Mount Olive councilwoman speaks out for injustice and rights of all who are vulnerable
By Jillian Risberg
It’s in her blood — and a labor of love for Councilwoman Colleen Labow to help others and she’s been doing it all her life.
So it would seem only natural that she chose a life of service. But it didn’t start out that organically.
Back in 2001, one of Labow’s friends urged her to apply for the town’s newly formed Ethics Committee.
The councilwomen felt it was a bad idea.
After two months of back and forth — Labow says she finally agreed, submitting her application and was actually chosen by the council for that committee.
“In the meantime, the council race was coming up,” she says. “And I decided to run for the Mount Olive Township Council.”
But they informed her that she couldn’t be on the Ethics Committee if she was going to run for council, even though there was no selection criteria.
“So they decided to make changes to the selection criteria and violated the Sunshine Act actually,” Labow says. “John Dorsey (Republican State senator, assemblyman), the township attorney at the time told me if I didn’t like it I would have to sue.”
According to the councilwoman, she didn’t want to sue the town, but she says they were doing everything illegally.
“I did file suit and had an attorney pro bono and I won,” Labow says. “It took two years and he told me it cost the town like $1200 in legal fees.”
She didn’t win that initial election but two years later the councilwoman ran again and secured a seat on the council.
“I started my service in January 2004,” Labow says. “And it became like a joke after that whenever we were talking about ordinances or things you could do with a resolution vs. an ordinance.”
“John Dorsey used to kid around and say, ‘You gotta ask Mrs. Labow, she’s the ordinance expert around here.’”
When it comes to politics, the councilwoman says you like to think on a local level that everybody, including your fellow residents are concerned about the township.
“They always say there’s no Democratic or Republican way to plow the roads or to pave the roads,” Labow says.
Council President Joe Nicastro echoes that sentiment, adding that when he looks at an issue he only sees a Mount Olive issue and what the right thing is to do for the residents. Working with Labow they are able to make that determination.
“Colleen is very knowledgeable and passionate and I enjoy our time together serving on council,” he says.
The councilwoman tries to stay as informed as possible so when a resident comes to her with a question or concern, she is able to direct them to the proper channels.
“But sometimes things do become very political,” Labow says.
Fortunately for the past several years, especially since Rob Greenbaum’s been there, the councilwoman says they haven’t experienced those political games and it’s been great.
“Because my dreams of how government should run, our government is running about as best as it could be,” Labow says. “Everybody is very respectful of others opinions, ya know we don’t always have to agree.”
And the councilwoman says that none of them have any problem agreeing to disagree.
“I love that we all listen to each other and want to hear what the other one has to say,” Labow says. “Sometimes we change our minds, sometimes we don’t.”
She says they’re not fighting about it, instead staying focused and realistically looking at how to perform the most effectively for the township.
“It sounds like it doesn’t seem possible but it’s really exciting that it’s actually working,” the councilwoman says. “That’s why I think when you keep politics out of it you can get things accomplished.”
She calls it an honor to be a member of the council and can’t think of a better government entity to work with than Mayor Rob Greenbaum and all the commissioners.
“We have a rare mindset,” she says. “We all keep what we believe is in the best interest of our community the priority.”
According to Labow, even if you don’t like whoever’s elected, try to work with the person during their term to see what you can get done.
That type of collaborative effort has paid off for the council.
“We have worked very hard to improve roads, programs and services, reduce debt, increase our financial rating and (always) look for more ways to make improvements and keep municipal taxes stable,” the councilwoman says.
Looking ahead to 2020, there will be new tenants in town, as Amazon intends to repurpose the old Sam’s Club (ITC Crossings Mall) into an e-fulfillment center sometime in the new year, the company announced.
Stunned workers were greeted with locked doors when the Budd Lake site closed abruptly in early 2019 due to nationwide budget cuts, along with 175 jobs.
When the giant retailer moves into the space, they plan to hire hundreds of full- and part-time employees.
“They’re contemplating putting a flex warehouse,” Labow says. “Of course they’d have to improve the cap for the landfill and all that other stuff. So all these things are really nice items that are happening.”
On the other hand, the councilwoman says you get the frustrating end of the job and you have to have a lot of patience.
