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RED BANK: NONPARTISAN ELECTIONS? NOT YET

red-bank-scott-broschart-083120-500x332-6276288Red Bank First leader Scott Broschart at home on Hudson Avenue in August. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

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Scott Broschart is on a one-man quest to reform both Red Bank’s government and how people get elected to it.

Neither will happen this year. A referendum Broschart has been pushing for since July is not on the November 3 ballot. But Broschart says he’s perfectly fine with that.

red-bank-mayor-pasquale-menna-022620-500x332-4205488Mayor Pasquale Menna favors a charter study, he says. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

In fact, the Hudson Avenue resident said he’s glad his cause won’t get lost in the noise of this year’s presidential election. The argument he’s making to borough voters, he said, should “stand on its own merits.”

And it would get that opportunity, in the form of a special election, 60 to 120 days after his petition drive reaches its threshold of roughly 1,400 signatures, he said.

What matters now, Broschart said, is that the effort is “powering forward,” and his pitch – that partisan politics are holding Red Bank down – is finding a receptive audience. He said last week that he’s “about one-third” of the way toward his signature goal.

“The people who’ve signed this petition, I’ve been shocked by some of the names,” Broschart said recently, while declining to name names. “People that I thought would never sign it. Both sides of the aisle.”

Branded Red Bank First, the petition effort actually began in May, 2018, when first-term Republican council members Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan said they wouldn’t seek second terms, and would instead focus on “taking party out of politics” and ending what they saw as partisan gridlock.

But the effort fizzled just four months later.

This past summer, Broschart, who had worked with Taylor and Whelan on the first try, revived it by himself. Working solo and using his own money, he’s giving it another push.

Broschart said he’s more fired up than the first time around, because this year’s council election features only the two incumbent Democrats, Ed Zipprich and Michael Ballard, running unopposed. After the June primary, both Republican candidates dropped out, with one, Brian Irwin, telling redbankgreen he’d been nothing more than a “placeholder” on the ballot. The other, Jonathan Penney, is now the local party chairman.

The result is that “there will be no democracy in Red Bank this November,” Broschart said. “The voters will have absolutely no say in who their local elected officials are. That needs to never, ever happen again.”

Broschart, 41, served one year as a township committeeman in Hazlet when he was 26, and later worked as a political consultant to Republicans but now handles marketing for a mold remediation company. The Red Bank First website seeks to address any concerns that his effort is a Trojan horse for “Trump Republicans.”

The petition calls for a referendum on a single question. It reads:

“Shall the Mayor-Council Plan of the Optional Municipal Council Law, with seven council members all to be elected at large for staggered terms at elections held in May, with the Mayor elected directly by the voters, be adopted by Red Bank?”

If passed, the measure would do two things.

• It would replace the current “borough” form of government under New Jersey law, in which the six-member council has the power and the mayor serves more as a figurehead, with a so-called “strong mayor” model, with seven council members, in which the mayor effectively manages daily operations. The borough would still have a business administrator, and the mayor’s decisions could be overridden by a vote of six council members.

• To get to that new government, the referendum would trigger a nonpartisan election, to recur each May, at least until a new council changes the election date. Instead of grouping slates of candidates by party, ballots would show all candidates’ names in a single row or column, rather than separated by party affiliation.

That’s the piece that gets the most attention. But Broschart regards both aspects of the change as important.

Nonpartisan elections will ensure that more people who want to serve have a fighting chance of being heard and elected, even if they eschew party dogma, he said.

In Red Bank, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin, there are nearly as many unaffiliated voters (2,881 as of Monday, according to the Monmouth County Clerk’s office) as Democrats (3,071). But the current set-up precludes too many potential independent-minded candidates from seeking office, Broschart  said.

“It’s extremely cost-prohibitive for someone to run as an independent in a partisan system,” Broschart said. “The talent pool gets lowered because people who don’t want to run in a partisan system won’t run.

“So at the end of the day, you have a chairman of the Republican party and a chairman of the Democratic party, and those two people can essentially control every single aspect of our town, because they’re hand-picking the candidates,” he said.

Under nonpartisan elections, individuals become candidates by collecting the requisite number of signatures from registered voters, as at present, but without party affiliation groupings on the ballots, the voting is fairer, Broschart said.

Tinton Falls, Asbury Park and Long Branch are among the nearby municipalities that use the nonpartisan election format.

“I’ve had at least three or four people thank me for doing this, because they would love the opportunity to run, but they can’t run in partisan elections, be it [a prohibition at] their job, be it their lack of desire to wave a party flag, be it anything,” Broschart said.

As for the form of government, he notes that the 2018 Management Enhancement Review commissioned by the town council made such a change its first recommendation. “Consider a charter study to determine the best form of government for Red Bank,” said the report, by Government Strategy Group.

But no one on the council has introduced action to start the process. “They’ve sat on it for two years,” Broschart said. “They’ve done nothing.”

All six members of the current council are Democrats, as is Mayor Pasquale Menna.

Menna told told redbankgreen recently that he thinks there should be a charter study, “but that doesn’t mean there should be nonpartisan elections.”

In his view, the borough government is “running better in the past two or three years” than at any other time in his 30 years of involvement, partly as a result of implementing another of the GSG recommendations: bolstering the role of the town’s administrator.

Still, “there should be a serious review of what is an archaic form of government,” one adopted 112 years ago, when Red Bank was a tiny village, Menna said.

But he is “not in favor of the currently filed petition,” referring to the Red Bank First document, he said.

The petition route, Menna said, is “cumbersome,” including the requirement that an election be held in May. Hoping that the people elected in that round would later agree to move subsequent elections back to November – something Red Bank First also pushes for – requires “a lot of hypotheticals” falling into place, he said.

“As history shows, a lot of people get elected on platforms, and then seem to forget about those platforms once they’re in office,” he said.

But Broschart fears a council-initiated charter study would go nowhere. By law, he said, if the council calls for a referendum, the result would be nonbinding on the council.

“It’s essentially a poll of the people. That’s all it is,” he said. “The mayor and council can do nothing on it. They can sit on it.”

The Red Bank First petition can be found here.

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