I live in a little village outside of New York City called South Orange, New Jersey. This is an interview with our de facto mayor Alex Torpey, Village President. Alex’s time in office took him through the path of Hurricane Sandy, among other environmental issues. Curious to know more, I offered up some questions to Alex, and he agreed to share his thoughts.
Maia: What inspires you?
To elaborate: I feel like this can be a challenge in certain situations, but I tend to see things in what they could be. It’s that way with people, with places, with ideas. And even though I’m by no means optimistic about things which need to be fixed, I’ve been called an idealist because I believe, and see, the ideal ways things could, or should, be, and seeing that is what inspires me.
Maia: How do you keep yourself upbeat for work?
Alex: That’s a tough one. To be perfectly honest, it’s a roller coaster. There are some days that are very difficult – not just in my own difficulty with a particular topic or issue, which is usually invigorating, but difficult more so means when there seems to be a loss of momentum on a larger scale towards progress, or when something turns out not to be what it seemed as though it was. Little victories help a little, support and inspiration from those to me help, but probably the biggest things are
having the chance to take a step back out of the present challenges and see again the potential in a more clear fashion
– and help remind myself what I’m working towards. Good music also helps.
Maia: What are some unique advantages to being a younger leader?
Alex: Well at a young age, there are a million hurdles, but there are no doubt advantages too. I don’t have any real indebtedness to anything being done any particular way, and
I think approaching problems with a pretty legitimately open mind allows you to put pieces together that others may miss
because they’re seeing the same thing, but through a different lens that may not allow them to clearly see the entirety or a problem or the connections between things.
Maia: How did Hurricane Sandy test and change your approach to emergency management?
It was an unbelievable test.
Probably the only other times in my life I’ve been that pressed were during the final days of my campaign (second place) and several other emergencies in town that place distant third places for the most part.
But it solidified what I studied in my masters program at John Jay, what I’ve learned at the Rescue Squad, and what I’ve discussed with people who have been doing it longer than I have. There’s a decisiveness in emergency management that is required to even give you a chance of meeting your challenge successfully that is often absent in other areas of government where the focus is on an egalitarian process that often is incredibly time consuming and slow, where people are often afraid to make a decision as they might have to take responsibility for it. Hurricane Sandy was the opposite – and not only did I learn a lot about myself, about the process of communication, organizing resources, from supplies to human capital, but
(Hurricane Sandy) taught me the value of a committed and unified workforce,
as our team in South Orange performed so unbelievably well. It also taught me where major areas of systemic incompetence exist – for example with the utility companies and our entire regulatory structure around those entities. Like I’ve said, I’m no optimist about any of that, but that was even eye-opening for me – just how ill-prepared the organizations and people in the organizations, mostly at the higher levels (not the individual workers who worked fiercely hard) were for that kind of emergency or anything like it. Something we’ve all done a terrible job in following up with since then, as very few changes have been made to ensure a better response the next time around, and I don’t see any way for any of that to change until the leadership adopts a more innovative mindset with respect to the service they provide.
Maia: What learning will you take from your job as Village President into a future job?
Alex: It’s honestly too much to list. This has been and still is a learning experience beyond all else. Every day I find myself learning things about myself, about government, about politics, about New Jersey, about South Orange. But one thing in particular that I find most interesting, that is one of many, can serve as an example, is my interest in
how to get people from simply living in their environment without engaging with it, to understanding and being able to genuinely interact with their environment, to going to understanding that they have the real ability to change it,
if they so desire, to then actually taking a position of leadership that allows them to do so. Figuring out that community and leadership building process has been on my mind since high school, throughout college, very much now – trying to find a way to understand it, and move people up that ladder to the point of having real agency over shaping their future and surroundings is a component to real participatory democracy we have yet to figure out, and that every day data and information is being fed in through my experiences to help me get a better handle on that much bigger question. I think there’s a bunch that I’ve obviously learned as it relates to time management, human/team organizing, communications and I guess, something I have some difficulty with, but social/political dynamics. I tend to expect, because it’s where I’m coming from, that everyone’s reason for participating in this process is just to help make it better, but I’ve found that more people have egos in the game than that, and knowing that, how to identify it, and how to work with/around that, are lessons that will always stick with me.
Maia: What do you think about the role of public and private approaches to regional distribution of services, especially in regard to drinking water?
Generally speaking, everything in New Jersey is far too hyper-localized.
Things cost a lot because there is a huge repetition of services that don’t need to exist. There are a hundred ways we could make regional cooperatives a bigger part of governance, but that’s going to take leadership from the state level to incentive those types of things, and so far, we really haven’t seen people step up to that challenge.
