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Why do we need to Rethink?

Vision: A more informed, strategic, and capable American civic ecosystem that not only addresses the needs of those living in the United States in a more trusted and effective fashion, but which once again stands up American government as a global model for prosperity, liberty, equity, and innovation.

Mission: To provide those who work in public institutions or whose work addresses community and public issues, access to a nonpartisan, thoughtful, and critical place to question everything and find practical systemic solutions to some of our most pressing needs.

Meet your host - Alex Torpey

Alex Torpey is a New Jersey raised and based public servant, entrepreneur, educator, and consultant.

Most recently, Alex was the Business Administrator for the City of Lambertville, Hunterdon County. Formerly he was the Borough Administrator in Leonia, Bergen County. And he was elected Mayor (Village President) of his hometown of South Orange, New Jersey in 2011 (by 13 votes), which at 23 years-old, made him one of the youngest mayors in the United States.

Alex teaches as a visiting professor of governance and technology at Seton Hall University, and was hired as an adjunct professor of public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Alex is currently an independent governance and management consultant. Most recently, he worked with Sustainable Jersey as the consulting Program Manager for the Public Information and Engagement Program, providing technical assistance to municipalities to help them improve their communications and technology programs.

Previously, he was the founder and managing partner of Veracity Media. Alex earned his Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and his BA in the Political Science of American Law from Hampshire College.

Strategic Municipal Administration

As a municipal administrator, Alex’s work has largely focused on identifying acute and systemic mechanisms for local tax savings, creating more comprehensive and publicly transparent budgeting processes, demanding strict compliance for ethics and data privacy and security, and implementing evidence-based and technology supported programs that meet specific community needs.

Revenue Positive Financial Planning

In both Leonia and Lambertville, Alex saved local taxpayers considerably more than his salary. Alex brought in new grant funds from county, state, federal, and nonprofit sources, totaling more $1.1m in Leonia (~$10m annual budget) and over $100,000 in Lambertville (~$5m annual budget). Alex cut hundreds of thousands of frivolous and inefficient spending on technology and professional service contracts in both communities, including identifying and addressing deficient and expensive professional service providers. He implemented financial programs with an eye towards reducing long-term debt, for example laying out a plan to begin to address the City of Lambertville’s major runaway debt issue by reducing new debt authorized by 97% in his first year, as well as facilitating a comprehensive six-year capital planning and budgeting process to reduce the taxpayer impact of the City’s rising debt over the next six years. (City’s debt service was 24% of operating budget in 2019, projected to grow to 38% by 2024 at prior spending levels).

In each of those communities, Alex identified millions in taxpayer savings over a six-year period by creating and implementing a transparent six-year budgeting process that including holistic planning around facilities, infrastructure, affordable housing obligations, redevelopment, staffing levels, technology, commercial development, rateables, sustainability, and historic preservation. By bringing together real data on current and future financial commitments, local stakeholders had, for the first time, the real ability to make more informed, strategic decisions about their priorities.

Transparent Local Budgeting

For example, as part of this attempt into helping municipalities implement long-term financial planning process that will help them better meet their community’s goals, Alex built on on his award winning transparency projects as Mayor in South Orange by creating processes that were exceedingly transparent. He experimented with new ways through data, text, graphic, and video content to communicate complex financial information in more simple and accessible formats for elected officials and communities. He implemented public budget presentations and discussions – all aimed to help support more informed local decision making by providing financial information in both short-form and long-form. You can view some examples of newly created public presentation materials from Leonia here, and examples from Lambertville here and here.

Below is one example. This is a chart that compares for the prior five years two important indicators, which taken together provide valuable insight. It includes a) the total debt authorized by each individual municipal bond ordinance, and b) the cumulative amount of debt authorized by the City. This meant to help illustrate that if you only approach financing in an ad-hoc fashion (blue label) without a plan, it’s very easy to lose track of the actual total cost (red label). The solution is transparent, multi-year budget processes done in full engagement with local stakeholders and the community.

Compliance, Records Retention, and Ethics

For example, in both communities, Alex quickly brought the organizations to better digital records compliance, implementing enterprise-level data archiving, backup, redundancy and security solutions that not only reduce risk associated with cyber-security threats, but help ensure proper preservation of records, and which helps the Municipal Clerk/records custodian ensure a more strict compliance with the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, an area of widespread deficiency among New Jersey local governments.

Alex implemented and advocated for internal policies to ensure strict compliance among local elected officials with the Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act, even when it at times produced pushback from the officials themselves and created intense friction in the employee/employer relationship. He also provided the public with a unique privacy disclaimer on all electronic communication with officials, that unlike most email disclaimers that incorrectly identify electronic communication with public officials as ‘confidential’ instead informs the member of the public that their email/electronic communication with public employees and officials are actually public documents by default, except for very narrow circumstances.  (South Orange’s email disclaimer was the first in the state). Additionally, Alex hired a Qualified Purchasing Agent (QPA) in both communities to assist in implementing more strict budget control and anti-pay-to-play policies that ensured better compliance with state purchasing laws and created more transparent contract award processes in the future.

