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Montgomery Mayor Devra Keenan Looks Forward to Connecting the Township in 2022

By Oliver Huang | November 17, 2021


The past year has been quite crazy for the mayor of Montgomery, Devra Keenan. Leading a sophisticated township of about 23,300 residents during a pandemic would be rough on any leader.


“At one point, I was literally at the Shop-Rite parking lot, saying to people: ‘hey did you get vaccinated,'” Kennan says. She is proud Montgomery has had a vaccination rate of more than 90 percent, one of the best in Somerset County. Keenan attributes this to the township’s heavy focus on vaccinations.


Since Sadaf Jaffer stepped down as mayor in late 2020, Mayor Keenan has been busy running the town, along with the township committee. The Montgomery News sat down with Mayor Keenan (on Friday night at 9 pm) to ask about her and the township committees’ current and future plans for Montgomery, and to reflect on the past year.


For Keenan, the pandemic helped illustrate the importance of the outdoors, and of building sidewalks and pathways in a once rural community. "The use of our parks and our pathways went up exponentially” during the pandemic, says Keenan. One of the key things the mayor emphasized is making the town more walkable.


”We're a very, very car-dependent town, and much of the town does not have sidewalks,” she said.


While Keenan emphasizes that making the entire town walkable will likely take years, one particular pathway will make a significant difference. The walking path would connect the high school on Route 601 to the schools on Burnt Hill Road, and lead down Orchard Road to the new municipal complex at the Route 206 state highway. She explains that “if we can connect our schools to our library, that's a big deal, I think, for kids to be able to walk to the (new) library from school.”

Montgomery Mayor Devra Keenan inside the new Montgomery Library, which is scheduled to open this spring.

Because the township is so large, (32.5 square miles according to the US Census Bureau) it obviously impossible to get around town simply by walking. In addition to more sidewalks, Keenan has also called for better public transportation.”We are not well connected with the rest of our county,” says Keenan. She said the township has few bus stops and doesn’t even have routes connecting senior housing to the new library and municipal complex, which is expected to open this spring.


Expanding public transit is difficult because Montgomery has little influence over public transit routes, she said. The bus and shuttle routes are run by NJ Transit and the county, but Keenan explains that the township can talk to other government leaders to get new bus routes.


“There's very little in our control, but we can reach out to people,'' she said. We can “talk to people at different levels to say we need to get this down here and make the case for this.” Keenan says that the township is currently working with the Somerset County commissioners to expand shuttle services, including connecting Montgomery Township to Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg.


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Unfortunately, making the township more walkable will be really expensive, and can’t be funded with just municipal tax dollars. “I would love to be able to safely cross Route 206 over with a greenway," whe says. "Now that is a big, expensive thing, and we certainly can't do it with the local tax dollars that we have,” she says. Instead, Keenan emphasizes the importance of using county, state, and federal tax dollars to help improve the town infrastructure. Keenan believes that the town has “done a great job” of using grants to improve the town so far.


For example, Montgomery has heavily taken advantage of outside funding during COVID. The township directly received $2.2 million in pandemic relief from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan, but the town also applied for grants from the county government’s COVID related funds.


Keenan says Montgomery could take even more advantage of outside funding. In fact, she points out that Montgomery is working with Millennium Strategies, a grant writing service, to help identify new grant opportunities to help improve the town.


Keenan is also excited about the new municipal building, projected to open in spring. She’s excited that the township will be able to get upgraded facilities. For example, the police department, Keenan points out, is housed in lackluster conditions. “If you walk through our current police department, it's just not what Montgomery deserves, or what the police deserve,” she says. The police department has largely outgrown its facilities in the current municipal building. The new building would give the department more space. It would also give officers some desperately needed amenities, such as a changing room for female officers. (The township currently has one female officer but hopes to hire more in 2022.)


Keenan says she also is excited to hold in-person committee meetings at the new building. The current municipal building has “limited public meeting space,” Keenan adds. As a result of limited ventilation, and the health department's need for extra space, there is only one public meeting room. While the township committee is slated to hold in person municipal buildings in January, many of the committees are not able to meet in person, due to limited space. The new space would finally allow all committees to meet in-person.


The last part of the municipal building Keenan is excited about is the new library. The new library “is going to be top notch,” she points out. Keenan adds that “I just toured the construction site. The library space is huge. It's great. It's going to be a beautiful, beautiful place, and well equipped.”


Throughout all these government projects, Keenan emphasizes the importance of including young people in government. The township has a “Youth Leadership Committee,” intended to attract young people to consider a future role in government. The youth committee is open to teens, aged 13 to 18.


Besides learning about local government, teens also get to make their own impact on the government. Teens are put on committees and commissions. While some may think young people bring little to the table, Keenan explains that despite their age, young people can bring a fresh perspective.


The thing that’s been overshadowing this entire year has been COVID. One of the biggest difficulties has been vaccinating the population. Keenan also praises the township's dedicated public health staff. In one instance, she tells us, there was a teen who was quite nervous about receiving the vaccine. The township’s health staff went to great lengths to ensure the teen was comfortable by giving the vaccine in the car.


While Keenan doesn’t know if she’ll be appointed to another term as Montgomery’s mayor, mayors in Montgomery are members of the township committee appointed to one year terms by the committee, she’s committed to working on the township council and improving the lives of Montgomery residents.


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