All six candidates running for election to West Windsor Council were asked to send The News biographical information and to answer a answer a series of four questions dealing with local issues.
Sonia Gawas, 44, has lived in West Windsor for 10 years with her husband, Ram Sarma. Gawas holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Pune University in India, a diploma in computer science from National Institute of Information Technology, India, and diploma in digital graphics from Arena Multimedia, India.
She currently works with Rodan and Fields, a multi-level marketing skincare products company. Previously she worked at Cline Davis and Mann, a pharmaceutical advertising agency in Princeton. She has also been a project manager at MRM McCann in Princeton. Prior to that worked as a project developer at Bharat Forge in Pune, India.
Gawas has been a PTA volunteer for five years serving on various committees and board positions including vice president of fundraising, Maurice Hawk PTA president and school district athletic task force member. She started Girl Scout Troop 70218 in 2016, is a former school board president at Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church Cooperative Nursery School, and a former trustee of the at West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance.
Shin-Yi Lin, 40, has lived in town since 2003 with her husband, Matt Weber. She has bachelor’s degrees in biology and english from Amherst College and a PhD in molecular biology from Princeton University.
Lin currently works as a science and politics fellow with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Earlier this year, she taught a course at Princeton University. She has worked as a biologist in labs for more than 20 years—at Rowan University-School of Osteopathic Medicine, Yale University and Amherst College. In 2011 she was a science policy fellow with the National Academies of Science.
Lin serves on the governing board to the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni. During her graduate study at Princeton, she served multiple years of elected office as a student leader in university administration. She has also volunteered for local Democratic campaigns.
Andrea Sue Mandel, 68, has lived in town for 30 years with her husband Richard. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the City University of New York and a master’s in industrial engineering from Rutgers. She has also taken a number of continuing education classes, including site plan reading and stormwater.
Mandel has worked for five major corporations—Church & Dwight, L&F (Sterling Drug), Drake Bakeries (Borden), Howmedica (Pfizer) and Johnson & Johnson, becoming a department senior manager with a staff of engineers and technicians.
She has served on community boards and organizations including: West Windsor Planning Board; West Windsor Environmental Commission; Mercer County Sustainability Coalition; West Windsor-Plainsboro Girl Scout Service Team; Girl Scouts of Central and Southern N.J. Council delegate and national delegat; Princeton University Consortium for Automated Road Transportation Safety and Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society Alumnae.
Alison Miller, 73, has lived in West Windsor for 31 years with her husband Richard Guhl. A retired planner, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College of the City University of New York and a Master of City and Regional Planning from Rutgers University.
Miller, the incumbent, has an extensive history serving as a township volunteer and as a member of council. She was appointed to the West Windsor Affordable Housing Committee in 1992 and served on the board in a number of different capacities through the present day.
She was elected to township council four times and served from 1992-99; 2001-05, and since 2016. She served on the planning board as an advisor in 1992-3 and as a council member for 8 years.
Miller has also served on the zoning board and site plan review advisory board in 2000-01. She was a member of the cable advisory committee in 2004-05, and the West Windsor Parking Authority from 2007 to 2015.
She is a founding trustee of Friends of West Windsor Open Space, and served as president from 2008-15. She is a founding trustee of the West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance, and currently still serves as a trustee on both.
Michael Stevens, 62, and his wife Anne have lived in the township for 26 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Purdue University in 1980 and a PhD in pharmacy in 1983, also from Purdue.
Stevens worked at Bristol-Myers Squibb for nearly 18, where he served as vice president of medical affairs in the Virology franchise (HIV/AIDS). After that, he worked for a start-up company in drug development, again in the HIV/AIDS field. He is currently working with three start-ups in the pharmaceutical and healthcare information fields.
Stevens volunteered as a founding parent/mentor for the WW-P high schools’ FIRST Robotics Team 1923, the MidKnight Inventors in 2005, a role that has continued to this day. After having been rescued by boat by the West Windsor Volunteer Fire Company in 2011 during the flooding caused by Hurricane Irene, he joined the fire company, and currently serves as the captain of the fire police.
He also chairs the company’s Grants Committee, and helped secure a grant from FEMA for ore $300,000 to purchase breathing tanks for both of township volunteer fire companies.
