By Christine Graf
Denville town councilman John Murphy was born in Scotland and came to the United States when he was ten years old. When asked why his family left Scotland, he answered, “That’s a long story. I have to delve back into Irish history to give you a complete overview.”
The abridged version of the story involves his great grandfather who was from
County Down, one of the six counties that form Northern Ireland. Due to the uprisings that have long been a part of Irish history, his great grandfather decided it wasn’t safe for his sons to remain in Ireland. As a result, Murphy’s grandfather and three of his brothers immigrated to Scotland. The three brothers eventually moved to America and settled in Morristown, but Murphy’s grandfather remained in Scotland.
In 1964, Murphy’s parents took a trip to the United States to visit their extended family in Morristown. They liked it so much that they moved there the following year. Murphy attended public school in Morristown and later earned an A.S. in business administration from County College of Morris and a B.S. in business education from Trenton State College.
In 1987, Murphy moved to Denville where he continues to reside. Many of his cousins live in Scotland, and he travels there several times a year. Murphy is a member of Scotland’s world-renowned St. Andrew’s Golf Club. It is one of the world’s oldest golf clubs and is recognized as the birthplace of golf.
Before retiring, Murphy worked as an accountant for a Fortune 400 medical device manufacturer. His wife, Stacey, is a Denville native and a Rutgers graduate. She is a self-employed business consultant and executive development coach. She is also an adjunct business professor at Caldwell University.
Murphy and his wife have a daughter, Christina. They adopted her from China when she was eleven months old. Christina settled in Frederick, Maryland, after graduating from college.
“I feel like we have a totally international family. My wife is born and bred in Denville, I’m from Scotland, and my daughter is from China,” he said. “Our daughter is the joy of both of our lives. It was a different world 23 years ago when we adopted her, and people would come up to us to and say, ‘She is such a lucky girl.’ We would say, ‘No, we are very fortunate parents.’”
When talking about his life, Murphy uses the word “blessed” on numerous occasions. It is for that reason that both he and Stacey feel an obligation to give back to their community. Murphy has volunteered in Denville for the past 20 years. In addition to coaching youth sports, he has volunteered for many local events and has served on numerous committees.
He said it was Stacey’s civic involvement that swayed him to get involved in town government. Most recently, she has been a member of the Municipal Alliance Committee.
In 2005, Murphy volunteered to be part of Denville’s Zoning Board of Adjustments. He rose through the ranks and eventually became chairman. In 2012, the mayor asked him if he would consider running for town council. At the time, Murphy was still working, and his daughter was a senior in high school.
“I didn’t want to miss her senior year. I told the mayor, with all due respect, that I would prefer to give it a pass. He came back to me two years later and said, ‘Well, your daughter isn’t in school anymore,” said Murphy with a laugh.
Murphy agreed to run and was elected as an at-large councilman. Early in his term, he was assigned to become the liaison for economic development.
“That probably is what I feel has been my most important contribution in my first term,” he said. “As I was winding down my time on the zoning board of adjustments, we had an attorney present to us a use variance for a retail space in town. He stated at that time that we had 27 vacancies in our downtown. At that time, the Maine Street New Jersey program was drying up, and the Chamber of Commerce was faltering due to a lack of volunteers and participation.”
As a result, several local business owners including Tom Dean, the owner of Norman Dean Home for Services, asked Murphy to join a subcommittee for economic development. The purpose of the committee was to help form a downtown business improvement district (BID).
“From that committee, we formed Downtown Denville Business Improvement District. We wrote an ordinance for the council to evaluate which they subsequently approved. And we wrote bylaws for the BID,” said Murphy.
Denville’s BID is a non-profit that is funded by downtown property owners. The BID has an elected Board of Directors and Executive Director. The board consists of a mixture of business owners, landlords, and professionals. All members of the board have a desire to improve Denville’s downtown.
Unlike Chamber of Commerce’s which typically rely on voluntary financial contributions, BIDs assess a tax charge to the owners in the district. For that reason, BIDs have a more consistent flow of income.
“So they then have enough financial clout to budget for improvements, budget for studies, budget to beautify. If the Chamber has a really bad year and they don’t get their contributions, they can’t make improvements,” said Murphy.
Some of the funds raised by the BID have been used to beautify the town. They have also been used to fund events that the Chamber of Commerce is no longer able to sponsor.
“In the last three years, those events have grown bigger and better than they have ever been,” said Murphy. “From the positive steps that we’ve seen, people now want to get involved.”
It was because of the success of the BID that Denville has been able to sponsor its newest annual event—the Lunar New Year. The owner of Hunan Taste is the main sponsor of the event that features dragon dancers and a dog parade. It takes place in the middle of February, a time when Murphy said people are suffering from “cabin fever and winter doldrums.”
“This was our second year. It was the year of the pig, so we had a pig lead our dog parade,” Murphy said with a laugh. “We took a Sunday in the middle of February and put almost 1,000 people in our downtown.”
Before the BID was formed, Denville’s downtown has 27 vacancies. That number has been dramatically reduced, and there are just a small number of vacancies now.
“That kind of points to the success that the BID has had,” said Murphy. “What I say to people is that we want to keep our downtown vibrant at a time when downtowns are struggling to compete. Our administration and council are really proactive in protecting the jewel which we think is our downtown.”
During his tenure on the town council, Murphy has been the liaison for many different committees and initiatives. Each council member receives new liaison assignments each year. This is done to ensure that members are well rounded.
Council members also attend council meeting that are open to the public. Murphy said public attendance varies based on the “hot button issues” that are of interest to particular neighborhoods. He admits that some of these issues are controversial but points out that the council is required to follow state mandates. He said one of the biggest issues facing the town is related to the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).
“In my opinion, the current and previous governors and previous legislatures have not lived up to their responsibilities in terms of establishing targets for communities, and so that the whole issue has found itself in the courts,” said Murphy. “Just about every community in the state is in court trying to establish a fair number of what should be developed. Denville is trying to be proactive in this regard, and we submitted plans to the courts. We are still in a stage of trying to get a number determined.”
He is concerned that this number will not be practical or reasonable. If that happens, he said it would put a great burden on Denville’s school, infrastructure, and police force.
“We’re trying to work with a number that minimizes the impact to some of those areas if not all of them,” said Murphy.
Dealing with controversial issues is just one of the many challenges faced by those who serve on the town council. For Murphy, it is also difficult to have to explain to his constituents that a solution that is best for the town may not be the best for them personally.
“It’s hard having to say to somebody, ‘I understand exactly where you are coming from, but we are going to have to agree to disagree on how we are going to go forward,’” he said.
Despite the challenges, Murphy said he finds his job as councilman to be rewarding. He enjoys connecting with people and helping fellow community members.
“My wife and I have been blessed. I’m at a stage in my life—I’ve been at this stage for the last 20-25 years—it’s time to give back, and I’m just happy to do that,” he said. “There is satisfaction in helping people.”