Gwenn Hauck hopes she's not identified specifically as "the Valley candidate" when voters head to the polls in Ridgewood on May 5. The blond, blue-eyed mother of three contends there are many other pressing issues weighing the minds of voters, and she believes she's the candidate that can be their voice.
"I understand the heart beat, pulse and character of Ridgewood," Hauck, a third-generation Ridgewood-ite of Habernickel ilk, said in an interview last week at her Colonial West Side home. "I know where it's been, what would be the right way to go and I've been in touch with multi-generations of people – interfacing with residents from all walks of life."
A housewife since 1987 with extensive experience as a volunteer at the schools, civic organizations like the Girl Scouts, St. Elizabeth's Church, the library and Valley Hospital, Hauck said she has considered a run before, but with children still at home the time commitment would have been dicey. Now, with the kids are gone, the former Wall Street finance worker is up for the challenge.
"I want to restore the healthy dialogue we used to have in the village. It is all about communication. There needs to be a comfort level that welcomes varying opinions about what Ridgewood needs," she said. "Of course there are some issues we will face that are almost impossible to agree on but everyone should know that they don't have to be afraid to have their own opinion. That is one of the things I bring to the table. I will foster a more open dialogue; I believe morale has suffered because of the bitterness surrounding debates in Ridgewood."
Speaking of her own qualities, she feels would make her a good representative of the village citizens, saying: "I'm good with a diverse community of people; I've facilitated big projects and built conversations. I seem to have the ability to diffuse difficult topics and find compromises," she added, stating such a characteristic doesn't impugn her from speaking her mind.
Former village council member Jacques Harlow is Hauck's campaign manager. During the interview, Hauck stressed that Harlow's role was merely to advise on "how to run," exclaiming her views and platform are "entirely" her own.
"I actually support what they're doing at the house," she said. "I'm excited for another community center!"
Valley Hospital expansion
Which side actually has the numbers may prove the ultimate council makeup in July, though Hauck, like candidate Albert Pucciarelli, says she'd be disappointed if the election were a referendum on the hospital's expansion aims.
Hauck is an unabashed supporter of the hospital (and former VP of the Valley Hospital Auxillary), but rebuffs claims bandied around on local blogs and on lips at dinner parties that she's running a campaign for the benefit of the hospital.
"I'm not a Valley plant," she laughed, dismissing speculation. "No one should be a plant for anything. I think it's an asset and I don't want to lose it. I worry about the hospital like I do anything else. Valley is not the reason I'm running."
Hauck stands by remarks she's made over the years that the hospital's plant is antiquated and single patient rooms are desired, telling Patch she doesn't believe Valley's aims were driven by investors or an interest in boosting outpatient care.
"I thought it was the best thing that could have happened that the second plan was not approved," she said. "That was CRR's plan, that was the plan that they wanted because they picked Phase 6 [The 'Renewal'], not Phase 1. They didn't like Phase 1 – they wanted building setbacks farther in, they wanted the underground parking. We had a vote and the compromise was Phase 6 and then Phase 6 was rejected by the village council because it disturbed the community and the water table. And I agree with that – I didn't like Phase 6."
Speaking before the council during the "H-Zone" hearings to determine the fate of 'Renewal', Hauck said on Sept. 19: "Also, I trust Audrey Meyers, Megan Fraser, all the doctors and volunteers I work with and all the spokespersons of the hospital when they tell me that the hospital will have better services and healthier surroundings if they modernize and expand the way they've laid out because they're the health experts...and I believe them."
While it may seem unlikely a perfect solution will ever emerge, Hauck stressed a "healthy" and "reasonable" dialogue must emerge for any meaningful change to happen.
Few would argue taxes in Ridgewood aren't high – Hauck certainly won't. "The taxes in Ridgewood have always been high and uncomfortable but they are definitely pushing the limit and I don't think they can go any higher right now," she said.
That said, according to Hauck, people still move to Ridgewood because of the services they receive. Other municipalities are cutting services – which the village has done in recent years, though it compares favorably to neighboring communities in its offerings – but Hauck says those "premier services" remain a draw and should be maintained.
