Three candidates are running for election Nov. 6 to a one-year unexpired term on West Windsor council.
Incumbent Jyotika Bahree, who was appointed in January to fill the seat vacated by Hemant Marathe when he was elected mayor, is being challenged by Yan Mei Wang and Yingchao “YZ” Zhang.
Both challengers ran unsuccessfully in last year’s election—Wang for mayor and Zhang for council.
Jyotika Bahree, 44, has lived in the Estates at Princeton Junction with her husband Avinash Agarwal for 11 years. They have three children who attend the WW-P school district.
In June 2017, Bahree was appointed to fill the last six months of the council seat vacated when Peter Mendonez resigned from council.
When that term expired at the end of the year, Bahree was again appointed by council to fill the unexpired seat that was left open when Hemant Marathe was elected Mayor. The seat is up for election this November due to the length of time left in the term.
Bahree holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Lady Shriram College, New Delhi, India, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India.
She previously worked in market research at Keybank, in Cleveland Ohio, and sales and business development at ICI, in Mumbai, India.
In addition to serving as council liaison to the West Windsor Parking Authority and the WW-P school board, she has also been involved with the West Windsor Zoning Board, Maurice Hawk Book Fair Committee and American Red Cross.
Yan Mei Wang, 45, has lived in West Windsor for more than three years with her husband Je-Luen Li—two years at the Mews at Princeton Junction and more than a year in Berrien city.
She holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles.
She has worked as a physicist at Princeton University, was a professor at Washington University and a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University in biophysics. She has served as a member of the West Windsor Human Relations Council.
Yingchao “YZ” Zhang, 55, has lived in West Windsor since 2000 with his wife, Dr. Fong Shu in the West Windsor Estates development.
He holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Science and Technology of China, and was a PhD candidate at the Physics Institute of Chinese Science Academy in Beijing before he came to America for graduate school in 1989.
He earned a PhD in high energy nuclear physics in 1995, and went on to Columbia University to become a researcher/postdoc.
Zhang was the chief architect for CrossFlow Software Inc., a principal sales engineer and then the director of sales engineering for NetScout Systems, and senior network consultant at International Network Services working at Morgan Stanley.
He is a member of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Technology Committee, a board member for Friends of West Windsor Senior Center, a founding board member for United Chinese Americans, and a board member/president of the Central Jersey Chinese American Association.
Zhang served on the WW-P school board between 2015 and 2017, was an advisory board member for the West Windsor Arts Council, and board chair of the Huaxia Chinese School at Plainsboro.
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The News posed five issue-related questions to the candidates. Their answers appear below.
1Why do you feel you are the best candidate for council, and what differentiates you from the other candidates?
Bahree: In dealing with municipal budgeting and land use issues, experience counts, and I am the only candidate with direct experience as a member of council.
As a councilwoman for about a year and a half, I have researched and voted on many critical issues that directly impact the quality of life of West Windsor residents, including our township budget, affordable housing, road improvements, open space and school safety. I am an independent thinker and am not involved in partisan politics—this allows me to remain focused on vital township issues.
Community service has always been a meaningful part of my life. Be it the American Red Cross or the school PTA, the West Windsor Zoning Board or the township council, it gives me considerable satisfaction to give back to the community that my family and I are a part of.
I have spearheaded a vaping ordinance, which will soon be introduced in council, to combat the major vaping problem in our schools. I have also been actively involved in efforts to promote sustainable practices such as increasing the use of recycling at township events.
An undergraduate degree in economics, an MBA degree and subsequent work experience in business development and market research have equipped me with business and analytical skills that I leverage to be an effective and successful council member.
Wang: Candidates should be judged by their accomplishments and their proposals’ viability for West Windsor, regardless of prior office experience. In three years, based on 2,000 West Windsor families’ concerns, I have led efforts to solve/initiate seven West Windsor problems/programs, taken eight infrastructure and transportation training courses, and communicated with regional officials—all for identifying proven successful measures to lower our taxes and strengthen our community.
Example measures: 1) preserve farmlands to prevent a 20 percent tax hike; 2) preserve roads to save $5 million/year; and 3) introduce deer control to improve road safety and public health, at no cost.
My opponents, however, are different. I have seen little community-improving initiatives in my opponents beyond routine voting when in office.
In fact, Jyotika Bahree voted for a 4.5 percent property tax hike the first year on council. Besides, they appear to vote along prevailing political forces, putting politics ahead of the interests of West Windsor residents.
Zhang: Having worked in technology and business for 22 years, I am uniquely qualified to promote business development for West Windsor to increase commercial presence and tax income. I have been working with Mercer County Community College and the Princeton Chamber of Commerce (as a member of its technology committee) to promote local entrepreneurship and startups.