Yan-Mei Wang, 46, has lived in West Windsor for 4.5 years with her husband Je-Luen Li. She holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from University of California, Los Angeles and Ph.D. in physics from University of California, Berkeley. She lists her current job as a political candidate for West Windsor Council.
Previously she was a physicist working at Princeton University, a professor at Washington University, and a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, all in biophysics.
Her community involvement includes: West Windsor Human Relations Council; Friends of West Windsor Open Space; Huaxia Chinese School at Plainsboro board member; Berrien City Neighborhood Association steering committee member; West Windsor Democratic Club membership chair; Send Hunger Packing; and Maurice Hawk Parent Teacher Association spirit wear chair.
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Below are four questions posed to each of the candidates. They were given a limit of 600 words total for their answers.
Why do you feel you are the best candidate for council, and what differentiates you from the other candidates?
Gawas: Community service has always been a meaningful part of my life. Be it the school PTA, the Girl Scouts, the school athletic task force or the WWBPA, it gives me considerable satisfaction to give back to the community that my family and I are a part of.
A bachelor’s degree in commerce and subsequent work experience in business development have equipped me with business and analytical skills. These skills will be essential in executing our plan to control taxes by increasing business development.
I am not involved in partisan politics, which allows me to remain focused on vital township issues. My background allows me to be well prepared (not just in bringing solutions but also in implementing them) when presented with critical decisions involving the key issues we face in West Windsor, especially significant ones like property development on the WWM Properties and Howard Hughes sites.
My record demonstrates that I will be a community volunteer who will be a council member.
Lin: I decided to run for office because our democratic values need to be represented at the local level, especially given the example currently set at the federal level. I will serve West Windsor with decision-making that is guided by our core values—supporting all of our families, valuing expertise in decision-making, and preserving our democratic institutions through inclusive government.
I will work with integrity and professionalism, and bring in my policy experience at the institutional, state, and federal levels.
And I am making inclusion and community-building my top priority. Good government is only possible when we honestly communicate with and actively engage our residents, organizations, and businesses in the decisions that affect our collective future.
I have a contract with West Windsor (go to shinyilin.com) so that you know what to expect from me.
Mandel: First, I have served since January of 2018 as a member of the planning board and as elected vice chair of the environmental commission. Many of the issues in town involve both commercial and residential development, traffic, infrastructure, stormwater management, land use ordinances, etc. I ask the hard questions and insist on logical analysis. I work on consensus building whenever possible, coming to a joint decision based on facts.
Second, I have 25 years of volunteering. One of my passions is making sure that our young women can pursue any career, and I founded and coached our two original Girl Scout FIRST robotics teams. Now, many teams and girls have gone on to teach STEM to more girls. My other major passion is the environment and outdoors, running camping and teaching outdoor skills and nature to hundreds of Girl Scouts.
Third, I have worked in engineering and management in five major companies, supervising employees, doing budgets and preparing plans and specifications.
Fourth, my education is in engineering. I fit the stereotype of being both a thinker and a doer, always learning new things but acting on those that make practical sense.
All this made me not only comfortable working and playing with people from all our diverse races, ethnicities, religions, orientations and political opinions, but to thrive on it. It is what I have always done and will do.
Our team of Mandel-Gawas-Stevens came together because of our love of service to West Windsor, and we pledge to keep giving to our town as council members and volunteers.
Miller: My experience, on council and on other boards, sets me out from the others. It is valuable to have someone on council who is familiar with past experiences and past challenges, and remembers what worked and didn’t work.
Having experience gives me a new perspective on how to move forward. My degree and certification in planning (American Institute of Certified Planners) helps me identify the trends in successful new development and what kind of development is on the way out.
New stand-alone large malls are on the way out; mixed use is in. West Windsor residents want the best of both; single-family residential neighborhoods within walking distance to restaurants and other retail and office uses.
Stevens: Although I am a newcomer to politics, I feel that my background in the pharmaceutical industry has prepared me well to work with others with whom I may disagree from time to time.
As an example, I had the honor to work with competitor HIV/AIDS companies to field NIH protocols combining our drugs. My work helped lead to the commercialization of the first single HIV medication to contain drugs from two different companies.