Public Goal Setting

Starting in South Orange, as Mayor, Alex brought the governing body together to participate in a formal, public annual goal-setting process. This involved prioritizing and discussing, and re-prioritizing initiatives and policy initiatives from each elected official. Rather than allow the government to be moved in reactive directions, or allow the political goals of individual members to direct public resources, Alex brought the entire group together to discuss and formally memorialize goals.

In Leonia and Lambertville, Alex built on this work, creating a more public-based goal-setting process aligned with the budget, that was aimed at helping flesh out goals from the community, not just municipal stakeholders, and ensure that the municipal organization was moving forward with a comprehensive understanding of community needs, and doing so in a close partnership with the community and local stakeholders.

Much of these goal-setting initiatives relate to ideas around community development/redevelopment and financial planning/budgeting, two areas that are too often disconnected. Alex has worked on many award-winning redevelopment projects as a mayor and administrator, working closely with urban planners and other professionals ensuring that redevelopment happens in ways that meet community needs and help to support and reinvigorate downtown business districts, improve walk/bike-ability, ensure long-term affordability, and improve sustainability practices.

This type of strategic planning is part of the course that Alex teaches in Seton Hall’s MPA program. Doing this type of planning significantly improves organizational efficiency, reduces unintentional bias of public resource utilization, provides clearer direction to department heads/staff, and ensures the public’s ability to provide and engage with the local government’s goals, in addition to a number of other benefits. 

Programs that meet community needs

For example, additionally, Alex sought to implement various programs and policies that helped meet publicly identified community needs. This covers a wide range of programmatic area, such as:

  • In Leonia, won grant funding to put the first fully electric plug-in police vehicle in New Jersey on the road.
  • In Leonia, secured County grant funding and renovated and expanded space for senior services and community programming.
  • In Leonia, assisted in the implementation of a massive local traffic reduction program using new technology platforms.
  • In Leonia, took a two-year long delayed website project and accomplished it in months, adding new features and information, email newsletters and a new online 311 service request system.
  • In Leonia, brought in a professional planner and performed various studies and public discussions affordable housing and redevelopment to help the Borough be proactive about its obligations.
  • In Leonia, worked with staff to digitize and streamline the Borough’s purchasing process
  • In Leonia and Lambertville, implemented various technology solutions, including cloud document collaboration, electronic signatures, online forms and payments, 311 service requests, and new VOIP phone systems that saved thousands over prior contracts.
  • In Lambertville, worked with the Environmental Commission to implement a plastic bag recycling program that brought in hundreds of pounds of plastic in the first few months, as well as a paper reduction program in municipal offices and with municipal cleaning supplies.
  • In Lambertville, began to move the City to a comprehensive 311/online permitting system through Spatial Data Logic
  • In Lambertville, identified several innovative shared service opportunities, including ones which were awarded state grant funds.
  • In Lambertville, helped use existing funds to catch the City up on various multi-year delayed road and capital projects under stricter budget requirements
  • In Lambertville, finished the development of a new City website
  • In Lambertville, created a new email newsletter, quarterly mailed newsletter, and new “issue based” update pages on the City website to try and help increase transparency and communication with the public.
  • In Lambertville, directly implemented and coordinated the City’s COVID-19 response in lieu of the City’s improperly staffed/vacant Office of Emergency Management.
  • In Lambertville, helped move critical community programs forward, such as getting a long-delayed grant for flood mitigation efforts through New Jersey’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program ready to be implemented, which was at risk of expiring and becoming lost.

As Mayor in South Orange

As a mayor, Alex lead his municipality through four years of financial stabilization, new technology adoption, smart redevelopment (including affordable housing and sustainable elements), improvements to public safety and emergency management services, and a significant change in how the public and community were engaged with through numerous transparency and communications programs. A lot of exceptional work by South Orange’s team was accomplished, and you can read many more details about progress made in South Orange here.

Consulting Areas

Alex’s consulting areas of expertise include technology, civic engagement, communications, organizational development, strategic planning, management, policy/program evaluation, and emergency/risk management. Alex previously was the consulting Program Director for Run for America, where he created the new nonpartisan civic leadership program Pathways, and has consulted with organizations such as Living Cities, John Jay College Foundation, and Sustainable Jersey. Previously, Alex was a James Madison Fellow at the Millennial Action Project, on the Advisory Board of the New Jersey New Leaders Council and a member of Sustainable Jersey’s Civic Innovation and Community Engagement Task Force. Alex has spoken with audiences of all types and sizes across all of New Jersey, the United States, and abroad about these topics and more.

And when not working?

Alex is an avid outdoorsman, and enjoys taking road trips on his motorcycle, listening to or (learning how to) making music, reading or discussing philosophy, visiting and learning about new places, and fishing and camping around New Jersey and the northeast. You can find his photography on Instagram or read more about Alex here. Alex currently lives in Delaware Township, in Hunterdon County. Previously within New Jersey, he has lived in Essex, Hudson, Monmouth, and Mercer Counties, as well in Brooklyn, upstate New York, and briefly, East Africa.

 

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