Many of my friends, my contacts and West Windsor residents work in technology and seek to start companies in artificial intelligence and machine learning. I am hosting a forum on these fast-growing fields to encourage these new businesses to locate in West Windsor.
Having served as a board member for the WW-P school district for the last three years, I am the only candidate with elected public service experience with a proven record of listening to public input and making sound judgment to strike a balance between improving the quality of education and the social emotional health of our students.
I’m the strongest advocate and supporter of the newly-established Dual Language Immersion program. Based on historical data analysis, DLI programs not only teach young students a second language seamlessly, but they improve their overall academic achievement while reducing the achievement gap.
More importantly, DLI programs promote a culture of global citizenship and interaction among people with different ethnicities and backgrounds, and therefore help us build a stronger community.
Although all candidates claim to be concerned about the environment, West Windsor needs action, not just talk, to promote green projects.
For example, I am the only candidate who expressed strong support for the proposed township solar grid projects.
I am also the only candidate who strongly supported the West Windsor gun safety resolution calling on the U.S. Senate to oppose concealed carry reciprocity, which would have allowed gun owners of other states to carry their concealed weapons in New Jersey, and on the N.J. legislature to pass sensible gun control legislation.
As an 18-year resident with three children who attended WW-P schools, I truly call West Windsor home sweet home. I plan to stay here and hope our children will return to West Windsor after they graduate college. We need to plan for smart growth to provide good opportunities for the next generation to work and live here.
We also need to take care of our senior citizens by continuing to improve the quality of life in town.
2What do you think should be done with the Howard Hughes property? What is your reaction to the lawsuit the company has filed against the township?
Bahree: I am unequivocally opposed to the rezoning of the Howard Hughes tract. West Windsor alone should decide—on our own terms—what our affordable housing plan should be. The Howard Hughes tract should stay commercially zoned and we welcome businesses to set up shop there that would add to our commercial tax base. This will limit overdevelopment and the associated stress on traffic and infrastructure. Moreover, an increase in commercial tax revenues will reduce the property tax burden on West Windsor residents.
I find Howard Hughes Corporation’s lawsuit to be very weak. As a sitting councilwoman, I have worked with the mayor to present an affordable housing plan that satisfies our obligation with minimum possible development and prevents Howard Hughes from building homes on their property. Using this plan we have successfully settled with the Fair Share Housing Center.
This agreement enables West Windsor to meet its affordable housing obligations without any residential development on the Howard Hughes tract. Once accepted by the courts, this agreement will protect West Windsor against builder’s remedy lawsuits, which have been used by builders in the past to gain approval for their new residential projects.
Wang: The Howard Hughes property should be developed according to its current zoning—research, office and light manufacturing. On Sept. 13, the Howard Hughes Corporation sued West Windsor Township to change zoning and allow for the construction of some 1,900 mixed-use residential housing units. This may be the first of many lawsuits against West Windsor for the purpose of building residential units on the property, possibly with a builder’s remedy lawsuit to follow if West Windsor does not have a concrete plan in time to meet our 2018 Affordable Housing obligations.
West Windsor is approaching a built-out point—a point where less than 5 percent buildable land in a township remains undeveloped. Beyond the built-out point, a township’s infrastructure can no longer sustain the population growth, and the quality of life deteriorates dramatically. Right now, 12 percent of our buildable land remains undeveloped—the 650-acre Howard Hughes property (there has to be a zoning change first) and a total of 500-acre unpreserved farmlands distributed throughout the town. If any of these two major lands are developed for residential housing, West Windsor will reach the built-out point.
This March, West Windsor was assigned an affordable housing obligation of 1,500 credit units. Since we already have credit for nearly 1,000 units, this number leaves us with 500 additional affordable housing credit units to plan for. In October, our township submitted a concrete plan to meet this obligation in the some 2,000 approved and to-be-approved housing units in West Windsor. As a councilwoman, I will work with the township towards fulfilling the obligation and avoiding a builder’s remedy lawsuit by the Howard Hughes Corporation.
Zhang: West Windsor finally settled the affordable housing lawsuit to comply with the court order to build 1,500 affordable housing units by 2025. Although this settlement is an important step that identifies affordable housing locations without the Howard Hughes site, it does not ensure that no housing will be built on the Howard Hughes tract, as the incumbent has claimed. West Windsor will likely be required to build more affordable housing after 2025—only seven years from now.
This September, Princeton Land (Howard Hughes) sued West Windsor, claiming that the township has prevented it from developing the site. Its lawsuit cites to the incumbent’s type of campaign slogan—“no housing on the Howard Hughes tract”—as evidence that West Windsor officials are hostile to Princeton Land in violation of its rights. Instead of giving Princeton Land arguments to strengthen its lawsuit, elected officials must negotiate wisely and constructively with Princeton Land to ensure that West Windsor, and not a court, determines the future of the Howard Hughes site. The sensible way to keep housing off Howard Hughes in the long run is to engage with Princeton Land to discuss different non-residential but viable options for the site.