Working closely with persons living with HIV taught me to seek, embrace and celebrate diversity. I also have a background in policy at both the state and federal levels pertaining to HIV/AIDS. Experiences at both Fortune 500 and start-up companies have driven the development of my business acumen.
Raised in a small Midwestern town, volunteering and a strong sense of community are a part of my DNA. My experiences here in the township have been as a resident concerned about flooding and the flow of traffic, as well as years of experience interfacing with various components of the township and police Department in my role as fire police captain. I am an attentive listener who can respect divergent views, and I have been known to change my position based upon well-reasoned arguments.
Wang: Candidates should be judged by their accomplishments and their proposals’ viability for West Windsor, regardless of prior office experience. In four years, I have learned about the concerns of 2,500 West Windsor families, taken 10 infrastructure and transportation training courses at Rutgers University, and initiated/solved three West Windsor programs/problems:
1. Introduced pavement preservation to West Windsor at Marian Drive and Dinsmore Lane this past June that will save $500/year/household on taxes and vehicle repair costs.
2. Founded the West Windsor Plastics for West Windsor Parks program to recycle plastic film and wraps into park benches—the first bench will unveil in Ronald R. Rogers Arboretum in October.
3. Solved the Mews apartment complex train station shuttle noise problem for hundreds of residents while reducing West Windsor air pollution by 0.1%.
How should the town encourage construction of more commercial ratables and also attract more businesses?
Gawas: The Mandel-Gawas-Stevens team is proposing to retain a business development professional. The commercial retail environment is changing rapidly and we need people with the right skill set and experience to build the best fiscally and operationally responsible strategy for West Windsor. We need to sustain our current local businesses and attract new ones to fill the unoccupied ratables.
Lin: We need to better assess where we’ve been and where we want to go. Are we attracting businesses that are consistent with a long-term vision for West Windsor, and are we ensuring they can thrive here? I plan to consult current business owners, residents and counterparts in neighboring municipalities to gain insight on this question.
It is also important to establish closer relationships with legislators at all levels of state government. Town council cannot work in isolation to relation to county and state government, as we leave good ideas and financial resources to build our business capacity at the table.
There are two types of businesses I’d like to explore:
1. I want to attract restaurant growth that will draw other neighboring residents into West Windsor. I want to organize a Restaurant Week to highlight what we have to offer to area foodies.
2. I want to establish co-working spaces for residents who need a “near home” working space. We could eventually build this up into a Tiger Labs-type incubator for local entrepreneurship and innovation.
Mandel: More commercial ratables will reduce the tax burden on residents. As a member of the planning board, I have been working on a new master plan economic element targeting more commercial ratables.
A business development professional will help fill identified properties with businesses that will not only provide tax money but products, services and jobs. We would also encourage upgrading current business infrastructure, resulting in higher tax ratables.
Large properties like Howard Hughes should be proactively marketed by the business development professional to get the best return for our town. It provides a one of a kind opportunity for the right companies: A major northeast corridor train station, access to Route 1 and connecting highways, Princeton and other universities, and a highly educated workforce. New on demand transportation options will make travel within and outside this property less burdensome to the roads and the environment.
Miller: We have to zone for and advertise new and different opportunities for ratables to locate in West Windsor in our Princeton Junction downtown along 571, in our transit village at the train station, and other areas within attractive walking distance from our new housing.
Studies have shown that younger people are interested in experiences, not just shopping; they want places to eat, places for concerts, places to compare experiences, places to gather. We need to provide the venues.
We want to attract people of all ages to West Windsor. With our location close to Route 1, Route 571, Quakerbridge Road, I-295, and, most of all, the Princeton Junction Train Station, West Windsor has wonderful opportunities for businesses, and we have to make sure we advertise.
We have recently changed the zoning in downtown Princeton Junction to allow professional offices as well as retail on the first floor of buildings with apartments above; we could look at doing the same thing in other retail areas, such as the Princeton Arms shopping center on Old Trenton Road. We could also help businesses bring existing buildings up to date and encourage co-working spaces.
Stevens: This will be one of my priorities upon being elected to council as it is an integral component of controlling residential taxes. The Mandel-Gawas-Stevens team has identified the need to secure input from a business development professional.
