By Benny Sun
In the 2020 election for the Bernards Township Committee, there are two Democratic candidates: Jon Sandler and Dr. Sophia Chadda. Jon is a lifelong resident of New Jersey and attorney in the Commercial Litigation practice group of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland Perretti, LLP in Morristown since 2007, has lived in Bernards Township since 2015. Dr. Sophia Chadda has lived in Bernards Township for over 20 years and, with her husband, Dr. Konstantine Trichas, raised her three children here. She has been practicing as a board-certified periodontist for 20 years and established her thriving dental practice on Stonehouse Road in Basking Ridge in 2004. Here is the audio transcription of the interview that transpired.
Q: What is your background and what moment made you realize that you wanted to run for local office?
Chadda: I was never involved in local politics until last year. I told myself that there are the same old people all the time. And we need different voices. We need different and diverse people. We need leadership that is transparent, inclusive, and innovative. I kept watching our property taxes increase and our home values continue to decrease. I also said to myself that we have seen the same Republican party running the show for the longest time, except two Democrats in the last forty or fifty years. We don’t know what kind of problem we’re gonna have in the future, but what we do know are what values our leaders are gonna have, so that’s important to me. I want to ensure that Bernards Township remains a place that people want to live, work, shop, and do business. We need people that have a fresh perspective, a different perspective. I have a science background, so I thought that it would be helpful as well to bring some evidence-based knowledge to the township community.
Sandler: I am a Jersey guy, born and raised. I grew up in Bergen County. My wife and I moved to Bernards Township five years ago. I am a practicing attorney and part of my practice involves representing municipalities in outside litigation as special counsel. So I’m uniquely qualified in that I’ve got an understanding of how to assist municipalities with hedging risk and advising with local and state ordinances and regulation, as it relates to all sorts including affordable housing. I’ve negotiated with developers in litigations with municipalities. So I see both sides of it, and that perspective brings something unique to the Township Committee. I’ve been a guiding voice to help reverse difficult legal landscapes. This is also the first time I’ve ever run for a local office. I have been a district representative to the Somerset County Democratic Committee for a few years. I’ve realized that I love Bernards Township. Bernards Township has suffered lapses of leadership over the past five years, and it’s been disappointing. And these last new leadership have led to senseless and expensive litigation which has not only cost us in the pocketbook but also soiled our good name. We've been splashed across the news, local and even federally as a result of poor, decision making and poor leadership that has been displayed by a township committee. What happens with that the same core group of people who have been in charge of the town for many, many years. There's a certain complacency that comes with that. There's a certain paternalistic attitude that “We know best. Residents don't worry about what we're doing. We'll take care of it”. It just got to a point where I couldn't watch it anymore without at least throwing my hat in the ring to say no. We need to start looking at things differently. We need new people involved, people they're gonna look to experts to make sure that when we proceed going forward, we're doing so in the best interest of the town, not just maintaining the status quo.
Q: What do you think is the main local level issue facing young people and Bernards Township that you plan on fixing specifically?
Chadda: We've got to address our mental health crisis and the increasing anxiety and depression. Especially the unprecedented amount of stress that high school students are facing. And I talked about this last year when I ran. This year, we've been talking about COVID and businesses because that's been taken over the whole discourse, for the most part. But last year, when COVID-19 wasn't around, we could talk about that being a huge issue. And I remember, last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published this study indicating that suicide levels are at their highest level in 20 years in youth. And they attributed that to two things, social media and the opioid epidemic. Wellness needs to be a priority in our community. And that wellness issue, that mental health issues encompasses a lot of things because a lot of things that in general I don’t think John and I are facing. We didn't have social media growing up, so our every move wasn't documented or every failure. We didn’t have to worry about likes and how we looked at all times. So there are a lot more challenges that the teens are facing.
Sandler: No, I couldn't agree more. The stress levels that young people face today are so much greater than anything that I saw as a kid. The pressure to get good grades, the competitive nature of the admissions process. The requirement that you have to be good at everything but specialize in one thing has created a huge amount of anxiety amongst our young people. College counselors say that the kids around that time have more anxiety than they’ve ever seen before, to the point where they worry about their health and safety. I'm 40 years old and I didn't go to high school that long ago, but the pressure just wasn't there. Social media is adding so much to that level of anxiety. People put on social media only the best of what's going on in their life, and they paint a rosy picture of everything going on. And so it automatically makes everyone who sees these posts feel as though they're not enough and they're not good enough. That clear anxiety contributes to drug addiction. That contributes to issues that need to be addressed. The Bernards Township has the municipal alliance, whose mission is to talk about drug addiction. But as council committee members we can work with the Board of Ed to ensure that there are places where our kids can go and talk to those that can be compassionate. That can help them to reverse these difficult waters so that their mental health is a priority.
