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How to Change the Form of Local Government

A growing number of residents have been calling for Princeton to switch to a non-partisan form of government with wards ever since the two Princetons consolidated. One neighborhood group has even created a new newsletter called “The Neighborhood Nonpartisan.”

Currently, the municipality of Princeton operates under the borough form of government, at least in theory. The Borough does not have wards. Voters in the Borough do not have the power to directly initiate referendums to pass or abolish ordinances, or approve other measures.

In order to switch to another form of government, residents would need to begin a petition drive to put the measure on the ballot for Princeton voters to decide.

Supporters of a nonpartisan form of government with wards say it would broaden participation in local government and attract more diverse candidates for office. They argue that the creating of wards would mean more direct accountability from elected officials as well.

More people support the move to a nonpartisan form of government now that the state allows nonpartisan elections to take place in November, eliminating the extra cost of holding a special election. Some people are in favor of the move because officials promised to create advisory planning districts after consolidation to give neighborhoods a stronger voice. But after consolidation officials said creating such districts that it would be too difficult.

Opponents argue that in nonpartisan governments, people still know which candidates are Republicans and which ones are Democrats anyway. Opponents of wards say council members should represent all citizens, not just those in their neighborhoods.

The consolidation commission considered recommending a ward system back in 2012, but decided against it. Members of the commission said they opposed it because the boundaries for each ward would not be drawn up by political leaders in Princeton. The county board of elections, the same board that selected the voting districts for the consolidated Princeton, would decide the boundaries of the wards. Some leaders expressed fears that Princeton University students could get elected in a ward. Others feared the Democrats would no longer unilaterally control Princeton government because an independent or Republican could possibly get elected in one of the wards.

Following forms of government that are in use today:

The Borough Form – The Borough form of government dates back to the Borough Act of 1878. The Borough mayor is elected at-large to a four-year term. Six council members are elected at-large to staggered three-year terms. The Borough form is often referred to as a “weak mayor-strong council” form. The mayor retains all general law authority, presides over council meetings and can vote in the case of a tie. The mayor appoints, with the advice and consent of council, all subordinate officers of the municipality. The council is the legislative body of the Borough. All executive responsibilities not placed in the office of the Mayor by general law or the Borough law remain with the council. The council may appoint an administrator and delegate all or a portion of the executive responsibilities to the administrator. The council can also adopt an administrative code prescribing how the council shall perform it duties.

The Township Form – The township form is the oldest form of municipal government in New Jersey. Designed to parallel the New England Township meeting, the Township Act of 1899 abolished the township meeting and replaced it with a township committee with all municipal powers. Under the current township government laws, the township committee remains the backbone of the municipality’s government. Voters elect, at-large,1 the township committee comprising three or five members. The elections are partisan and the committee members serve staggered three-year terms. The township committee elects the mayor for a one-year term. The mayor serves as chair of the township committee. Under the township form, all legislative powers are concentrated in the committee. The committee also has all executive powers not placed in the mayor either by general law or the revised Township act. Additionally, all municipalities under the traditional form may appoint, including the township form, may appoint a municipal administration and delegate to him all or a portion of the executive responsibilities of the municipality.

The Town Form – The Town Form of New Jersey municipal government dates back to the Town Act of 1895, which was amended and revised by the Town Act of 1988. Voters elect the mayor and council in partisan elections. The mayor is elected at large and is known as the councilman at large. The mayor serves a two-year term, though voters can through petition and referendum change the term to three years. The mayor retains all executive responsibilities placed in the position by general law or the Town Act. All other executive authority lies with the town council. The council consists of eight members serving two-year terms. Two council members are elected from each of four wards and they serve staggered two-year terms. The council can appoint, subordinate officers, with the exceptions of the municipal clerk, tax assessor and tax collector, which are appointed jointly by the mayor and council.

The City Form -The City Form of New Jersey municipal government dates back to a series of laws passed by the state legislature between 1897 and 1899.The mayor and council are elected in partisan elections. The mayor serves a four-year term, unless a two or three-year term preceded the passage of the 1997 law. The mayor is the chief executive, may participate in council meetings and can vote to break ties. The mayor can veto ordinances and serves as the head of the police department. Meanwhile, the council is the legislative body of the municipality and appoints most of the subordinate officers of the city. Generally, the city council consists of seven members with six elected from wards for three-year terms and one elected at-large for a four-year term. The city may delegate all or a portion of the executive authorities to an administrator.

The Village Form – There are no municipalities utilizing the Village form of government. Based on the 1989 revisions, any New Jersey municipality operating under the village form shall operate and transact all its business according to the laws of the Township form. Under the Village Form, the significant difference is that the committee is known as the Board of Trustees and the mayor is known as the president of the board.

The Commission Form – This form of government was passed as part of the Walsh Act in 1911. In a five-member commission, each commissioner heads up one of the following departments: Department of Public Affairs; Department of Public Safety; Department of Public Works; Department of Parks and Public Property; or Department of Revenue and Finance. In three-member commissions, the Department of Public Affairs and Public Safety are combined as are the Department of Public Works and Parks and Public Property. The Commissioners function as the legislative authority of the municipality. They are elected at-large in nonpartisan elections to serve concurrent four-year terms. The mayor is selected from among the commissioners, makes most of the key appointments and has a vague, often undefined, supervisory authority.

