Montgomery Township Committee Continues to Achieve Demographic Firsts in 2022
By Anna Reinalda | January 8, 2022
Montgomery Township Committee selected Devra Keenan as mayor for a second year, and Shelly Bell as deputy mayor at its reorganization meeting on Thursday. The 2022 Township Committee continues to sport exemplary diversity.
Devra Kennan is one of the very few woman mayors in the state of New Jersey. Of the 490 New Jersey municipalities with populations less than 30,000, 86 or 17.6 percent have women mayors. Among the 75 cities with populations over 30,000 in New Jersey, only 8 or 10.7 percent have women mayors as of 2020, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Shelly Bell, the first African American to serve on township committee in Montgomery, is now also the first to serve as deputy mayor.
Neena Singh became the first Sikh woman in New Jersey’s history of public officials, and the first Montgomery committee member born in India.
Kent Huang continues his term as an American of Chinese heritage. Asian Americans make up more than 6 percent of the US population, but less than 1 percent of elected leaders across all levels of government, according to In Our Hands PAC.
Marvin Schuldiner, a member of Congregation Kehilat Shalom, joked that he became the first Democratic committeeman to be re-elected since 2007.
One area in which township committee lacks diversity is political affiliation. All five members belong to the Democratic Party. As such, New Jersey State Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) and New Jersey Senator-elect Andrew Zwicker (D-Kingston), swore in the newly elected township committee members via Zoom on January 6.
This diverse assortment of town officials is a testament to the increasingly broad demographic of Montgomery residents, and a medley of rich cultures, backgrounds, and values coming together.
Bell and Singh, two “firsts” on the Township Committee, expressed their pride and gratitude to be able to represent the town.
“As the first person of African American descent to hold this office in Montgomery, I will be especially focused on making sure that all communities have a seat at the table,” Bell said. “I will also prioritize transparency and openness in government.”
Bell’s vision for 2022 circulates around town relations. Having organized a successful coffee meet-and-greet with the police department last year, she looks forward to fostering more communication between residents and town officials.
“Building connections has never been more important,” Bell said. “That’s why I will continue to make this a major priority in 2022.”
Committeewoman Singh commented that she is honored to be the first Indian American, born in India, to serve as a Montgomery Township Committeewoman, and the first Sikh woman in New Jersey elected to municipal government.
“As an immigrant woman I always believed in a welcoming America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, in an America open to the dreams and hopes of an immigrant girl from a small town in India. I sincerely believe America was and is the immigrant's dream,” she said. "The biggest blessing for me is the young and old people who have reached out to me to say that they are encouraged and empowered to see someone who looks like them leading their town.”
Mayor Keenan took time during the Montgomery Township Committee meeting to hark back to the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. It is necessary, she said, to facilitate healing in both local and national governments.
“We are a nation profoundly divided,” Keenan said. “While tonight’s meeting does not bring a change in partisan control of this governing body, Montgomery’s reorganization meeting continues a time-honored process grounded in our democratic ideals of self government.”
On a more positive note, Keenan highlighted some accomplishments of 2021, including achieving a Silver Certification for Sustainable Jersey, successfully reopening schools only one day after Hurricane Ida destroyed parts of town, and passing several important property maintenance, stormwater management, and electric vehicle charging ordinances.
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In their remarks, all committee members noted the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many commended the efforts of Montgomery Health Officer Devangi Patel for working to facilitate testing and vaccines as efficiently as possible.
Eager to move forward, committee members shared their goals for the coming year.
Schuldiner outlined his primary objectives for the coming year as follows: To redevelop the State Route 206 and County Route 518 intersection, to gather public input for the improvement of public shopping areas, and to improve the quality of life for residents, including their mental health resources.
“We are a town of 24,000 relatively wealthy people, yet we need to go elsewhere for so many things,” Schuldiner said. "Bringing upscale restaurants, recreational facilities, and more to Montgomery Township is key to making Montgomery an even more desirable place to live."
This year the committee will also seek to replace Township Engineer Gail Smith, who announced her retirement to begin later this year after 18 years of diligent work. Smith recently became the first woman to be recognized as New Jersey’s Municipal Engineer of the Year, Keenan said.
Township Administrator Donato Nieman is also scheduled to retire this year after 23 years of service.
“2022 is going to be a transition year for Montgomery,” Keenan said.
The public comment segment of the meeting was abundantly populated by former committee members calling in to give their well wishes to the new board.