Q: I know during the last discussion that there was mention about having a youth advisory board. So I was wondering if you could elaborate more on that issue or how exactly that would work.
Chadda: There have been some complaints or concerns about the lack of activities for teens in town. That was why I recommended having a teen advisory task force. I know the library has some activities. Parks and Recs have activities, but let's say you're not into sports. You like chess or you like drama. There should be stuff for everybody. Some people are oriented towards athletics, and there are teams. There could be more recreational activities. It doesn't have to be so competitive. So it should be some sort of task force that incorporates different ideas and suggestions. There aren't a lot of places for teams to congregate in town. If we have a place like more coffee shops, dessert places that would help. As far as teen involvement goes, it's so important for teens to get involved in this election cycle. This is the second most important election of our lifetime. The most important time was the election of 1860 where we were gonna go to civil war, determining the future of America. So this election is so important because you have two competing visions for the future of this country. It's important for everyone if they can vote to be involved in the political process. So I would just say to all teens out there if you're 18 please exercise your right to vote. It's just of paramount importance.
Sandler: Also, there was a discussion at the committee level about whether or not to create the Human Rights Advisory Committee. And the purpose of that committee was to study biases in town and to work towards creating a welcoming, open environment for all of our residents, regardless of sexual orientation or identity or race or gender or religion, or able-bodied. There was some pushback at the township committee level initially, but the voices of the people that came out in the community were young people. I was so overwhelmed to see the support and to see young people coming to the township committee members, making public comments on the record, participating in local government. It's through the voice of the young folks that came out and made their feelings known that ultimately the town committee was swayed. And now there is a diversity and inclusion committee that was voted on just the other day. I think that shows the importance of community engagement and particularly the engagement of young people. Because I'll tell you that if there wasn't much significant backlash towards the township committee and in favor of creating this diversity and inclusion, there's no way it would have gone through. I saw young teenagers come out and participate in local government and tell everyone what they believed in and it worked, so that was nice to see.
Q: That leads to my next question about the diversity inclusion committee. I was wondering if you had any examples or stories about the hostility towards inclusion in Bernards Township.
Sandler: I don't personally thankfully. I didn't grow up here. I moved here five years ago, and we have never felt anything other than welcome by everyone. One of the things that occurred at the township many meetings were stories of young folks that did experience unfortunate situations here, including someone, dressed up in a way that is derogatory towards Mexicans during Mexican Day. There were articles in the newspaper a couple of years ago about Swastikas that were found around town. There were some flyers for white supremacist organizations posted around towns. These things have happened in Bernards Township.
Chadda: I have never really experienced anything like personally. Last night, in the last township committee meeting, some community members put forward the notion that there's no institutional racism which I was surprised and shocked to hear because I just think that’s very tone-deaf. This Human Advisory Board is so necessary because there are so many people in our community that feel they are different. And as Bernards Township is becoming increasingly diverse, our approach to governance has to evolve, and our township committee members should work together to ensure that everybody feels welcome and heard. So this committee is going to be 11 people. They're going to report to the township committee twice a year. It's going to include the police, clergy, school administrator, and person trained in diversity and inclusion. So, I look forward to that committee, and I think it's long overdue.
Q: Going on to the issue of businesses and Basking Ridge and Bernards Township. We all know that a pandemic is bad for business. What are your plans to promote local business spending while ensuring safety during the pandemic?
Sandler: I'm not sure if you follow our campaign on Facebook, but we did the 30-day shop Local Challenge with Sophia and me. For 30 days over the summer, we patronize the local business every single day. And the purpose of that was to encourage residents to get out there and support the local businesses, particularly, during COVID -19. I think our small businesses are hurting in such a significant way. It's so critical to support them anyway we can. And one way to support them is by shopping locally. But another thing that the town committee can do: ease ordinances and zoning restrictions that allow for outdoor dining and outdoor shopping. Maybe you have a street fair, maybe you close off downtown for a day and let the merchants put their goods outside to be sold. So you get these businesses an opportunity to make some money, and will also operate within the confines of what's been put in place at the state level. If and when Sophie and I get elected, the COVID pandemic is not as severe, although I certainly don't take that for granted. But if it's not, you can be certain that we're gonna work hard to make sure that you do everything we can for local businesses to safely drive shoppers and foot traffic to these businesses to spend their money.
Chadda: We proposed creating an economic development commission to stimulate our economy. And that would comprise all businesses. Everything from large Verizon to small mom and pop shops, and to come up with strategic immediate short term and long term goals to stimulate our economy and revitalize our business districts. They were already suffering before and I'm sure they're suffering even more now. As John said, we did our 30-day shop local campaign. Our goal was to encourage people rather than going to Amazon straight away or big box stores to shop locally. Because without small business, the local economy will fail, and we need our local money to work to preserve our property values to help with our tax base. It's very important for keeping our taxes at a reasonable level to support our local businesses and develop the local economy.
