RED BANK: REFERENDUM ON CHANGE SET

Chairwoman Nancy Facey-Blackwood at the Charter Study Commission’s final meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

Red Bank residents will decide whether to give the town’s governmental structure an historic overhaul following action by the Charter Study Commission Tuesday night.

Adopting its final report en route to dissolving itself, the commission made one last tweak to the November referendum, calling for run-off elections in cases where no candidate wins a majority of votes.

Commission member Ben Forest was successful in arguing for run-off elections. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

If approved by voters, the borough form of government in place since 1908 would be replaced with a “council-manager” form.

At a hybrid meeting that lasted less than 45 minutes and drew little public comment, the five-member commission unanimously approved the recommendation, along with the implementation of nonpartisan elections, which would make it easier for residents who don’t go through the selection processes used by the Republican and Democratic parties to get on the ballot.

The borough form “is not meeting the needs of Red Bank,” the commission’s final report says. In particular, the report identifies “two clear structural deficiencies that can be improved upon.”

• The borough form “lacks sufficient delineations of authority for officeholders, which has allowed councilmembers to meddle, micromanage, and overstep their role as individual legislators,” it says.

• “Second, the Borough form’s annual partisan elections have created a divisive environment that has undermined Red Bank’s government from properly functioning,” the commission found. “The high frequency of elections prevents the council from embarking upon long-term projects without being impeded by short-term political considerations. The partisan system has caused elected officials to oppose the other party’s ideas for strictly political reasons in divided government, and when there is one-party control, there has been in-fighting on public display that has prevented consensus building. ”

Selected from alternative forms of government available under New Jersey’s Optional Municipal Charter Law, also known as the Faulkner Act, the council-manager form requires council members to interact with department heads and other employees solely through a town manager or administrator, rather than directly.

In place of the existing “weak mayor” structure, in which the mayor votes only to break council ties, the mayor would have a vote on all council business under the proposed setup, the report says.

“The manager carries out the executive functions, and the mayor and council are required to act through the manager,” the report says. “The Commission believes this structure will directly address and rectify the micromanagement issues that have been seen in the current Borough form.”

The council would exercise legislative power; set municipal policy; and appoint the town manager, “who will exercise all executive and administrative powers.” The manager would be “subject to removal by a simple majority vote” of the council.

Here’s the full report, authored by commission attorney Michael Collins: Red Bank Charter Study Commission Final Report 071922

The referendum question, which goes straight to the ballot without council action, is to read as follows:

Shall the COUNCIL-MANAGER PLAN of the Optional Municipal Charter Law, providing for SEVEN (7) council members to be ELECTED AT LARGE for STAGGERED terms at NON-PARTISAN
elections to be held in MAY, with the MAYOR ELECTED DIRECTLY BY THE VOTERS, with run-off elections to be held thereafter if a sufficient number of candidates fail to attain a majority of votes, be adopted by the Borough of Red Bank?

Other aspects of the change include:

• 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.”

• But first, all seven seats would be up for grabs in an election on May 9, 2023, with the government to be reorganized on Saturday, July 1, 2023.

“The Commission feels that voters will be made acutely aware of the election, with seven candidates running at-large – unlike ever before,” the report says. “As such, the Commission rejects the contention that a May 2023 election would have a negative impact on turnout or voter choice.”

• A recommendation that the new mayor council reinstitute November elections, with four council seats up for grabs to initiate “staggered” elections in 2025.

The inclusion of run-offs marked a reversal of views from several weeks ago, when member Ben Forest said he would continue to press for them over opposition from others on the body.

Forest did not want to see a crowded field of candidates yield a mayor who garners just “27 percent of the vote,” he said at the July 6 meeting.

By Tuesday, all four of his colleagues on the commission agreed.

Former councilman  Mike DuPont said that after further discussion with residents and officials in other towns, he concluded that “it probably is wise to have run-offs,” particularly if the top vote-getter fails to get 50 percent of the vote in a low-turnout election.

It would give voters “a real choice,” and winners with “a real mandate,” Forest said.

The first run-off, if needed, would be held June 13.

Another member, former council member Mark Taylor, who advocated for nonpartisan elections after declining to seek a second term in 2018, thanked voters for approving the creation of the commission by wide margin in a referendum last November.

“I’m really proud of this moment,” he said.

“What we tried to do here is create something our residents will really appreciate,” said commission Chairwoman Nancy Facey-Blackwood.

Facey-Blackwood has previously pledged to conduct a voter education campaign on the issues once the recommendation was set. She told redbankgreen following the meeting that no events have yet been scheduled, but that “a campaign for a ‘yes’ vote” and informational sessions will be held in coming months.

Because the commission will have expired by statute, its members will be able to assemble, if they choose, without notice or violation of New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, she said.

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

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