West Windsor’s governing body has a new council president.
Virginia Manzari, now in her third year on council, was unanimously voted to be the presiding officer during the township’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 2.
Three new council members— Sonia Gawas, Andrea Mandel and Michael Stevens—joined Manzari and Linda Geevers on the governing body, after being elected last November.
This is Manzari’s first stint as president. She takes over for Alison Miller, who had served as council president for a number of years. Miller was not reelected last year.
West Windsor and Plainsboro News editor Bill Sanservino sat down with Manzari on Jan. 17 to talk about a number of issues she expects council to address in 2020, including the budget, township initiatives and development in town. Below is an edited version of that interview.
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West Windsor & Plainsboro News: What would you like to bring to the council as president?
Virgnia Manzari: I have a background in business. I worked in business development, and I have run brands. So I come with a background of trying to work efficiency into things by looking at all the available data to make decisions.
I’m looking to bring some of those things as a baseline into the council proceedings. Being efficient, watching our costs and taking a strategic look at things.
I really believe that this council is going to take a positive proactive approach to things that are going on in a township.
There are a lot of exciting things that are going to be happening over the next year. We might not always agree on things, but I will tell you that you won’t see the nastiness or political games or infighting that you might have seen in the past.
We’ve got five people who each have a long history of volunteering and community service. Everybody is here because they want to be here for the community. They want to do their best job for the community, and they take it seriously.
WWP: All five members of council have been aligned with each other and with the mayor. How do you respond to people out there who say that the council is basically just a rubber stamp for the mayor.
VM: If anybody knows me, they know I’m not a rubber stamp for anybody, and I can say that about the other people on council.
I’ll tell you a real quick story. Years ago, I wasn’t really involved in any politics, but there were some issues that came up in the township, and I got involved with a group of people.
We were sitting around one night brainstorming some ideas, and I don’t know why, but somebody mentioned something about political parties.
I said, “Wait, are you guys all Republicans or Democrats,” and they said, “Oh, we’re a mix.”
When it comes to local politics, those things don’t matter, because people tend to group themselves together based on the local issues.
No one is pulling anyone’s strings on council. Every council member is free to vote however they wish on every vote.
Will we see a lot of 5-0 votes? I imagine we will, just as we saw mostly 5-0 votes last year and the year before that.
That is because everyone is provided with all of the available background information and then given an opportunity to make changes.
We’re encouraged to improve each resolution and ordinance as best we can. Then we vote. I suspect on occasion there will be times when someone still isn’t comfortable with something, and then they’ll vote no.
Because although we are similar in that we all have a long history of volunteering and community service, we each have our own personal life experiences which will guide us as we make decisions on Council. And we’re all strong-willed people. It’s silly to think that we’ll always agree on everything. I don’t even agree on everything with my husband.
We won’t be debating or voting on any divisive, politically charged national issues. That’s not our job. We’ll be focusing on local issues that are important to residents, like fixing the streets and sidewalks and keeping municipal taxes in check.
At the same time, we will continue to work to minimize the impacts of traffic, purchase and protect open space, and make our town safe and accessible for cyclists and pedestrians.
WWP: There are three new members on council this year. Linda (Geevers) is now the grizzled veteran and you’re coming towards the end of your first term. When someone new starts on council, there’s a lot to learn. What do you think is the best way to help bring the new council members up to speed with all the things that they have to learn?
VM: That’s a good question. When I first got involved years ago, I remember coming to a council meeting and sitting in the audience. Alison (Miller) was in the audience and not on council at the time. We ended up talking, and she had heard what I said during public comment.
She said, “Let me give you some background information on the issue, and we became friends. This was like a dozen years ago, and whenever I would come to the meetings, and she was there also, we sort of sat together.
She kind of took me under her wing when I came on to counsel and she was council president and showed me the nitty-gritty.
With the new council members, I try to do some of those kinds of things. I send them emails basically saying, “Okay, this is what you’re going to get, and this is how you need to approach it. These are some of the things you need to do. Read this material by this date.”
They ran for office, so they already have a lot of information and background on general issues. It’s really a matter of learning the process , and there is a lot of process.
In my past jobs I managed a lot of big budgets. I thought I was so ready when I came into my first budget period. I got the big budget big book, and every night I’d pore over this budget. I made a list of ideas and questions.
My husband would come home from work every day and he was like, “Are you reading that thing again? Are you secretly interviewing to be CFO of the township?”
I said, “No, but I really feel like this is where I can make a big impact, and I really want to do a good job.”
Then I took a class on municipal budgets. I think there were a hundred towns represented in the room. I probably asked more questions than everybody else combined, and the answer to all my ideas and questions was, “No, you can’t do that. It’s not allowed under state law.” I was depressed for a good two months. I really was.
WWP: One of the first jobs that new council members are faced with is working on the municipal budget. They might have made campaign promises to lower spending and to scour the budget, then once they get into the process they find out how little control they have.