3What should be done to control residential growth in West Windsor? How should the town encourage construction of more commercial ratables and also attract more businesses to the township.
Bahree: The driver of residential growth in West Windsor is the need to meet our legal obligations regarding affordable housing. As mentioned above, the settlement agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center lays out our plan to meet these affordable housing obligations for the period spanning 1999-2025 and puts us in control of our destiny. Agreeing to this settlement gives us some key advantages over the original court-appointed number. Most importantly, the agreement saves us from having to build an additional development of more than 500 homes. It also benefits us from a timing perspective by delaying some development. The administration, council and our attorneys have worked very hard to streamline this plan. It lays out the optimal number of units that West Windsor needs to build to meet the affordable housing requirement.
Going forward, there are several additional things we need to do in order to contain future residential growth:
a. Commit to no rezoning of the Howard Hughes property to prevent the building of over 2000 homes in West Windsor.
b. Aggressively acquire open space. An example of this is our condemnation and acquisition of the Hall property which would have resulted in over 400 townhouses near the Village Grande development if we hadn’t acted.
c. Escalate the fight for a legislative solution to the affordable housing issue to make it more rational, transparent and permanent. I testified before the NJ State Assembly Housing Committee, outlining the problems that West Windsor is facing, and asking them to overhaul the process.
We need to make it easier for businesses to set up shop in West Windsor by reducing the number of steps that a businessperson has to go through. Information should be seamlessly available and businesses should be able to quickly get updates on the status of permits. There are municipal software packages available that do this, and we should implement them in West Windsor. I support the mayor’s intent to retain a business development professional. The commercial retail environment is changing rapidly and we need people with the right skill set to build the best strategy for West Windsor. My experience in new business development makes me uniquely qualified to help our town navigate these challenges.
Wang: (1) To control residential growth in West Windsor, we need to limit constructions of residential housing units on our remaining buildable lands. Right now, 12 percent of our buildable lands remains undeveloped—the 650-acre Howard Hughes property and a total of 500-acre unpreserved farmlands distributed throughout the town. If West Windsor is built out, our population will grow by another 40 percent, reaching 42,000 residents. I’ll work with the township to limit the proposed 1900 units on the 650-acre Howard Hughes property by meeting our Affordable Housing obligation (described in detail above), and the potential 2000 units on our 500-acre unpreserved farmlands with aggressive and timely preservation.
(2) An estimated 25 percent of office/ratable spaces in West Windsor is unoccupied. To increase our commercial ratables, we need to sustain and grow our current local businesses, and usher in new ones to fill the unoccupied ratable spaces. We can achieve these goals by introducing infrastructure-improving and tax-saving initiatives to create a nurturing environment for these businesses. Many N.J. towns have improved their infrastructures and residents’ lives and simultaneously reduced spending with initiatives—lately, Hopewell Township improved road quality and safety and cut $2 million debt with road preservation; Mercer County restored native plants in two county parks with deer control (at no cost).
I have been promoting our new local businesses—Woo-Ri Mart and Ramen House—by giving tours and explaining Asian culture foods to residents. I will continue such activities and the above infrastructure-improving and tax-saving initiatives to grow our current businesses and attract new ratables.
Zhang: Instead of more large single-family houses, we should build more multi-use developments that have living space, stores, offices and recreational facilities, all within walking distance or very short drives. Integrated smart growth will encourage both young adults and seniors to stay in West Windsor. Growing these innovative communities will lead to more commercial ratables by encouraging residents to shop and work in town. I also recognize that West Windsor has a moral and legal obligation to provide appropriately-designed affordable housing that should be integrated into our community.
Additionally, we need to make West Windsor attractive to high-tech businesses for information technologies, pharmaceuticals and green energy. We must take better advantage of West Windsor’s highly-educated residents and proximity to excellent universities. We should have a coordinated plan to attract technology and innovation, investors and venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and startups. For example, as a first step, we should convert some of the empty buildings and spaces into shared workplace, such as WeWork and TigerLabs.
4How would you work to help control municipal taxes?
Bahree: It is imperative to both reduce costs and increase revenues to control municipal taxes. I spent several months analyzing and deliberating our recent municipal budget, and I found that there are several areas of improvement that can help us spend our tax dollars more efficiently.
I believe in a more collaborative and transparent approach to budgeting. I think it’s important for the council and administration to work together using actual cost data (including encumbrances for expenditures where we have obligations but the funds have not been disbursed). This is a significant departure from the current practice of using the amounts budgeted in prior year as a baseline for the current year’s budget, a practice which creates the problem of over-budgeting at a line item level. We also need to introduce advanced industry practices (to the extent possible given state statutes) to minimize the impact on the tax rate. To that end, I believe that establishing a finance committee comprised of township residents with financial and investment experience will bring a valuable outside perspective to the budgeting process. I am currently working with a council colleague to propose changes to the budgeting process before the next budgeting season.