Q: So you mentioned about stabilizing property taxes and just making taxes generally lower. And also, another part of your campaign has been just increasing more money for maintaining infrastructure. So I was wondering, what is something that our town spends too much on where it's being wasted right now?
Chadda: Well, I'll say this on the 65% of our budget. About 90 million goes to our school. I think about two million was in the library, but the school board is the one that has control over that budget. So the town committee has no control over the school budget. That's why our taxes are so high. That is the main reason. But what we can do is like we mentioned just now, it's trying to stimulate our local economy to broaden in our tax states so that the burden doesn't fall so squarely on the homeowner's shoulder. So that is something that we can do.
Sandler: There has been money that has been spent poorly, relating to litigation, relating to certain studies. I know that they did that study in Pleasant Valley Park about looking at a little trickle of water that cost a ton of money. It just comes down looking at the budget, sharpening the pencil, and figuring out where we can spend our money most wisely. Because at the end of the day, as council committee members, you're acting as a shepherd of the town’s people's money, and you should make sure that it's not being wasted and that you're spending as wisely as you can and any savings you're able to attain to the diligence or efficiency should go back in the taxpayer's pocket, one way or another.
Chadda: The Township committee has wasted money on medical benefits for part-time elected officials and PR consultants. So those are unnecessary expenditures that can be, and there have been consulting projects that the county has spent tens of thousands of dollars that didn’t need to be that way.
Q: Nationally, we've been more polarized than now than any other year in American history. Do you think locally there are major differences in ideology between our two partisan committees and how will you ensure to create policies and ideas that everyone likes?
Chadda: Local politics is related to national politics. If you're a supporter of Donald Trump, then you follow and believe in his line of thinking. That can be problematic. We need leaders that have empathy. We need leaders that will promote American values of diversity and unity, cohesiveness. That's important. To look at who our local leaders are, we need leaders that have values. That's incredibly important. We don't know what problems our community is gonna face, but what we can know is what values elected officials have. And if you are supporting this current administration. then you are complicit with what Donald Trump is doing.
Sandler: There are certainly some ideological differences between the council committee members on the Democratic side, solely being Joan Harris and four Republican Town Committee members. But it's so important that you're able to reach across the aisle and to work with everyone because, at the end of the day, that's what every county community member should be interested in. The primary interest should be: What's in the best interest of Bernards Township? These are local issues. Now all politics are local politics. That much is true. But we can defer on national policy. We can differ on the larger national political issues. But ultimately, when it comes to local issues, there's no reason why we can't work together: Democrat, Republican, Independent. To put forth, in Bernards Township policies and ordinances and regulations that are in the best interests of folks, no matter what their political affiliation is. The Democrats have been either not represented at all on the township committee or have been vastly outnumbered. We've had to be willing to work with our Republican counterparts. Even if Sophia and I win, I think Sophia and I can commit to working with the Republican Committee members and not just forcing ideas through. That it has to be a partnership among the five members, regardless of the party affiliation.
Chadda: No matter who gets elected, we have to work together, reach across the aisle. Otherwise, we just have gridlock. Nothing gets done. And ultimately, we live in the town. We love this town, and we want what's best for the town. So absolutely we will work with our Republican colleagues for the betterment of our town.
Sandler: One of the things that's interesting that I've found about running local policies. You're running against your neighbors. You're running against your kids' friends. We don't get that on the national level. We have to go to Shoprite and we see our political opponents and we see people that are part of their campaigns. Our kids are friends with their kids and it's so important that we keep this race civil and cordial to the issues. Because these are our neighbors, and regardless of what happens in November, they're gonna continue to be our neighbors. And that's in my mind what makes local politics very unique.
Q: Just generally outside the election. What is something unique that you like about Bernards Township? And why is it that you love this town so much?
Chadda: Bernards Township is just the most picturesque town you’ll ever see. Their school districts are top-notch. We have a great quality of life here. It's a wonderful place to raise a family and to have a business.
Sandler: I echo the sentiments. Bernards Township is a beautiful town. It's also strategically located. It's so commutable, no matter where you work. And I think that's what makes it unique. we got 78. You've got 287. You've got two train stations which are direct lines to the city, and you get that accessibility with the picturesque nature of the town, the beautiful foliage. The people here are really, truly exceptional. I grew up in Bergen County, and then I lived in Jersey City during law school and so my life before here was so congested with everything close together and people on top of one. Bernards Township is such a beautiful community where there's so much green, so much space. I think it's just a wonderful place to raise a family. I love the fact that my kids in the public schools here we've had nothing but a wonderful experience. Thrilled to welcome a newborn a little over a month ago and get her involved locally as well as soon as she's old enough. So I think it's just a wonderful, wonderful town.
To listen to the interview in its entirety, here is the link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VtLBttzjDE8HRhJnS1rz_c_ivDHU1hOy/view