RED BANK: CHARTER REFERENDUM ADVANCES

A view of Wednesday’s Charter Study Commission meeting. (Photo from Zoom. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

Red Bank residents would vote on whether a “council-manager” form of municipal government should be implemented under an agreement by the Charter Study Commission last week.

If approved by voters in a referendum expected in November, the change would would replace the management structure in place since the borough’s creation in 1908.

The five-member commission, approved by voters last November, has been examining possible alternatives available under New Jersey’s Optional Municipal Charter Law, also known as the Faulkner Act.

With other aspects of elections and government informally agreed upon, the ad hoc commission turned its attention Wednesday to the form of government it would recommend for the referendum.

Former councilman  Mike DuPont argued for the mayor-council structure, also known as a “strong mayor” type.

In the hearings and surveys, borough residents “have resoundingly said, listen, we want a borough administrator we can go to, a borough administrator that has a chain of command, and you, mayor and council, need to be accountable,” DuPont said.

“One of the disappointing things I have found with council-manager is everyone points to the manager” when complaints arise, he said. “Everyone’s still hiding behind the manager.”

Under the strong mayor model, the mayor would appoint the town’s administrator, whose term would run concurrent with the mayor’s but subject to removal by a two-thirds council vote. The council also would have the ability to override a mayoral veto, he said.

The model makes the mayor accountable for running the town, he said, and gives the mayor veto power “which I think is important,” DuPont said.

“I just don’t like having a manager as the chief executive,” he said, adding that residents wanted “accountability” from elected officials.

Under the council-manager form, the mayor is reduced to a “symbolic” position, DuPont said.

But DuPont was alone as commission colleagues pushed back with a preference for council-manager, a form that would give the council more immediate oversight of a professional manager.

“The mayor is the coach, the mayor is the person who rallies, gets your team together,” said member Kate Okeson . “I don’t know if the strong mayor, in 2022, 2023, 2032, and a slightly weaker administrator is what we need when we are living in a fairly rapidly advancing period of time.”

Commission Chairwoman  Nancy Facey-Blackwood raised concerns about a strong mayor having the authority to appoint the administrator, who might thus give more deference to the mayor than the council majority.

In addition, if the mayor doesn’t devote adequate time to the position, “what happens?”

Member Ben Forest favored the council-manager form, he said, “because it’s more collaborative, it’s more like a board of directors. If you get one or two people who are dysfunctional on the body, the government’s probably going to continue.”

DuPont said he would support the committee’s decision, and praised the body’s deliberative approach as a model for the council to emulate.

Commenting via Zoom, residents Dan Riordan and Steven Hecht praised the commission for the civil tenor of its debates.

“I love to hear disagreements discussed in such a positive way,” said Riordan.

Commission attorney Michael Collins, who has been tasked with writing a final report triggering the referendum, said a draft will be ready for possible adoption at the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for July 19.

The commission has previously pledged to conduct a voter education campaign on the issues once its recommendation is set.

Other elements of the report is expected to recommend, said Facey-Blackwood:

• A change to nonpartisan elections, making it easier for residents who don’t go through the selection processes used by the Republican and Democratic parties to get on the ballot.

• A governing body of six council members, elected at-large, rather than by a ward system,  and a directly elected mayor.

• Four-year terms for all, with elections held every other year to address “election fatigue.”

• A recommendation to the council that would be elected next May to reinstitute November elections starting in 2023.

• No run-off elections, though Forest said he would continue to press for them, so a crowded field of candidates does not yield a mayor who garners just “27 percent of the vote.”

Video of Wednesday’s meeting can be found on Facebook and YouTube.

Here’s a review of the various forms of government available as discussed by expert Ed Sasdelli, and a companion slideshow he presented.

If you value the news coverage provided by redbankgreen, please become a financial supporter for as little as $1 per month. Click here to set your own level of monthly or annual contribution.