Who’s in charge? For 4th time in 6 years, NJ town councils have too few people to even meet
Residents of Roosevelt in Monmouth County can take a shortcut into elected office, by applying by Wednesday’s deadline to the state Department of Community Affairs to be appointed to the Borough Council.
There are so many vacant seats – three out of six, plus the mayor resigned – that the council can’t function. In such instances, the governor appoints people to fill the vacancies so there can again be a quorum.
It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming a trend. This is the fourth time in six years that Gov. Chris Christie will have appointed municipal officials, the others being Farmingdale in 2012, Oxford in 2014 and Greenwich Township in Warren County in 2015.
“Other than the few times it occurred during this administration, it has not happened much,” said DCA spokeswoman Emike Omogbai in an email. “It’s a fairly atypical circumstance.”
The four municipalities that have needed state intervention to sustain a governing body have average populations of less than 2,600, and the Census Bureau estimates the populations in all four have drifted down since 2010.
But Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, doesn’t think its an indication New Jersey has too many small towns.
“New Jersey has a wonderful history of small towns and local government, and that’s one of the most endearing things that New Jersey has to offer. So I don’t look at that necessarily as a weakness,” Darcy said. “I think for so many decades and hundreds of years, they had been able to fill the governing bodies with the people that are available in their small communities.
“I do think over time the demands of life become greater. The demands on people’s time become greater. And the challenges themselves greater,” he said. “When you combine all that together, it may become very difficult for people to find the time to do the commitments that they’d like to do.”
Darcy said mayors encounter the same challenge when looking for volunteers to fill vacancies on planning boards and shade tree commissions and recreation commissions.
“Then when you add on top of that that municipal governing body officials oftentimes have to deal with the true problems of the community, whether you look at disasters that happen and how a community rebounds from those, those are difficult challenges,” he said. “Sometimes I think people say, ‘I’m not sure that my life the way it is right now gives me the time and the flexibility to do that.’”
Darcy said it’s not a sign of civic decline.
“I deal with so many municipal officials that are really energetic, but that doesn’t mean there’s enough of them,” he said.
Pohatcong Mayor James Kern III said one challenge facing municipal government is that many people are too busy or disinterested in local politics to get involved – and that it’s particularly the case among millennials.
“My generation is less interested in public service, unfortunately, and I think you’re seeing just natural attrition of people interesting in running for local office,” said Kern, 29. “It’s very difficult for these local governing bodies to fill some of these positions.”
Kern said people are interested in politics – but mostly at the national level, rarely at the state level and nonexistent at the local level.
Kern said he’s long thought consolidation makes sense fiscally but that it also could stem the tide of vacant seats in small New Jersey towns.
“If you were able to consolidate some towns, you’d probably be able to get more qualified candidates, more interested people who are interested in serving, as opposed to people who are almost forced to,” Kern said.
Kern says towns need to start talking with their neighbors about consolidations – and cited his own municipality, which surrounds Alpha borough, as an example.
“Each area is unique and different as to what’s their best solution, but I think it’s a conversation that towns definitely need to start having,” Kern said. “It’s also something that needs to happen before the state mandates which towns have to consolidate, which I am a firm believer eventually will happen, where the state kind of just carves up certain areas and say, ‘You’re going to be one town now.’ I think that’s not preferable to residents, if they don’t have ownership of it.”
New Jersey has 565 municipalities. Mergers are rare, with only one approved since 1997.
Of the four municipalities that have needed Christie to appoint council members, the largest of them is Greenwich Township in Warren County – population 5,712, as of 2010, making it the 358th most populous municipality in New Jersey.
Oxford Township, with 2,514 residents as of 2010, ranked 470th in population. Farmingdale ranked 423rd, with 1,329 residents. And Roosevelt ranked 537th – or looked at in the opposite way, the 29th smallest population in the state.
Roosevelt’s mayor and three council members resigned in mid-August, after a few years of infighting about finances and code enforcement among the Democrats that control the local government.