“We had this nice donation of land in the ITC for the section of the Morris Canal piece,” Labow says. “Our insurance company is concerned because of some waste material that it cost us about $30,000 to have an environmental company come to the state-owned access road to get to this junk, clean it up so we can get this really nice donation. But he wants to charge us $8,000 in permit fees.”
Labow says it’s the only section in what’s left of the Morris Canal that actually has water.
“I don’t know if that part is part of it or if it attaches to it but I’m fortunate that I’ve taken a hiking course over in that area and it’s just gorgeous,” the councilwoman says.
She says it’s been three years trying to get this piece of property in the township’s name.
“Then you have people in the public who are constantly complaining, why isn’t our government doing this or that,” Labow says. “Just because you’re not seeing something completed doesn’t mean we’re not working on it.”
“There’s no class to take that teaches you how to be a legislator, you really need to educate yourself and you have to care enough to want to learn.”
According to the councilwoman, whenever there is an accomplishment— you just relish those moments.
“Anytime you’re able to help somebody it’s very, very rewarding,” Labow says.
As chair of the Mount Olive Board of Health, Labow oversees anything related to wellness for the council.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that my colleagues have voted for me to be the chair,” Labow says. “Joe Nicastro was before me and I think Ray Perkins was before Joe and then I was it before Ray — so you kind of switch off and on.”
The council president is proud to serve with Labow.
“She is such a caring person,” Nicastro says. “No matter what an issue is Colleen will give her all to try to help.”
In 1999 to 2001 Labow did just that, joining the Mount Olive Police Department’s Crisis Response Team to become an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
“There’s a big anonymity thing,” Labow says. “If I were to run into somebody that I advocated for in the store you can’t even say hello. Then I realized as an elected official running for office you start to become known, people recognize you and I didn’t want that to interfere with anybody finding their path to a healthier, safer way of life.”
And the councilwoman’s years as a real estate agent have allowed her to share extensive experience with numerous issues related to septic systems and wells.
She also enjoys working with the Board of Health, including Animal Control (with free rabies vaccinations twice a year), the Senior Center/township nurse, septic installation projects and well water testing.
In 2009, she helped launch the Mount Olive TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Project, a grassroots effort to manage the feral cat population in the township.
“The volunteers are fantastic people,” Labow says. “That evolved where all of a sudden people who needed help with having their cats (or even their dogs) spayed or neutered, resources, make connections — find homes for some of the pets — it was wonderful to keep that group going.”
And she’s especially passionate about the Mount Olive Health Improvement Coalition, trying to find better ways to connect with the community on wellness related issues.
“Sometimes we have our seniors and disabled population, which is really hard for them to get out as much on their own,” Labow says. “And there are a lot of people who are lonely.”
According to the Board of Health chair, having a healthy life isn’t all about physical health. So in one of the coalition meetings they discussed meeting up for various activities, possibly (with Labow saying she loves this idea) a crochet or knitting class at the library, book of the month club, holiday cookie swap and go back to basics.
Labow recalled a time when there were quilting parties and whole communities would get together, sharing snips of fabric to make a great big quilt.
“I’ve been collecting all these patterns for mittens and hats,” the councilwoman says. “I used to crochet with my grandmother — she taught me how. And my sister, niece and I went to that place in Hackettstown; Pinot’s Palette and made chunky afghans. It was really cool.”
When Labow first became chair of the Board of Health a couple of terms ago she volunteered for Meals on Wheels, even going on apartment inspections because she’s all about having a hands-on approach — to get a feel for what everyone in the department does.
“I’ll never forget as long as I live that in some cases people have to wait for somebody to come by and take out your garbage or change a lightbulb,” Labow says. “Probably not supposed to do stuff like that but what are you gonna do, I’m right there.”
So they’re trying to set up a program for those who don’t have family close by who can visit on a regular basis to check on them and help with the little things.
“Get volunteers and we have to vet the people and make sure they are on the up and up plus reliable that they will actually be there,” the councilwoman says. “I think it’ll work out just fine; it’s that everything takes so long. I’m more of the, if something needs to be done — let’s just do it.”
And they have to be very conscientious to make sure to follow that line and not waver because Labow says there’s too much at stake.
“It’s always nice to get that reassurance and people give you the thumbs up and want you to keep going,” the councilwoman says. “I’m out there doing everything I can.”