Ben Forest outside Sickles Market last September. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
The commission’s other four members informally agreed. They also began sorting through alternatives to the borough form of government in use since the town was carved out of then-sprawling Shrewsbury Township in 1908.
Nonpartisan elections would allow any adult resident who collects the required number of petition signatures to run for office, bypassing the traditional vetting process used by the two major parties.
Forest, a Democratic activist who won a seat on the party’s municipal committee in the primary election June 7, became overwhelmed as he made a motion: that commission attorney Michael Collins include a recommendation for nonpartisan elections into the draft report he will write.
“I’m not really proud – and I’m part of it – the way Red Bank Democrats have been fighting with each other and having a lot of unpleasantness,” Forest said, seated at the council dais. “It just further informs my own opinion that we should try this nonpartisan thing.
“It’s been very difficult, these elections where your friends are saying terrible things about you,” he said, choking up. “And I think it’s really time we try a new way. I don’t think it’s going to be perfect… One of the things I feel really passionate about is having fewer elections. This is this crazy, twice-a -year fighting. It takes so much out of me, and I know it takes a lot out of all of you.”
The commission, holding a hybrid in-person and virtual session, unanimously approved Forest’s motion. Chairwoman Nancy Facey-Blackwood said she found “compelling” April testimony by Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin that candidates who don’t have the “party line” placement on ballots rarely win races in New Jersey.
“It’s almost like the political organizations are given a thumb” on the scale, she said. “It’s boss party politics, and I would like to see for our town of 12,936 people, that anybody, and we have a lot of talented people here, should be given a chance to run.”
The ad hoc commission must formally adopt recommendations before any referendums can be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.
With a referendum for nonpartisan elections now a near-certainty, the commission must now decide on a new form of government to propose, Facey-Blackwood said. It must also decide when to hold a referendum on its recommendations.
Committee member and former councilman Mike DuPont recommended a November referendum. If passed by voters, an election for all members of the governing body would be held in May.
Though subsequent elections would also be held annually in May, he expressed hope that the new governing body would change that to November to ensure greater turnout.
DuPont said he favors the mayor-council government structure, with a “strong” mayor elected directly by voters, and elections every two years instead of annually.
Mark Taylor, who also previously served on the council, said he’s “leaning slightly” toward the council-manager form. He said the mayor-council setup, to work well, relies too heavily on the character of the mayor.
“Unfortunately, personalities in town have gotten us to the point where we’re in the mess we’re in, and I’d be a little bit hesitant to give one person that much authority right off the bat,” he said. “If you have the wrong person, it’s going to tank the entire effort.”
Facey-Blackwood said she, too, favors council-manager, with a recommendation for annual appraisals of the manager, who “can serve indefinitely, but is removable by a simple majority vote” of the council.
Collins said the draft report will allow “an open process” for debate and the possibility of commissioners changing their minds. The document will be delivered “as soon as feasible,” he said.
The commission agreed to cancel its June 21 meeting and gather again July 6.
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