Mike Whelan, center, and Mark Taylor, seen here on the night of their election to the Red Bank council in 2015, spearheaded the referendum effort. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank voters eager to eliminate partisanship from local elections and governance won’t get their wish this year.
A referendum initiative calling for non-partisan elections and a change to the form of local government lost steam over the summer and won’t be on November’s ballot. But its foremost advocates say they’re not giving up.
Launched four months ago by lame-duck, first-term Republican council members Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan, the initiative, dubbed Red Bank First, aimed to gather the 1,287 signatures from the town’s 6,443 registered voters needed to get on the ballot in the form of a referendum.
If approved by voters, the change would eliminate party designations of candidates for local office from the voting booth. The referendum also called for a change in the government model so that the council would have seven members, instead of the current six, and elections would be held in May, at least initially.
But the group’s Facebook page hasn’t been updated since June 21, and the drive stalled without reaching the signature deadline of August 31. What happened?
“Significant life events” and other demands got in the way of the drive, Taylor told redbankgreen on Thursday. In early June, he became a father, he noted. Whelan said an increase workload at his regular job, in the insurance field, took him away from the project. Both also cited their council and committee obligations.
(Whelan did not note that he’s also facing an assault charge following a July altercation at a resort in Montauk, New York, to which he has pleaded not guilty. No court date for that matter has yet been set.)
The upshot: “we didn’t get to” 1,287 signatures, said Taylor, who estimated the tally was instead in the 400 to 500 range. “But we weren’t going to kill ourselves trying to get that number with everything else going on,” he said.
Whelan and Taylor, elected together in 2015, are both sitting out this year’s election for two council seats and the mayoralty. They cited partisanship as the reason for quitting after one term, and said they would instead focus on the nonpartisanship effort.
Under nonpartisan elections, individual candidates earn spots 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 has said.
Tinton Falls, Asbury Park and Long Branch are among the nearby municipalities that use the nonpartisan election format.
Taylor and Whelan said that despite this year’s failure, their drive is not dead, and “now that we’re not running, we have the time,” Whelan added. They hope to force a special election or regular referendum vote in 2019.
The signatures they’ve already collected on their petition remain valid, they said, and claim they’ve had “100-percent” sign-up rate.
“I’ve never not gotten a signature at any door I’ve been to,” Whelan said. “But we’re trying to change a government that’s been around for a hundred years, and that can’t happen overnight.”