VM: It really was depressing for me. I mean, I just had such high hopes. And these were not crazy ideas. These were really sound business decisions. Ideas that, if implemented, would be great—I mean if I do say so myself. (laughs)
“The fact that the state doesn’t allow them is just mind-boggling to me. But that’s the way it is. That’s the parameter that we have to deal with.
So, I’ve told the council members all of that, and I’ve said, “When you go to the to the meetings, make sure you’ve reviewed one of our budgets ahead of time to make yourself familiar with it. Figure out how it works, how the numbers are manipulated, what information you get and how you can compare things. Then when you get the new budget, you’ll be up to speed on the format and all that stuff.”
I’m trying to get them to a point where when everybody comes in for the budget meetings, it’ll be more efficient.
WWP: How do you expect to handle the budget process? Are there going to be any changes from prior years? What are some of your priorities, and what do you think are council’s priorities?
VM: We always want to try to spend money as efficiently as we can. One of the issues that I’ve raised in past council meetings was with sidewalks and all the trees along the sidewalks. They wind up get pushed up by the tree roots, and then we’ve got to spend money to repair the sidewalks.
One of the things that we’ve talked to the mayor and administration about is how we can maybe look at a policy change to come up with something that works a little bit better for the township.
We’re not opposed to trees (I have a ton of trees in my yard and I love trees), but how can we do this so that it makes a little bit more sense. So we’ve sort of been talking about.
Hopefully we can come up with some ideas and then we can address that from a monetary perspective, because we really spent a lot of money on sidewalks.
We also spend a lot of money on roads. We did put more money in for those things last year, and I would like to see us continue to invest in that this year.
I mean, we’re a very nice town, we offer a lot of amenities, and I think one of those things needs to be good roads and good sidewalks. That’s one issue that’s always been at the top of my mind.
As far as the budget process goes, I think it was last year, or the year before, when Jyotika Bahree was on council. She and I sat down and looked at the budgeting process.
At the end, after I’d gone through it the first time and she’d been through it, we came up with some suggestions for looking at things a little differently. We wanted to compare things as you would in a business.
Let’s look at the actual and compare that to what you’re budgeting, let’s see the actuals for the prior years and how things are spiking. Then give me some information as to why, maybe, there was something that was really high or really low. Getting that additional information can make it a more efficient process when we go sit down and look at the numbers.
Everything doesn’t have to be asking a million questions about some of those things.
Actually that’s one of the things that I suggested to new council members. Look at some of the questions that were asked last year and how they were answered, because they may be the same questions that get asked every single year.
Hopefully they can read about them, and then we can go on to have discussions about things that maybe we can change. Things that we can have an impact on, rather than talking about something you can’t do anything about.
There is very little room for us to do things with the budget because of state mandates, so it is a challenge.
WWP: What are a few of the things that you are excited about this year?
VM: We have looked at bringing in more commercial ratables. I know you hear about ratables every time a politician runs for office, but it really is true.
If you can’t do very much about how you change revenues or how you change expenses, the thing that you can do is shift some of the burden off the residential taxpayers onto the commercial taxpayers.
We’ve been working to do that for the two years that I’ve been on council and the mayor has been in office. We’ve been working hard to get a lot of things in place.
Because we were forced to change our zoning to make room for a lot of residential development due the affordable housing mandate, we’re looking to bring in some more commercial ratables in a timely manner.
That way, when the residential starts to go up, we’ve got the commercial to balance it out. Then we won’t be seeing spikes in taxes that are going to hit the residents. We really want to avoid that, and we do have a lot of good things coming.
We have some new businesses coming into town. We’ve got Tractor Supply Company coming on Route 1, and we’ve got an extended stay hotel with a rooftop bar.
WWP: What else is happening with development?
VM: The planning board is going to be voting on the new master plan on Feb. 12. That’s the land use vision for the whole town. One thing the planning board has done as part of the master plan review is to go through the entire town to make non-conforming uses into conforming one.
That benefits small businesses, because it helps make it easier to get loans than if they were on a non-conforming lot. They can upgrade their facilities. They can reinvest in their own properties. Then their property values go up and they pay more in taxes and we’re going to see increased tax revenue for the township.
WWP: What are some of the biggest changes that this master plan amendment is looking to make in different parcels throughout the town?
VM: I think it’s really pro-business, but in a common-sense way. It’s taking into consideration what kinds of impact any developments would have on the township and on the residents.
WWP: What else is happening? You mentioned that there are some other cool things that are happening in town.
VM: We’re looking at doing some capital investments at the pool complex—West Windsor Waterworks, and to lower the rates for membership.
We have a new membership category—one parent one child. Before it was just individual family and senior memberships. We’re also looking at doing some additional programming—some fun events, maybe some special nights and things like that.
I’m really excited it because I served on the Recreation Commission for two years. Also, part of volunteering for West Windsor gives back, we held a couple of events there and it was really fun to see.