By Jay Cook |
RED BANK – It’s certainly not the most usual agenda item on the docket, but the two remaining Republicans on Red Bank’s governing body are looking to make a change.
A change of government, that is.
First-term Republican councilmembers Mark Taylor and Michael Whelan said it’s time to literally take the politics out of Red Bank. The councilmen plan to spend 2018 petitioning residents to sign on the dotted line in support of a new, nonpartisan form of government.
“Any issue that has been a hot topic has been a complete divide,” Whelan told The Two River Times last week. “It’s about who has a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to their name and then everything shuts down.”
After operating as a 3-3 Democrat/Republican split last year, former Republican councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer was not re-elected. Democrats Ed Zipprich and Michael Ballard convincingly won the election, thus providing a new majority at 90 Monmouth St.
While they’re now a political minority in the borough, both Taylor and Whelan say Red Bank’s system is virtually unfixable. Fueled by an alleged lack of interest from their colleagues to deliver on borough plans and important hires, they believe it’s time to move on from the system in place.
“I just think the current setup is broken,” Taylor said by phone earlier this week. “It doesn’t allow candidates to even be inspired to run, let alone get elected. If people are only going to vote down a column on the party line or when they’re on the dais, you can’t get real things done; you can’t serve the Borough of Red Bank.”
So, how would this happen? A change in government can be triggered in two different fashions, said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University.
For starters, a governing body could vote to create a charter study commission and determine by themselves if a change is needed, and then subsequently, what that change would be.
The other option – a direct petition with signatures from 20 percent of the registered electorate – would circumvent any commission and force a ballot question either by special or regular referendum. That’s the option both Republicans will take.
“I can’t give you numbers, but this is not normal,” Pfeiffer said. “It does not happen very often.”
The Republicans said preliminary plans are in place to achieve the goal. Whelan said they will create a “Citizens for Nonpartisan Government” political action committee (PAC) to help fund the cause. He expects between five to 10 residents, with influence on both sides of the aisle, will join in during the early stages.
“The first step is going to be to fully engage the residents, and it’s ultimately going to come down to their vote anyway,” Taylor said. “We need to have them get excited and be an active and willing participant.”
To trigger a special election, they’ll need to knock on plenty of doors throughout town. State statute says signatures from 20 percent of the number of registered voters in the last election year is necessary. This past November, there were 6,950 registered voters in Red Bank. With 20 percent in mind, the magic number would be 1,390 voters.
Then comes the decision about which form of government Red Bank will change to. According to what Whelan described, it would be away from the borough form Red Bank currently is and become an Optional Municipal Charter Law town, otherwise known as a Faulkner Act town.
According to the most recent report, a 2011 Rutgers University study, 134 out of 565 municipalities in the state operate under one of its four variations. Pfeiffer said 87 municipalities operate under a nonpartisan model.
For Red Bank, Whelan suggested nonpartisan elections set in May of each year; a five- or seven-member elected governing body; and the selection of a mayor from within that governing body – different from the at-large mayoral election Red Bank currently has.
“Once we start pushing this, it’s going to steamroll,” he said. “I think people are going to get behind it, support it, and you’ll see Red Bank as a nonpartisan government. And I really believe that.”
Admittedly hesitant to compare Red Bank to other surrounding towns, Whelan said nonpartisan governments in Asbury Park and Long Branch – both tasked with similar redevelopment issues and large downtown communities like Red Bank – have been able to achieve their goals of reviving downtown districts.
He said the holdup of a multistory, mixed-use parking garage at the borough-owned White Street parking lot has caused strife and a deadlock in Red Bank politics. The “coup de grâce,” Taylor added, was how the borough council did not hire a full-time borough administrator for 2018, in the wake of longtime administrator Stanley Sickels’ retirement.
“How are those two governments doing really well. What’re the similarities? They don’t fight each other because they’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Whelan said. “They do what’s best for the town.”
Procedurally, the process to change a form of government is extensive “and can be complicated for anybody,” said Frank Marshall, the staff attorney for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
“For one, it doesn’t happen that often – attorneys could go their entire career and never see it happen,” he said. “Two, inherently it’s a bit convoluted because of the changes you’re going through and where it’s coming from.”
Pfeiffer and Marshall both said through a direct petition, the ballot question realistically could be voted on within the year.
Indirectly, the political careers for Taylor and Whelan could be affected, as well. Both their terms end after 2018, but the 2015 running mates said it’s too early to say whether or not they’ll run for office again – they still have months to decide.
“This is not about Michael and I or staying in the position we’re in,” Taylor said. “This is about creating a different future for Red Bank. We’re on the precipice of some new things town, some grander idea that can really move us forward.”
“The negative attacks on us are going to be about us losing power and becoming a minority and why we’re pushing for this now,” Whelan added. “But what I would clearly say back to that is I didn’t come in on Day One in 2016 and expect it to be like this in Red Bank.”
This article was first published in the Jan. 18-25, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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