By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank’s 114-year run under the “borough” form of government is now officially slated to end next summer.
And the person voters picked Tuesday to lead them to that moment is a political newcomer, building contractor and part-time singer who says he is “humbled” to be in the role.
Red Bank is about to get a new form of government, following a 2,013-to-931 slam-dunk approval of a ballot referendum calling for a “council-manager” form of government to replace the “mayor-council” model in place since 1908.
And chosen to lead the way is Billy Portman, who jumped into local politics at the last minute just five months ago, trounced his organization-backed opponent in the Democratic primary, and then ran unopposed to succeed Pasquale Menna as mayor January 1.
As of Tuesday night, Portman had garnered 2,350 votes, far more than any of the four council candidates or the referendum itself. Eighty-eight write-in votes were also cast in the mayoral race.
Eschewing election-night custom, Portman did not make a speech, and instead mingled with several dozen supporters who gathered at the second-floor bar at the Dublin House Pub on Monmouth Street as returns came in.
“This is an incredible coming together: a change of government, a new Master Plan for the first time in 25 years, potentially a whole new council,” Portman told redbankgreen. “It’s very, very humbling, I guess is the word, to be the person who voters put up here. It’s an amazing concurrence of events.”
Watching things get “nasty” on Facebook during the campaign, Portman said, “I realized it’s because people really care about this place. This is a special place to people. The people who didn’t want the change of government, the people who wanted it – everyone is invested.”
“I want to good by my neighbors,” he said. “My goal is to first, do no harm.”
Menna, now winding up his fourth four-year term as mayor, following 18 years as a council member, was among those present at the Dub. He reflected on the significance of the pending changes.
“Anyone who reads history must conclude that municipalities or cities evolve over time, not only from a physical standpoint, but also from an institutional standpoint,” Menna told redbankgreen.
As long as he’s been in office, “Red Bank has been run as six fiefdoms,” Menna said, referring to the department liaison roles doled out to each member of the council. The result, he said, is that major capital projects, such as the needed rehabilitation of the public works facility on Chestnut Street, get repeatedly deferred, because liaisons don’t want to be tarred as increasing taxes when they’re up for re-election.
“On top of that, you have a mayor who is basically a glorified elevator operator,” unable to vote except to break council ties, Menna said. That will change under the council-manager form of government July 1.
“A modern municipality should be run professionally,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The referendum was recommended in July by a five-member Charter Study Commission after seven months of interviewing town employees, elected officials, governance experts and others.
“I think the voters said they’re ready for a change to make our town more efficient and effective, with a professionally run administrator freeing the council to focus on what they should be focused on, which is policy and legislation,” commission Chairwoman Nancy Facey-Blackwood.
While campaigning for the “yes” vote over the last four months, Facey-Blackwood said she found that many voters “didn’t know exactly what was going on, but they knew something was wrong.”
She expects little to be lost in the change to a new form of government, while “what we will gain is more voter engagement,” she said.
“The 35.6 percent of people who are unaffiliated will now have an opportunity to participate in the process to run for mayor or council, and a big thing for me is the chance for initiative and referendum,” she said. “People are really in favor of that.”
As described in the commission’s final report:
Under initiative, citizens have the power to circulate a petition to have a particular placed directly on the ballot. The referendum right allows citizens to circulate a petition in opposition to a particular ordinance. If enough signatures are obtained, the ordinance is suspended and submitted to voters as a referendum in a future election.
The issue made for strange political bedfellows, with the two Republican council candidates, Mark Taylor and Jonathan Maciel Penney, aligning with Portman strongly in favor of referendum passage. The two Democratic candidates, incumbent Angela Mirandi and running mate John Jackson, declined to take sides on the question.
At the Dub, Portman supporters were audibly heartened by early returns indicating Taylor and Penney had the lead, but later went silent at the news that Mirandi and Jackson appeared to have won.
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