By JOHN T. WARD
Hoping to bust through what they see as political gridlock, two lame-duck Red Bank council members kicked off a petition effort Tuesday night to change both the borough’s form of government and the way in which its officials are elected.
First-term Republicans Mike Whelan and Mark Taylor, who are both sitting out this year’s election for two council seats and the mayoralty, held a launch party Tuesday night for “Red Bank First,” a drive to force a referendum vote in November on whether the town should adopt nonpartisan elections, which thereafter would be held in May.
In addition, they’re calling for a change in the government model so that the council would have seven members, instead of the current six.
The event, held on a rainy night at Red Rock Tap + Grill on Wharf Avenue, drew about 30 residents and business owners. [Whelan said afterward that about 60 people attended at various times over the 90-minute event.]
“It’s about taking party out of politics,” Whelan told the gathering. “For so long, the council has been preoccupied and distracted by partisan politics.”
He said the chasm was particularly evident in recent years, when for the first time in a generation, the council was briefly split, 3-3, between Democrats and Republicans.
“We got to see how ugly politics has become,” Whelan said. “We couldn’t even come to the middle of the table to talk about what was best for Red Bank. Because if Mark brought up an initiative, everybody on the other side had to say no, because it was Mark’s idea. But what if that idea was good for Red Bank?”
Under nonpartisan elections, individual candidates could earn a spot on the ballot by collecting the requisite number of signatures from registered voters, as now, but no party affiliations would be designated on the ballots. That would obviate so-called straight-down-the-party line voting that makes it difficult for independents to win office, Whelan said.
The change would also encourage comity, he said, noting that in Ocean Township, which has nonpartisan elections, the mayor, Chris Siciliano, and deputy mayor, Rob Acerra, are a Democrat and Republican, respectively. “And guess what? In Ocean Township, they run together, because Republican and Democrat aren’t important in Ocean Township,” said Whelan, who ran for state Assembly in 2016 on a ticket with Acerra.
Tinton Falls, Asbury Park and Long Branch also follow the nonpartisan election format.
“This is a petition drive that simply puts it on the ballot,” Taylor told the audience. The effort needs 1,287 signatures from the town’s 6,433 registered voters to get there, he said.
Scott Broschart, of Hudson Avenue, is also involved in spearheading the drive.
“For me, it’s about making Red Bank better, making Red Bank thrive,” he said. “I want the value of my home to go up.”
The group announced the launch of a website, Red Bank First, which denounces “un-elected party bosses” whose rings must be kissed by any candidate who “wants a realistic shot at getting elected.”
In attendance were Republican party Chairman Michael Clancy, who’s running for council this year on a ticket with Allison Gregory; Bark Avenue Puppies owner Gary Hager; developer Roger Mumford; and Ben Forest, who in February failed in his bid to win a Democratic party nomination to run for mayor, a nod that went instead to three-term incumbent Pasquale Menna. (Forest left the event early to attend a meeting of the borough school board, on which he’s a member.)
No prominent Democrats were present.
Whelan told redbankgreen that Forest was a “perfect example” of a candidate with good ideas having to run a party gamut to get on the ballot, or going it alone.
Whelan also said that, were he to run for council again, he would gladly share a ticket with Democrat Erik Yngstrom. Yngstrom was not present.
Mumford told redbankgreen that he would have copies of the petition available in his Bridge Avenue office for local residents to stop by and sign. One of two finalists to develop the White Street parking lot under a plan championed by Whelan but abandoned by Democrats when they resumed power on January 1, Mumford said the drive to a parking solution was only one “casualty” of partisanship.
The town “needs some good leadership,” he said.
Gayle Hallett, who grew up in town and recently bought a St. Nicholas Place home with her husband, Ian Hallett, told redbankgreen she favors nonpartisan elections because they would mean that “people are voting on the character and the reputation of the person, and what they would do for Red Bank.”
The event was paid for by a political action committee formed for the purpose of pursuing the ballot measure, Whelan said. He, Taylor and Broschart plan to go door-to-door beginning this weekend to collect signatures, he said. Petitions are available for download on the Red Bank First website.