By JOHN T. WARD
As the Red Bank Charter Study Commission heads into a public hearing on the first phase of its work Tuesday night, this much is clear: partisan elections are in the crosshairs.
Created in November by a 2,108 to 918 vote margin, the commission has been reviewing the municipal government’s “borough” form with an eye toward recommending change.
Tuesday night’s session is to be a public hearing to review phase one of the commission’s work. The next phase is to review alternate forms of government available under New Jersey law, with a commission recommended expected in July.
Voters would have to approve a new form by referendum, with one widely expected in November.
With it could come nonpartisan elections, making it easier for candidates not affiliated with either Democrats or Republicans to compete with the so-called “county line” candidates on ballots.
Form of government aside, the customary way of electing candidates for office in Red Bank has gotten little support during the first two months of commission “interviews.”
The only supporters of the status quo were the last two witnesses of phase one: councilman and Democratic party Chairman Ed Zipprich, and Councilman Michael Ballard, a second-term Democrat who recently won the local organization’s nod to displace Menna.
Zipprich told the commission last week that the current system allows unaffiliated candidates to come to the table. But commission member Ben Forest, a self-described “active Democrat,” said he’s “struggled with… the fact that an independent candidate has never won” in Red Bank.
“Is that OK?” he asked Zipprich.
“This is still America, right?,” Zipprich replied. He noted Forest’s own interest in obtaining the Democratic nomination to run for mayor four years ago, which he said was met with “no discouragement by the political party
“We have, as an organization, welcomed anyone who wanted to throw their hat in the ring,” Zipprich said. “There is nobody that I have turned away.”
Ballard said independent candidates “choose to be independent, but that doesn’t stop them from knocking on every single door in Red Bank like the Democrats and Republicans do” to win voter support.
Asked by Forest why “they don’t ever seem to win,” Ballard attributed that to the way most voters engage with politics: lightly.
“Voters want to know where you stand on the issues of the day,” such as budgeting, immigration, healthcare and more, he said. “Whatever it is, your party will give voters a lot of info about who you are…. That’s the risk independents take,” he said.
But a straw poll emerged when John Jackson, a Democratic council candidate and party committeeman, asked the commissioners for their positions on “nonpartisan” near the end of the March 10 session. All five either endorsed or expressed leanings in favor.
• Kate Okeson, the local Democratic party secretary who is now suing the organization and its chairman, Ed Zipprich, to unseat Angela Mirandi from the council, said she was “firmly pro-partisan for a long time.”
Her research into the issue, she said, shows “a direct lack of representation that is emerging, both pre-candidate and the connection to when that candidate becomes an elected representative.”
She added that she was now “forming some personal opinions that are leading my research into how that situation plays out in communities that have large populations of unaffiliated voters.”
• “The electorate did or does have a perception that their voices are not being heard and they are unable to participate in our local elections,” said Mike DuPont, a former councilman. “So I think you have to understand and be open to nonpartisan.”
He said he’d “like to revisit” Jackson’s question after hearing from residents at Tuesday night’s public hearing.
• Forest said he entered the process “leaning toward nonpartisan, and I haven’t heard anything yet that would really change my mind.”
• Former Republican councilman Mark Taylor said he had been an unaffiliated voter until he ran for office, because “the party apparatus was very apparent.”
He noted that he has publicly supported nonpartisan elections in the past. But he was noncommittal in response to Jackson’s question, saying “that’s more of a phase two conversation.”
At the February 15 session, though, Taylor said he was “leaning toward nonpartisan.”
• Commission Chairwoman Nancy Facey-Blackwood, said she was “willing to try the idea of nonpartisan,” because the county line doesn’t give unaffiliated candidates “an equal chance.”
She twice mentioned that she’d read an article that equated the party line ballot system in New Jersey with “Soviet Russia.”
“It does not work,” she said. “If you want to run and you want to serve, you should be able to have the chance, and not have the ballot structured in the way that it is.”
In a statement to redbankgreen, East Bergen Place resident Scott Broschart, who has advocated for nonpartisan elections for several years and failed in his run for a seat on the commission, said the testimony elicited so far has put a spotlight on the “chaos and meddling in the day to day operations of the borough by elected officials and particularly Councilman Zipprich.”
The hearings, he said, have “only confirmed my past advocacy in pushing for non-partisan elections in Red Bank. It’s time to move on from this endless embarrassment of a government that has been run into the ground by Councilman Zipprich and his band of followers.”
Tueday’s meeting is scheduled to be conducted via Zoom and phone (929 205-6099, with Zoom ID 859 6173 8604), starting at 6:30 p.m.
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