are equals in government. That equality in power requires a commons that is always there for citizenry to do its life’s work independent of those elected or who control private finance. A mayor must clear the way for the commons, engage democratically with citizens in the commons, support citizen plans established in the commons, and keep other interests from taking over the commons. Now take the example of the taxi/jitney system that will be funded by private means, grants, or tax dollars. Can this be sustained? Who must it serve to remain funded? Who owns it? Who determines when and how it operates? All of these are interlinked and what makes them serve the people is our insistence that the project remain part of the commons.

My goals as mayor evolve around organizing citizens to meet their own agenda for government and to organize local actions to meet the needs of our children and grandchildren as they face the years ahead especially in terms of climate change, the next crisis in our financial system, the privatization of the education system and the commons overall, the militarization of society, and emergency preparedness. Running through all this is building relationships among us that preserve culture and coax cultural expression into every aspect of community life. Candidates can provide a laundry list of social and environmental justice agendas and speak in generalities about how these were or will be accomplished, but people know their own experiences with what our mayor and borough council have done and will actually do. People also know what they feel we are leaving to next generation.

Question 2: How do your background and skills particularly qualify you for the job?

Throughout my life, I had lived by the notion that I can choose to live my life by standards that I set based on the best that I was taught and experienced. For example, I learned that as a Christian, you can live by the standards set by Dr. King. I grew up in an era of racism, in a town known for its racism. I grew up poor, raised by my single mother. I also grew up in a tradition of a family business on my father’s side with strong ethnic and family bonds. Like many, I grew up between the cracks of society seeing first hand the impacts of the feminization of poverty, and the wickedness and violence perpetrated in the name of male privilege, class privilege, and racism. I was taught outside the lines of what many white heterosexual boys were taught but encouraged to move within the safety and privilege those lines might provide. In the cracks, I learned that hypocrisy is the norm of the white privileged society we all aspired to enter. Thanks to the love, dedication, and courage of those who loved me, I also learned that working for justice is a prize that can redeem you from a life of hypocrisy because only justice can set the stage for true love of self and others which is what I believe we all hope will result from our relationships to one another. Starting as that child between the cracks and now into my fifth decade, I remain clear that justice and human dignity are the keys and most else is distraction which perpetuates indifference and human suffering. All along the journey, I also learned that others knew this first and better than me, but I could learn, be courageous and be useful in building a world that all of our children can thrive in.

I have been involved in social justice and environmental causes in Highland Park and beyond. These have included successful community efforts to preserve Buck Woods as open space, establishing community gardens at the local public schools, co-organizing a trip so that local students could directly perform rebuilding work with The Common Ground Collective and attend a regional education summit in New Orleans post hurricane Katrina. I have spearheaded along with a coalition of veterans and social justice organizations, legislation to prevent NJ National Guard troops from deployed to Iraq, and worked with multiple other peace and justice efforts through local and regional social justice organizations. Most of my community activism has been done in association with my late wife Leigh Davis and our dear friend, Vickie White. In the aftermath of losing both Leigh and Vickie, I have gone on to establish and run the Prairiefyre Time Exchange and, along with my children and the RCHP community, established Catering for a Cause, which benefits local immigration justice efforts through the church. Beyond Highland Park, I am a member of The Public Banking Institute, a national organization, and its local working organization in NJ seeking to establish a statewide public banking system.

I have dedicated myself to Highland Park and its people and have joined in coordinating efforts to mobilize our community to accomplish matters of economic and social justice that are often neglected by traditional governmental institutions. I know how to ignite the tremendous untapped human potential to make our community strong and vibrant by organizing people to do loving and necessary work that has little funding to start. By becoming mayor, I will help bring government in further collaboration with what we as citizens hope and need to build as our future.

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