By John Burton
Lawmakers hope a recently enacted law will do for fire district elections what a similar one did for school board elections a few years ago.
Assembly Bill A-1690, which Gov. Chris Christie signed into law on Aug. 7, allows for local fire districts to move their elections to the date of the general election in November, if the district choses.
State Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-11), who represents a portion of Monmouth County, was a co-sponsor of the bill. There are numerous reasons to allow districts to move their elections, including the probable increased participation by coordinating it with the higher attendance of a general election, Downey said.
Fire district elections are traditionally held on the third Saturday in February and are often not particularly well advertised which means voter turnout can be particularly small.
Downey said usually less than 2 percent of voters bother to go to the polls in February. “Sometimes it’s less than 1 percent,” she said.
“This will promote transparency and awareness of district operations,” Downey said of the bill.
This law will allow districts to move the election contingent on the approval of the county board of elections. Candidates for the fire district election would be nominated through the direct nomination by petition process set in state statute.
The law would eliminate voter referenda for the district’s budget, as long as the budget is within the state 2 percent property tax levy cap; and would do away with voter approval on certain capital purchases, as long as it’s approved by at least a two-third majority vote of the district commissioners, according to the statute.
Moving the election would save taxpayers money, as well, Downey said, pointing out it would do away with the cost of conducting a special election.
Fire districts cover both paid and volunteer departments. And the elections tend not to be very competitive, observed Richard Kosmoski, president of the New Jersey Volunteer Fire Chiefs Association. In an email response, Kosmoski said, “A very minimum amount of voters turn out, so if you can muster enough support, you win the election.” Those who muster that support are usually members of that department.
Despite the lack of attention on the part of voters, some fire districts oversee substantial budgets and award contracts and determine some salaries with little oversight, Downey said. “If fire districts can show they can work like other local governments,” she said, “they should be treated like other government units.”
This would go into effect for the November 2019 elections, if the districts decide to move in that direction.
Both the Asbury Park Press and the Star-Ledger of Newark have published editorials supporting the change, with the Ledger calling the off-time elections “the last bastion of balloting that escapes the eyes of higher authorities.”
“I think it’ll be a good thing,” Downey maintained, “And hopefully people will take the time to see who the people are who are running.”
In 2011, public school districts were permitted to move their board of education elections to November’s general election. “It was successful,” Downey said, noting by 2015 all but 17 boards around the state had moved their elections to the November general election.
Kosmoski said for operation purposes, “I don’t see it having a major impact on the fire district.”
The fire districts in Monmouth County are: Keansburg, Wall, Freehold Township, Tinton Falls, Ocean, Aberdeen, Neptune Township, Manalapan, Marlboro, Howell, Colts Neck, Hazlet Englishtown and Union Beach.
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