Maia: What does your ideal municipality look like?
I love the idea of certain types of regional administrative responsibility sharing, with local delivery and identity.
We don’t have to conglomerate everything and strip local identities out of government, but there are areas of government that people don’t really interact with quite as much, that would be much more efficient if they were done at larger levels – tax assessing and collecting, insurance purchasing, redevelopment, higher education, public safety communications, infrastructure improvement and much more. This is different, from for example, a library, or senior services, or police, where there is required direct local contact between the service provider and the citizen.
The idea, for example, of creating a regional cooperative that helps volunteer EMS agencies do all the administrative stuff that no one likes to do anyway, budgeting, fundraising, purchasing, insurance, capital investments, certifications and trainings, etcetera, but allow each individual agency with a local identity and understanding actually deliver the services is a model I’d like to see explored more, and it’s a better use of everyone’s skill set than what we have. It was my master’s thesis at John Jay.
There’s a middle ground between everything being run by people who don’t get local attributes, and things being so local-heavy that it makes regional economic planning, for example, incredibly difficult to do.
We don’t do a great job talking about this, which is a shame, because if done right, it would solve a lot of the problems that I think we all would generally agree exist in government.
Maia: What about your ideal relationship between municipalities and larger governing regions?
There should be much closer relationships. So much is put on local governments to do, and so little support is provided.
We have no control over the utility companies, yet it’s our police, rescue squad, our shelters, our 911 dispatchers, or residents, everything, that is sucked into providing a response when things go wrong. Either that type of support needs to come from up top, or we need to be able to own our own municipal power company, for example, but right now it’s split in a way that severely burdens the municipal governments and the communities they serve where we basically have the worst of both worlds because the institutions that run it are in a fairly perpetuating cycle that don’t really net much innovation or change.
Maia: What can you teach us about multi-generational leadership and governance?
Alex: At the end of the day, I think you can boil down leaders to two categories, which is ridiculously over simplistic, but worth doing for a second to think about this question. There are people who are doing it, whatever it is, because they love their communities. They stay awake at night dreaming about how to do their job better, how to make peoples’ lives better, dreading decisions that negatively impact people, and generally are consumed with the idea of using their positions to help people, with everything else being secondary, often including their families, social life, income, health, etc. They don’t care who suggests an idea, if it’s a good one. They don’t care for anything in return for doing something, in fact the idea of indebtedness probably makes them nervous, and they aren’t trying to institutionalize themselves into their position for the sake of accumulating power.
Then there are people who just don’t do that. Maybe they did once, maybe they never did. But the bottom line is that for many, the position they are in is, or has become the ends, not the means to a better end. And our two-party system that has failed to create the necessary foundation for a representative democracy (and informed and participatory citizenry) encourages that. I think many people who have fallen into this type of leadership never meant to, but rather are forced to, because of whom they are indebted to. This is the majority of leadership in government, especially at state and federal levels, and I think it’s easy to see it doesn’t work. So little is getting done, especially in Congress, it’s embarrassing. And
I think the only way that will change is if people with a different idea of what leadership is occupy those positions.
And most of the things that seem like they would make people better at it – independence, a value of diversity, less interest in partisan affiliation, less interest in a “career” in politics – things like that, so many of those appear to be value that are much more prevalent in younger generations. So I think there’s a lot of potential there, but there’s a lot of work to do to walk people down that line, or up that ladder that I mentioned earlier so that they realize that they don’t have to be governed, but that they can do the governing.
Maia: What is your hope for the future of South Orange?
South Orange has such a bright future.
I have to save some of these numbers for my State Of The Village address, but the amount of economic investment we have had in town and will continue to have is going to not only take the downtown to another level, but it’s going to provide real tax relief over the next couple years. We’ll continue cultivating an incredible community that will attract smart, interesting and diverse people, and I think
South Orange will become one of the most sought-after places to live in the metro NYC area.
Every year, crime has gone down, and the tax increases have gone down, and economic investment has skyrocketed, and investment in IT has grown, and more people are involved and participatory than they ever been in our history – it’s an amazing story of what can happen when a governing body works together to engage the community in progress.
Maia: What are you excited to try next?
Alex: I plan to spend some time abroad, most likely in East Africa, for several months working with some community development organizations and studying governance and community building. There are a lot of amazing things happening elsewhere in the world, and there are some lessons that we can be sharing, and a whole that we can learn too.
I’m excited to see more of the world, and to do whatever I can to help connect dots that we previously disconnected.