Local politics impacts the lives of residents daily. Yet, most newspapers prefer to report on state or national politics rather than the races in the towns that they cover. Voters should have the opportunity to know a little about their municipal candidates as well as state and national candidates.
I had the opportunity to interview candidate for Atlantic Highlands Council member, Ellen O’Dwyer Woods. What follows is the transcript of that interview.
JFG: What was the catalyst for you to seek public office?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “My fellow Atlantic Highlands volunteers in town nudged me to “go for it”. They say I have “mad skills” and boundless energy. Without hesitation, I agreed. I knew that Atlantic Highlands, like countless others in a COVID19 era, would face revenue shortfalls due to business closures, unemployment, and other challenges.
Candidates often say, “We should run the borough like a business,” but they don’t have the business experience to know how to do that. I am a market research and business analytics consultant, with experience managing multi-million-dollar budgets, running operations, conducting forecasts and scenario planning, and leading teams in collaboration and getting things done. I’ve run a medical transportation company with over 20 employees and held senior positions in biotech corporations.
I feel now is the time to offer my skills, experience, and expertise to the Atlantic Highlands borough council as we are facing extreme impacts to our community’s overall health, especially due to the pandemic.”
JFG: Is this your first foray into politics?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods “Yes. But it is not my first foray into civic leadership. I have always been an active member of my community. I’ve held leadership positions on the First Aid Squad, Friends of the Library Board, and various charities and committees.”
JFG: What do you see as the most unexpected aspect of your campaign? What has surprised you?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods “People are surprised and relieved to know how deeply committed I am and have always been to the environment and science. I, in turn, am surprised by the number of calls and emails I receive offering encouragement and suggestions about how we can ensure Atlantic Highlands is safe, beautiful, and affordable. I was willing to knock on every door in town, and indeed visited many residents, but I was truly surprised by the number of people who contacted me first. It’s inspiring.”
JFG: If your campaign succeeds, what is the first thing you plan to do, on your first day?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “I am already involved in sharing ideas and proposing solutions, but once sworn in, will be in a stronger position to move plans forward. I will move on initiatives relating to public safety, open space, and developing plans for new revenue streams, but my approach will be to focus on the local.
There is too much interest by other candidates on politically charged national issues that are, quite frankly, outside of the borough council’s purview. While I enjoy a hearty debate as much as anyone in my leisure time, the truth is, that the Council’s job is local. We must focus on what is ours to protect and ours to change.”
JFG: What are the 3 main issues facing your community/district, and how do you plan on addressing them?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “I will work with my colleagues in office to focus on our keeping property taxes down, stimulating local businesses, and protecting open spaces and waterfronts. Critical for me is supporting our local police force, as the safety of our community depends upon it.
On the environmental front of which I am passionate, we must be creative in developing ordinances for stormwater management based on NJDEP changes and finding new ways to acquire waterfront and open space for public use. I want to create win-win solutions in establishing ordinances that will result in offsetting open space acquisition costs, allowing for smart development, and doing the right thing for our environment.
One example of a win-win solution might be to guarantee public access to the beachfront at a developer’s cost, cluster zoning private residences, thus reserving ample space for green infrastructure to remediate stormwater drainage, and preserving the beauty of the town, and…actually, that’s a win-win-win solution for the public, the developer, and the environment with no increase in tax burden to the community.
With the looming threat of state-mandated school consolidation, we must be proactive in assessing potential school partners of our choice, rather than passively accepting whatever the state wishes to send our way. We must improve OEM readiness and optimize revenue streams to offset property tax burden. These must be accomplished with strategic thinking and creativity.”
JFG: Politically, what are your beliefs, what is your “platform”?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “My political views are based in creative pragmatism. Before this election, I never debated religion or politics with anyone. I’m open to what the community has to say and will support what the community wants to accomplish. I propose we focus on public safety, the environment, and new business revenues.
Most people think of Atlantic Highlands as a lovely and quaint waterfront town, and it is. But there are serious issues here, local issues that the Council must address proactively. Some of our friends and neighbors in town are having trouble paying their property taxes and water bills, and the council members we elect must not be afraid to say NO to higher taxes.
There will be a lot of pressure to raise taxes next year and we need committed individuals who can stand up to the pressure. My time as a Captain in the Army helped me to be strong in the face of such pressure. That’s in part how I earned an Army Commendation Medal. We haven’t seen such a commitment from some other council members. They have a more “go along to get along” attitude about taxes. The borough must be creative in building new revenue streams by leveraging its own assets, encouraging businesses, and assessing beneficial collaborations.”
JFG: Regarding COVID19, do you believe that the state/county/town has made the correct decisions in attempting to mitigate the virus? Do you believe that we should open restaurants, theaters, gyms, etc., completely?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods “We are evolving as we learn more about Covid and should make the best decisions based upon that knowledge and circumstance. However, with appropriate safety protocols, many businesses can resume full operations, although the way they work may be different. I do believe restaurants can handle more than a blanket 25% capacity, and larger gyms may already be back to full opening, even with a lower capacity, because they have the square footage and never had maximum capacity even at popular times.
Many restaurants will end up closing if we cannot increase the 25% capacity, as the cold weather is upon us. Diners will want to be inside or not patronize at all. Atlantic Highlands Republicans increased summer boat capacity and shore business by proposing safe solutions specific to the sailing and fishing industries. We have to look at creative pragmatic means, including ventilation systems, paperless menus on the cellphones, table barriers (e.g., plexiglass), among other ideas for the restaurant businesses as well. This is a time for American ingenuity and entrepreneurship.”
JFG: Should wearing a mask be legislated in an effort to mitigate COVID19?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “Executive Orders regarding maintaining 6 feet of social distancing or wearing a mask and wearing a mask indoors except to eat or drink in a restaurant were based on science. I believe education, not legislation is in order. There are people who don’t understand the purpose of the mask is not just to protect just the wearer, and that it’s 6 feet OR a mask outdoors, so that people can be outdoors and not wear a mask as long as they maintain 6 feet from another person.”
JFG: Tell us about you, the person. Who are you?
Ellen O’Dwyer Woods: “I’m a life-long resident of Monmouth County, having lived in Hazlet and Colts Neck before settling in Atlantic Highlands. I grew up in a big family with an Asian mother who was an artist and an Irish father who was a contractor. From my mother, I got creativity. From my father, pragmatics. That makes for a dynamic duo of problem-solving skills.
I studied biology at Rider University, and then, after active duty as a Captain in the U.S. Army, I went back to school for an MBA from Seton Hall. I owned a medical transportation company, and now I’m a market research and business analytics consultant for biopharma, bringing therapies to patients suffering from rare diseases.
I’ve been volunteering since the age of 12, when I joined the Civil Air Patrol’s Bayshore Squadron. In Colts Neck, I was a first responder for the First Aid Squad, a founding member of the Friends of the Library board, and a rehabilitator for retired racehorses. Since moving to Atlantic Highlands, I’m serving on the Environmental Commission, and the Beautification and Public Relations Committee. I’m also a member of the American Legion and Friends of the Library. I get my nature fix as a docent for the Sandy Hook Lighthouse and Officer’s Row History House at Fort Hancock, and this summer, I co-founded the new Atlantic Highlands Garden Club.”
As election day nears, we wish all our candidate success in all they do.