RED BANK – Should Red Bank change its government to allow nonpartisan municipal elections and give its mayor a vote in council matters?
The Red Bank Charter Commission, which has studied potential changes to the borough’s form of government for the past nine months, presented its suggestions from its report during its last meeting Tuesday night, arguing that getting rid of political parties might ease the regular battling that has come to dominate the town’s government.
Nearly 70% of Red Bank voters voted to form a charter study commission during last November’s election and now voters will be asked to vote for or against the recommendations in this November’s election.
The question reads: “Shall the council-manager plan of the Optional Municipal Charter Law, providing for seven council members to be elected at large for staggered terms at nonpartisan elections to be held in May, with the mayor directly elected 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?”
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How would elections be conducted?
Red Bank currently holds two municipal elections a year — the June primary, in which the Democratic and Republican parties pick their candidates, and then the general election in November.
Under the proposal, there will be one election every other year in May. The commission’s report found yearly elections “draining” and said a year’s break would allow “the council additional time to pursue initiatives without experiencing annual election gridlock.”
Council members and the mayor would have four-year terms each. Right now, council members are elected for three years, compared with four for the mayor, who is elected separately.
The commission also recommended nonpartisan elections, citing dysfunction and petty politics. “During years that both parties held seats on council, former councilmembers gave examples in which one party would block an initiative solely because it was proposed by the other party,” the report said. “In more recent years with unified Democratic control, the council has found itself factionalized with party infighting that has permeated into public and created gridlock and discord on council. It has also resulted in contested primaries with vile personal attacks.”
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Politics have become particularly complicated in Red Bank, where one faction of of Democratic council members — Edward Zipprich, Michael Ballard, Jacqueline Sturdivant and Angela Mirandi — have a 4-2 edge on the all-Democratic council, which could grow to 5-1 after this coming November’s general election.
But in the most recent primary election, their faction’s candidate for mayor — Ballard — was defeated by political newcomer Billy Portman, and they lost control of the local Democratic Party to a group led by Councilwoman Kate Triggiano.
Just last week, the factions clashed again, as the group aligned with Zipprich voted to oust the borough attorney, much to the chagrin of Mayor Pat Menna, who said he was told of the decision only an hour before the meeting. Menna’s term ends this year, and he decided not to run in the primary after Zipprich’s faction declined to endorse him in the Democratic primary for a fifth term.
In many New Jersey towns, such as Red Bank with the Democrats, one party tends to dominate. In an April presentation to the commission, Julia Sass Rubin, professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said, “What’s most important for most of the state is who wins the primary, because the presumption is they will go on to win the general election.”
Because New Jersey primary ballots have columns in which candidates endorsed by the local political parties are named on top, whoever ends up on the column receives a substantial boost, she said.
Nonpartisan municipal elections would eliminate primaries and those local party endorsements. The candidates would then run on a six-word slogan that does not reference political parties.
Brett Pugach, an attorney specializing in New Jersey election law, wrote in an email that state law does not prohibit parties from endorsing nonpartisan candidates.
Michael Collins, attorney for the commission, said candidates can tell residents what party they are affiliated with, but they cannot announce the affiliation in the ballot slogan.
The report said it hopes that the first nonpartisan election take place as soon as next May if voters decide to go along with its recommendations. The commission said it believes that residents should be allowed to vote for a new governing body “as soon as feasible and not be left to govern any longer than necessary — which a May election ensures.”
However, the report said, “the commission recommends that the new governing body consider moving future elections to November, as it is authorized to do by ordinance under state law.”
The commission also recommends runoff elections. Candidates for council and mayor must win a majority of the votes cast for that office. For council races with two or three open seats, if one candidate wins a majority of votes, the remaining candidates would win by plurality and avoid a runoff. So, if there are three open seats and candidate A wins 51% of the vote, candidate B wins 30%, candidate C wins 10% and candidate D wins 9%, then candidates A, B and C would have won seats on the council. If no candidate receives more than half the votes, a runoff election would occur.
The commission reasoned, “This structure would protect against the infrequent possibility of having a mayor or entire council slate elected with a small plurality of the vote and lacking the legitimacy of having a majority support from voters.”
Who is in charge?
Currently Red Bank has six council members and a mayor, who only votes in the event of a tie.
The report recommended a council-manager form of government that would keep six council members and a mayor, but give the mayor the ability to vote routinely on ordinances and resolutions.
The commission found that the current “Borough form lacks sufficient delineations of authority for officeholders, which has allowed council members to meddle, micromanage and overstep their role as individual legislators.”
Under the council-manager system, the manager would run the day-to-day borough affairs and would have legal protections, similar to a school superintendent, that “prevent against individual governing body members from unilaterally providing direction to the manager or circumventing him or her.”
However, the manager works at the direction of the mayor and council and could be removed by a majority vote.
“The council-manager structure will also allow Red Bank employees to be confident that they answer to one individual — the manager — and not an indeterminate number of governing body members,” the report said.
What happens if voters approve?
If the recommendations are accepted by Red Bank residents in November, a new municipal government could be assembled by next July. An entirely new slate of six council seats and the position of the mayor would be up for election.
The deadline for filing a nominating petition would be on March 6, the new nonpartisan election would take place on May 9 and a potential runoff election would take place on June 13.
The new government could begin next July 1 at noon.
“I had separate opinions, we respected those opinions, we had dialogue,” commission member Michael DuPont said about the end of the commission. “We’re hoping that future leaders of Red Bank take note that you can have discourse, you can have spirited discussion and leave it there.”
Olivia Liu is a reporter covering transportation, Red Bank and western Monmouth County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.