Sunday, February 5, 2023

INTERESTING FOLKS: Knowlton Mayor Adele Starrs Adjourns After 9 Years at the Helm


Lori Cielsla, deputy director of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, recognizing Knowlton Mayor Adele Starrs for her nine years of service.Photo by J. Phalon, Dec. 2022

After nine years on the Knowlton Township Committee, the past eight as mayor, Adele Starrs will be moving on to her next chapter. The town is probably breathing a little easier as a result of her tenure.

Breathing easier in the literal sense. The coal-fired electrical generating plant in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, the length of a football field away from Knowlton, is what initially prompted Starrs to run for the committee.

“I was a Girl Scout leader, and some of the girls in my troop had asthma,” Starrs said. “I started realizing that too many people in Knowlton had asthma.”

After asking some questions of local and state officials, she learned just how much the coal plant was contributing to health problems in Knowlton.

“I had chosen to live in this town,” said Starrs, who moved with her family to Knowlton in 2000. “I had little kids at the time. I felt that I was exposing them to something really dangerous, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Former long-time Township Committeeman Rene Mathez offers the thanks of the community for outgoing Mayor Adele Starrs. Photo by J. Phalon, Dec. 2022

She ran for a seat on the Township Committee in 2013. Although the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had previously made bureaucratic moves to get the coal plant shut down, Starrs’ visible advocacy of the campaign gave it the boost it needed, say people involved at the time.

Starrs insists she was just one of many parts in the efforts, but Knowlton resident Tracey Allen said Starrs’ advocacy was instrumental in getting the plant closed. “She made it happen,” Allen said.

Governing in a town like Knowlton is not all glamorous David-vs.-Goliath stories like taking on utility companies, however. Somebody still has to make sure the trains run on time. Or, if you don’t have any actual trains, at least make sure the garbage is picked up on time, the water is drinkable, the potholes are fixed and so on.

The township’s population of 2,904 ranks it No. 443 of 564 municipalities in the state. Small town, one might say. But Knowlton is New Jersey’s No. 8 largest in terms of area, at 25.3 square miles.

The irony is that elected officials in towns with small populations like Knowlton often have more work on their hands than their counterparts is larger communities. A town as small as 10,000 people in New Jersey could easily have dozens—or more—of employees, not even including school staff. Those numbers usually include full-time managers, administrators, tax collectors and others to for the day-to-day running of a town.

Many of those tasks fall to the elected officials in smaller municipalities.

“People think that because you’re a small town and there aren’t that many people there’s not much to this, but in my opinion there is,” Starrs said. “We don’t have a town-wide administrator.”

So, when a problem such as the salt levels in drinking water appears, the mayor and committee members essentially become the town water department.

“We had to look in detail what the causes were,” Starrs said. Addressing the issue has including investigations into the sources of the salt and minerals, determining if the problems were related to individual wells or community wells, and what short- and long-term fixes could be found.

They included the construction of a new storage silo for road ice treatments along with reducing or replacing road salt with calcium chloride and other less corrosive alternatives, she said. The town also is installing reverse-osmosis systems where needed to reduce the minerals. Longer-term possibilities being examined include digging deeper wells and tying into other water systems.

But they will be ongoing issues inherited by the next mayor. Along with the never-ending saga of rock walls along Interstate 80 through the Delaware Water Gap, the expected traffic jolt on Route 46 related to massive warehouses under construction in nearby towns and the ongoing efforts to maintain a rural atmosphere in the face of development pressures.

Looking back on her nine years as an elected official, Starrs said she is proud of improvements to the township made during her three terms. In particular, improved recreation facilities, such as Tunnel Field, and the expansion of high-speed internet within Knowlton.

“The internet used to be thought of as just entertainment,” Starrs said. “But now it’s as important as electric or water to a home,” she added, pointing out many people need a high-speed connections not only for their jobs and for their health care, as well.

She said she also feels she’s leaving a governing body with a much-improved sense of collegiality.

“We didn’t always agree on everything,” Starrs said “But we did rise above our passions and worked together.”

And there were challenges. When she was first elected mayor, Starrs was only the second woman to serve in that position in Knowlton’s history, and the first to be named to a full term. There were a few people who didn’t quite abide by the idea of a woman as mayor, even in the 21st century.

“There were a few people who would not speak directly to me as mayor at committee meetings,” Starrs said.

But she didn’t let other people’s problems be her own, and for eight more years she helmed Knowlton.

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