In the past, West Windsor has not had a reputation for being a business-friendly municipality. This must change, as towns surrounding the township have aggressively—and successfully—outcompeted us in this respect. We need to actively support those businesses that currently call West Windsor home and find creative solutions to bring a diversity of new businesses into the township.
Wang: An estimated 20% of office/ratable spaces in West Windsor are 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 proven successful infrastructure-improving and tax-saving initiatives to create a nurturing environment for these businesses.
Following the footsteps of many New Jersey towns that have improved their infrastructures and businesses with cost-saving and environmentally friendly initiatives, we can introduce the following measures: continue pavement preservation to more streets in West Windsor (Hopewell Township improved road quality and safety with a successful pavement preservation program while saving $2 million); help our small businesses upgrading their energy systems (Lawrence Township saves $60,000/year with this initiative); purchase energy in bulk (Hamilton Township saves $90/year/household); support Mercer County Park’s deer management program (Mercer County has restored native plants in other county parks with deer management at no cost); and I will continue to promote our new local businesses (Woo-Ri Mart) by giving tours and explaining Asian culture foods to residents.
What are some challenges facing the township that you believe deserve more attention?
Gawas: Residential growth has escalated in our township. The primary driver of is the need to meet our legal obligations regarding affordable housing. Our township’s affordable housing plan was approved by Judge Mary Jacobson. It gives West Windsor immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits through 2025. In order to contain future residential growth, we need to:
1. Commit to no rezoning of the WWM Properties and Howard Hughes properties to prevent the building of more residential units.
2. 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.
3. Residential growth has a ripple effect on everything—adding significantly to the traffic issues, overcrowding our already crowded schools, putting undue burden on our emergency services, and putting more stress on our overall infrastructure.
Lin: It’s critical that town council continues to invest in its core day-to-day functions, such as road repair, trash and recycling and public safety. But the job of municipal leadership also offers the opportunity, and the obligation, to develop a vision of how we need to be evolving.
Four complex, but critical, issues I believe we need to begin seriously addressing in the next four years:
1. As many say to the point of cliché, West Windsor has seen incredible growth. But we have not done the work to integrate our newest residents into the life, community, and governance of West Windsor. I worry this has created geographic and ethnic silos, such that we are diverse but not fully inclusive and cohesive.
2. Sustainability. Climate change is a global problem we are experiencing at the local level through the persistent flooding of our roads during thunderstorms.
3. Affordability. Most of our teachers, township staff and police officers cannot afford to live within the community they serve.
3. Wellness. We should all be concerned about the rate of mental health issues, especially among our youth. The township can help create a sense of supportive (not competitive) community and create spaces that kids can access by foot so they have places to go to relax.
Mandel: Many residents have told me they are worried about residential overdevelopment. I worked on the new master plan element for open space, and we should ensure all specified land is purchased when available. I will not change the commercial zoning for Howard Hughes land, WWM land or others to allow any residences.
We need to intelligently fix our infrastructure—sidewalks and roads. We should review sidewalk repair procedures so that we don’t constantly redo them for tree roots.
Township responsiveness and communication must be improved, whether it is a status on your problem or yard waste pickup.
Miller: People chafe at quality of life issues. We want traffic mobility without jams, we want safe walking and biking, we want an end to depredation by deer, we want people not to put brush out before their pick-up times, we want garbage and recycling pick-up, we want all our parks and paths to be free of litter.
We should pay attention to these. We should also pay more attention to the waste that we, and other places, generate, and institute a single-use plastic bag ban, as 36 other towns in New Jersey have done.
And always, we should be ready to purchase land for open space, recreation and conservation when it comes on the market and make it enjoyable with new safe pathways and bikeways. Reminders of our rural past are part of the quality of life people cherish.
Stevens: In speaking with my friends and neighbors throughout the township, certain concerns are often repeated. First, we want to maintain the livability of our community. Fighting housing overdevelopment and controlling taxes are important to all of us.
We must continue to fight efforts of outside developers to rezone our agricultural- and business-zoned properties. Slowing traffic through enforcement, education and awareness scan improve safety and sanity on our roadways.
We need to be more environmentally aware of the consequences of our lifestyle choices. The Township needs to be more effective in addressing issues of infrastructure, including repairing potholes and fixing sidewalks. We must continue to acquire and protect our open spaces.
