PANDEMICS DON'T COME WITH BLUEPRINTS by Donny Levit
Village President Sheena Collum and Mayor Frank McGehee forge a powerful leadership bond
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his inaugural address in 1933, he did so in the midst of the Great Depression. He urged the country to recognize the need for what he called a “mutual alliance” amongst communities, states, and institutions in order to handle the economic and social crisis. “It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States,” said FDR. “It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure.”
For South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee, the interdependence between the two towns has played a crucial role in leading the communities through the initial stages of the COVID-19 crisis. While the pathway to recovery is still extremely unclear, the two leaders spoke with us in early July 2020 to reflect upon how they handled the first months of the pandemic.
Mayor Frank McGehee, who has served on Maplewood’s Township Committee since 2016, was sworn in as mayor on January 1, 2020. He certainly couldn’t predict that he’d be presiding during a pandemic eight weeks after his first day on the job.
“It was the week of March 9th when information really started to come in,” says McGehee, who uses “Mayor Frank” as his email signature. “[New York Gov. Andrew M.] Cuomo had started to mention locking down New Rochelle in a quarantine. I began talking with our health officer [Candice Davenport] and I called my brother, who’s a physician in Portland, Oregon.” After a series of conversations with his township committee colleagues, McGehee decided to call a state of emergency for Maplewood. “I spoke to Sheena and she was thinking the same thing. We called the state of emergency at 11:00 p.m. on March 12th. We were the first township in Essex County to do so.”
“The week before we declared a state of emergency for South Orange, I was presenting at three different conferences,” recalls Village President Sheena Collum, who is currently serving her second term in the position. “The gravity of how big this situation was going to get for us still had not resonated with me. I was eating from the buffet table and shaking hands with hundreds of people, literally in a span of ten days before we brought all of our department heads in for a kind of town wide briefing.”
Without a previous blueprint for addressing a pandemic, both leaders had to come up with a plan to address the emergency on a hyperlocal level. “Turning the valves off of a firehose is easier said than done,” says McGehee. “It’s a collaborative effort that we had to take on. It was such a surreal time.”
Both township leaders spoke of the immediate need to address food insecurities throughout the community which they feared would be greatly affected by the sudden shutdowns. And they were quick to credit the invaluable communal spirit of their leadership communities and municipal departments, health officers, police, fire, EMS, and Public Works who ensured that the towns would have a continuity of services.
“Sheena and I wanted to make sure that what we were doing in Maplewood was being complimented in South Orange so there was no confusion. There’s a need for synergy in the interest of public safety,” says Mayor Frank. “I also extended that same courtesy to [Union] Mayor Michèle [Delisfort]. She and I actually go to the same church, at St. Joseph’s. We also wanted to align accordingly with Mayor Jackie [Benjamin Lieberberg] in Millburn. So there was a conversation and collaboration held among those four municipalities.”
When asked about what has been the most difficult part of their jobs, both Collum and McGehee spoke of the loss of life. With schools shuttered, independent businesses forced to close, jobs lost, and family dynamics challenged, the deaths hit them deeply.
“To be quite honest, I found myself crying a whole lot,” says Collum. “There’s a balance between trying to be a leader and be the village president and let people know that you’re in control. [...] But every time we would get a positive [test for COVID-19], or every time I found out about a death, or, even just community members who had somebody pass away in their family that weren’t in South Orange, it’s hard not to end up in a place where the emotional strain of just listening to these stories doesn’t just make you cry. And it’s not even just the loss of life and the disease and the virus itself, but also the economic and financial collapse for so many of our families. I’ve actually loaned some people money, of the little that I have, because everybody has something they can share with others who are in a worse situation.”
“Calling the loved ones or next of kin of our community members who passed away was difficult,” adds McGehee. “What do you say to someone who just lost their mom or their dad? They’re grieving so much and they need to feel your comfort. After those phone calls, I had to take some time for myself. There’s one week where we had seven or eight residents pass away. And that was hard...just hard to make two calls in a day. Their reaction and emotions are transferable to me. I absorbed their pain and it hurt a lot.”
And of course, both leaders have been challenged to manage their own families while focusing on others. “I want to thank both my wife Marie, and my daughter, Madison – and my dog Sunshine, too. They’ve been very understanding,” says McGehee. “I never let them absorb things that I absorbed. I’ve kept it on a need-to-know basis and I think that was helpful so that we can still have a somewhat normal household.”
Because Collum’s parents live in Port St. Lucie, Florida, her challenge has been to connect with them from over a thousand miles away. “I downloaded all the delivery apps for food, and I started just sending them stuff, as much as humanly possible,” she says. “And just keeping that open line of communication with them has been really important for me.”
However, Collum’s greatest concern was making sure her parents were taking the pandemic seriously. “As much as my parents love me, they have their own local government and they have their own governor [Ron DeSantis] in the state of Florida. It was important for me to communicate to them that I thought that their governor was a tool and that people would die under his leadership and begging them to stay at home and not leave,” she says. “[Gov. DeSantis] was saying absurd things such as kids can’t contract this and it’s not that bad, this is a hoax, etc. And so it’s very tough because they watch the news and they see their leaders sending a very different message than what their daughter who’s up in New Jersey is trying to communicate to them about the virus.”
So what collective vision do Collum and McGehee share for the next phase of the pandemic? Both continue to prioritize providing transparency to the community and policies based on data. And they believe the best approach is harnessing each other’s particular strengths.
“I think it’s great to collaborate with Sheena. It’s having a conversation with a partner who has like-minded values,” says McGehee. “A lot of times in our roles, we don’t have a ton of resources. I can rely on getting her honest opinion.”
“I absolutely adore Frank,” says Collum. “I think it’s times of crisis that bring us even closer together as governing bodies. Even things as simple as when I came up with a design [of face covering signage]. I sent it to him and shared the file. And Frank would update me on something that he was doing unique with the business community, such as a virtual town hall with the local businesses. I would take his great idea, and we would do it in South Orange.”
And of course, both leaders continue to implore the community to be vigilant. “Carry your face covering like you carry your phone. We have to be thoughtful and patient. We see examples of places like Texas [rolling back its reopening plan] – it’s an example of rushing too quickly,” says McGehee. “But I am happy to see residents patronizing our businesses. I’m happy to see families on our walks and enjoying our parks. And I’m happy to see cars parked in the lots that used to be so deserted.”
“I’m always paying attention to crowds and whether people are wearing their face coverings. I actually have a bullhorn in my car. And a backup bullhorn,” says Collum, who doesn’t shy away from using it to remind the public to stay vigilant. “I’m sure I’ve annoyed some people. And I’ve said this to all of our first responders: Be proactive. Use friendly reminders. None of us are using Governor Murphy’s executive order to try and issue summonses. It’s really about the collective spirit of the community, understanding the value of what we’re doing right now, why we’re doing it, and then making sure that they are setting an example for other residents as well.”
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.