I also believe that we need to spend tax dollars with the same care that we use when spending our own money. During the budget season, I focused on reducing costs by scrutinizing each budgetary line item to assess the appropriate level of spending. As just one example, the administration’s budget request for gasoline expenses did not take into account the fact that diesel and gasoline prices had declined from previous levels. When I raised this concern, the council was able to reduce the budgeted amount. We also need to promote a culture of rigorous cost-benefit analysis while making budgetary decisions.
In addition to spending our tax dollars more efficiently, increasing our commercial tax base will help reduce the property tax burden on West Windsor residents. I have addressed this issue in more detail while answering question No. 3.
Wang: (1) Limit residential growth. Tax-hikes come hand-in-hand with residential developments. Roughly speaking, each additional 1,000 non-age-restricted housing units will increase a West Windsor household’s property tax by $1,000/year. If West Windsor is built out, our taxes will hike by 30 percent. I’ll work with the township to limit construction on our remaining undeveloped lands—the 650-acre Howard Hughes property (there has to be a zoning change first) and the 500-acre unpreserved farmlands.
(2) Grow local businesses. Residential property tax accounts for 60 percent of West Windsor’s budget. Meanwhile, 25 percent of office/ratable spaces are unoccupied. I have been promoting our new businesses—Woo-Ri Mart and Ramen House, and will continue such activities and the below initiatives to grow our current businesses, usher in new ratables, and thus reduce our dependence on residential property taxes.
(3) Introduce initiatives. Many N.J. towns have reduced taxes and improved residents’ lives with initiatives—lately, Hopewell Township cut $2 million debt and improved road safety with road preservation; Mercer County restored native plants in two county parks with deer control, at no cost. I will introduce these tax-saving and community-building programs to West Windsor.
Zhang: Controlling municipal taxes requires not only increasing commercial tax revenue, but also minimizing the types of housing that brings more school-aged children. Our school budget represents about two-thirds of our total property tax. As described above, new housing should be designed to attract seniors and young adults, as well as residents with special needs.
Additionally, we must spend taxpayer money wisely. For example, I have long advocated for the solar micro-grid project that has been rejected twice by the cCouncil. The solar micro-grid would decrease expenses, raise lease revenue, and provide critical back-up energy to the firehouse, emergency services, and municipal offices during power outages and natural disasters. The micro-grid would help establish West Windsor as a leader in green energy, and provide an educational experience to our students and residents.
5How do you think communications between the council and administration can be improved?
Bahree: A council member is a representative of the people and a conduit to the administration. A culture of transparency is vital to an effective and efficient communication flow that fosters trust between the people and their local government.
Having a good social interface is an important tool for keeping the residents informed of what is going on at the township level. This includes a user friendly interactive website with easy to find information and a Facebook page/Twitter account. The schedule for vital projects e.g. road improvements, pothole repair, and garbage removal – should be posted on the township website, along with frequent updates on those activities.
The administration should also commit to a reasonable response time for addressing queries by council members which reflect the concerns of residents. Finally, increasing the level of collaboration between the council and administration during the budgeting process is another key area of improvement.
I have always made a point to be available to talk with the residents and the administration, and to act as a go-between when needed, and I will continue to do so.
Wang: I think we have long forgotten the most important player in this issue, West Windsor residents. The government body, be it the council or mayor/administration, should be, quote: “of the people, by the people and for the people.” The time we deviate from this principle is the time that the government body constituents begin to focus on individual interests, and disconnection ensues.
When facing a potentially contentious issue, the first step of the decision-making process should be for the council and administration to reach out, together, to neighborhood residents to inform and educate and then gather their input. After this step, decisions should be made based on the majority suggestion of residents.
With this concerted effort of the council and administration towards a consensus solution from the very beginning, we not only have a realistic chance to improve communication, but also may strengthen our government body as never before, which is badly needed to face our challenging future.
Zhang: First and foremost, council members should focus on issues, not politics or personalities. Take the gun safety resolution discussion as an example, since all council members expressed their individual support, they should have demonstrated unity by passing the resolution quickly and moving on to local issues.
Second, let’s practice listening skills and avoid jumping to conclusions before we have a full grasp of the issues being discussed.
Third, let’s objectively evaluate professional opinions to guide decision-making.
Fourth, council members should present West Windsor as an inviting place to live, work and conduct business, not as having an inflexible closed door. Lastly, let’s keep all communication channels open at all times, including one-on-one conversations among council members, as well as between council members and the mayor and business administrator.
With West Windsor’s highly-educated and diverse residents, we can all work together, not against one another, to build a stronger community and make West Windsor an even better place to live.