Wang: We need a better understanding of our residential development situation and a sense of urgency to preserve our remaining open space.
In May 2019, West Windsor resolved our third round affordable housing plan by projecting to build 3,396 new residences by 2025. These new homes will increase West Windsor population and taxes by 30% (roughly speaking, every non-age-restricted housing unit will increase a West Windsor household’s property tax by $1/year).
Even though West Windsor has been a model township in fulfilling our affordable housing duties—by 2025, 11% of West Windsor’s housing units will be affordable housing units—the pressure to build more residential units is continuously present. Soon, we will need to plan for our next round of affordable housing obligation in 2025.
Currently, West Windsor has more than 500 acres of un-preserved farmland, which is the same size as the Howard Hughes Property. These pieces of developable lands will be factored into the calculation for our 2025 affordable housing obligation, sentencing West Windsor to more affordable housing unit shares than other N.J. build-out towns.
Preserving the remaining open spaces in West Windsor is the best way to slow down residential overdevelopment while retaining our agricultural beauty and tradition, protecting our water and soil, and balancing our economic forces. As a council member, I will work with the township to aggressively preserve farms with the largely available funding from the state, county, our open space taxes and private sources.
How would you work to help control municipal taxes? Are there any areas of the budget you feel need to be looked at?
Gawas: Ensuring efficient use of what we do spend and bringing new businesses into West Windsor to contribute to the tax base is the approach I would take in controlling municipal taxes.
Our team is proposing to retain the services of a business development professional to increase commercial entities in town. More revenue must be generated to offset the residential growth that has already been built or has been approved for construction. We will encourage existing renters to upgrade their properties so their assessment increases.
I will continue to review each line of the mayor’s proposed budget, study reports from key administrators and then support prudent changes. Seek as many grants as is possible in order to increase revenues. We need to look into shared services agreements with our adjacent townships.
Lin: Budgets are an expression of our priorities, so my starting place is, “How well is the municipal budget reflecting our values?”
The passage of last year’s education referendum shows that residents remain willing to stretch our pocketbooks. Without improving the transparency of our annual budgeting process, we aren’t building the trust so that residents know where their tax dollars are going—we definitely need to do something better than having meetings held during the workday.
Mandel: Although municipal taxes are less than 16% of our total property tax bill, there are still opportunities to control expenses. One option would be increased shared services.
As a member of council who must approve the municipal budget, I will scrutinize each line item of the proposed budget and ask in-depth questions of the administration, not relenting until I am satisfied with the justification for the expense.
Miller: Municipal taxes have been as close to unchanged as possible given the raises that our municipal employees have earned each year for the last four years I have been on council.
I would continue to scrutinize the budget every year. Now that the new administration has settled in, we can also start looking at other ways to share services with our neighbors. We can stop replacing street trees at our sidewalks, and place them on front lawns instead if the homeowner agrees. This will save a little in the long run, and the savings could be used to fix other sidewalks. We can also make sure that road repairs are done using the latest, most cost-saving techniques.
Stevens: As our population has grown to nearly 30,000, the need for services has understandably increased. Tax revenues must also grow in order to pay for these services. There are two ways to accomplish this—increase residential taxes or increase the total base of taxes being collected.
I strongly favor the latter, bringing in new businesses to West Windsor. We must become more business-friendly to successfully compete with our neighboring communities. I will support utilizing the services of a business development professional to assist us in doing so. I believe the township must be more aggressive in applying for grants, similar to the $300,000 FEMA grant I helped secure for our firefighters.
Each line of the budget is important. Is this expense necessary? Is this allocation enough? Are our tax dollars being optimized? Can savings be realized through the expansion of our shared services with local communities? Are there services that could be provided by Mercer County or the State? I will actively seek the input of key Township employees and stakeholders to ensure the final budget meets our growing needs in an intelligent manner.
Wang: Limit residential growth by preserving our remaining open spaces to prevent tax hikes, continue pavement preservation to save $500/year/household, help upgrade small businesses energy systems to save $60,000/year, purchases energy in bulk to save $90/year/household, and support Mercer County Park’s deer management program at no cost to taxpayers.