"We don't have a choice, we can't cut the services," she said. "It's part of what we've always offered our citizens. We have to figure out how to make it work."
The candidate did say, however, that storm communication was woeful and residents deserve answers.
"If Village Hall could communicate with the people better, have a road map for their plan and communicate it to the people, that would at least be half the battle," she said.
Hauck, who said she'd like to "put pressure" on the building department to reach higher levels of efficiency and response time, also panned the retroactive raises for non-union staff and departments heads issued in 2011, calling them "completely unnecessary."
In a similar vein, she called Village Manager Ken Gabbert's 12 percent raise "a bad idea."
"Everyone across America is facing level salaries if not cutbacks," she said. "When things get better, we can talk about raises."
Vitality of CBD
The best thing to help a struggling downtown would be to improve the parking, Hauck believes.
"Almost every day...the parking situation is still a little uncomfortable at times. I think one of the best things for Ridgewood would be to have a really great parking lot," Hauck noted, specifying that garages at the top and bottom of the Central Business District could make a positive impact.
"I think that would be the beginning of a stimulus for more shopping in town...it would drive the market and I venture to say residents in Ridgewood would be thrilled if there were more parking. I think it could be done."
Comparable towns face the same issue, she said, adding that she'd like Ridgewood to be a leader in developing a model of smart planning.
"Nothing happens in a vacuum," she said. "If you stand still, you'll miss out on things."
Though there have been few incidences of pedestrian safety accidents in recent months, the safety of pedestrians remains a concern to Hauck.
"Obviously it's a huge issue and I think the town has to address it or it's going to be unfortunately, another multi-million dollar lawsuit," she said. "Even if it's another expense, it's something we can't afford not to do."
"My idea is to put pedestrian lights at the biggest corners," she said. "Cars obviously don't realize that pedestrians are going to cross when they start to proceed. It's a timing issue. There has to be separate crossing for pedestrians."
"There's nothing we can do to modernize it," Hauck frowned when discussing the village's municipal pool, called a "jewel" by some and a "toilet" by others. "Graydon Pool is a village landmark, it's an institution, it's an historical feature, it's a community center, and it's in a flood plain."
Hauck predicted other candidates would also tout making necessary changes to improve water quality. She said it's a liability, especially given the $10 million judgment rendered against the village after the death of a Korean boy in 2008.
"But what are you going to do?" she said circumspectly. "I don't want to lose it."
Hauck balked at making large, substantive changes to the site, specifically referring to its location in the 100-year flood plain. She did say, however, that another village-owned clear-water pool would be a nice asset to Ridgewood.
"One of the reasons we can't make badge revenue is because it [Graydon] used to be a place where all the young moms would come and just park themselves and visit," Hauck remarked. "And we've lost some of those people...now they're going to the Glen Rock Pool, the Washington Township Pool...because it's a clear-water pool.
"A lake is no longer acceptable to people. People want clear-bottom pools. And Graydon is not a clear-bottom pool," she said.
Asked if having a $100,000 annual loss is worth it, Hauck responded that with a lack of other options, for right now it has to be.
"If it's done well, it would be an asset to the village," Hauck said of the numerous housing development proposals that have sprung up in the CBD in recent months. "Not all of them, maybe one of them. But I think we could benefit from a place for empty nesters to live – people who don't want to maintain property but they want the equivalent of a home in an apartment unit."
There is a concern the housing developments could flood the school system, she said, advocating for the exploration of senior-only housing. "That would seem to solve everyone's problem," she added.
"You don't want to lose the Ridgewood residents who are done raising their children and want to stay in Ridgewood. They don't need the property, they don't need the upkeep and they want to stay in Ridgewood."
The two developments that have been in front of the planning board expect between 15-20 school children combined, according to the developers, which Hauck said could be troublesome with an already "overburdened" school system.
The council elections will be held May 5. Three seats – those of Mayor Keith Killion, Councilman Paul Aronsohn, Councilman Steve Wellinghorst – are up for four-year terms. Candidates need just north of 160 signatures to be added to the ballot (200 or more are recommended). The filing date is March 8. Twelve candidates have picked up packets, sources say. We'll continue to profile the candidates as the election date nears.