The Municipal Manager Form of Government -This form was created to bring a more businesslike, professional approach to local government. A municipality can adopt through a referendum, a three, five or seven-member council, elected at large in nonpartisan elections. The mayor is selected from the council but the duties associated with the title are essentially limited to presiding over and voting with the council and a handful of appointments. The manager serves as the chief executive of the municipality. The manager ideally is politically neutral and operates the municipality in a businesslike manner. The manager prepares the budget for the council, oversees the negotiation and implementation of contracts and handles most personnel matters.

The Mayor-Council Form -This form, also known as the “strong mayor” form, provides for the direct election of the mayor, who serves a four-year term. This form is designed for a mayor to be independent of council, in charge of the administration of the municipality. The mayor is the chief executive of the municipality and has the enforcement responsibility for all ordinances, charter provisions and prepares the budget of the municipality. The mayor, with the advice and consent of the council, appoints and removes department heads, including the business administrator. The mayor has the right to speak at council meeting but has no vote and does not need to attend meetings. The council is the legislative body of the municipality. The membership is five, seven or nine members, elected either at-large or from wards. The council is generally limited to legislative functions, but has investigative power and may remove municipal officers for cause. The council can reduce items in the mayor’s budget by a majority vote, but it needs a two-thirds majority to increase any item in the budget. Elections can be partisan or nonpartisan. If elections are nonpartisan, the municipality also has the option of run off elections. Elections can be at-large or by wards. If the municipality is divided into wards, the municipality has the option over the number of wards. The size of the council can be three, five or seven members. Terms can be staggered or concurrent.

Council-Manager Form – An experienced professional serves as the chief executive. The council is made up of five, seven or nine elected members. The council is the legislative body of the municipality,  appoints members of boards, commissions and authorities, and appoints the municipal clerk and tax assessor. The council appoints a manager to serve as the chief executive. The mayor can either be selected from the council or directly elected. Either way, the mayor serves as the presiding member of the council. The manager has the full administrative responsibility for the municipality, including appointment of department heads as well as subordinates, preparation and presentation of the budget and the negotiation of contracts. If the elections are nonpartisan, the municipality has the option of run-off elections. The mayor can be elected directly or selected from among the council. If elected by the voters, the mayor serves a four-year term. If selected by the council, the mayor serves either a one, two or four year term, depending on whether the council serves staggered or concurrent terms and local ordinances. Council members can be elected at-large or from wards. If the municipality operates under a ward-based system, the number of wards is also an option. The size of the council can be five, seven or nine members.

Small Municipality Form – This form is available to municipalities under 12,000 in population. The mayor exercises the executive authority of the municipality. The mayor in this form appoints an assessor, tax collector, treasurer, clerk and any officers provided for by local ordinance. The mayor also appoints all other officers and employees of the municipality. The mayor has the dual role of chief executive and presiding officer of the council, and votes with council but has no veto power. The council is the legislative authority of the municipality. Under this form, the council passes ordinances and resolutions, passes the budget, consents to the appointments of the mayor and has investigative powers but it possesses no administrative authority.

Mayor-Council-Administrator – The council is the legislative branch of the municipality. While the council has no authority to make appoitnments, it does prepare the budget with the assistance of the treasurer and administrator. Although the Council does not appoint the administrator, the administrator may be removed from office at the pleasure of the council. As the executive authority, the mayor presides over the council but possesses no vote. He or she can veto ordinances but the council may override a veto by a two-thirds majority. The mayor is authorized to make a number of key appointments, including the administrator, assessor, collector, attorney, clerk and treasurer. There are three municipalities currently operating under this form.

Special Charters – Pursuant to the State Constitution of 1947, a local government unit may operate under a unique form of government under a special charter provision. Under state statute, the governing body of a municipality may enact an ordinance for a special charter, voters can petition for a special charter, or a charter study commission can recommend change to a special charter. 10 When this process is completed at the local level, the municipality petitions the state legislature for enabling legislation for the special charter.

Petition Requirements to Change the Form of Government

Officials can decide to create a study commission to consider changing the form of government and then place a question on the ballot. But residents can also place the question on the ballot for voters to decide.

A question may be placed on the ballot to change to the commission form of  government
by  a petition signed by at least 20 percent of the number of registered voters at the
last general election. The municipal clerk must call an election for this purpose on the third Tuesday following the date on which the petition is filed.

To switch to the municipal manager form of government, a petition to place the measure on the ballot must be signed by a number of voters equal to 15 percent of the number of persons who
voted in the municipality at the last general election for General Assembly.

For Optional Municipal Charter Law forms of government such as the council-manager form and the mayor-council form, the number of signatures necessary to place a question of change on the ballot for a municipality with between 7,000 and 70,000 residents is 20 percent of the registered voters counted as of the date that the petition is filed. If a valid petition is filed, the municipal clerk must place the question on the ballot at the next general or regular municipal election, if there is to be one, at least 60 and no more than 120 days after the petition is filed. If there is no regularly scheduled election during that time, the clerk must arrange for a special election within that period. A simple majority is required for approval. If wards have to be drawn, the first partisan election would be held at the next general election at least 120 days following the referendum.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Jim Jenson

    Why should those in power (the PCDO “clubhouse”) change to a system that could potentially dilute their power?

  • Big D Dem

    Because our town always votes overwhelmingly Democratic for top ticket (US Senate, President, Governor) candidates, and because a large chunk of voters (and maybe the majority of voters) in any given election are voting just to vote in the top ticket race (e.g., Princeton, IAS, Westminster & other students, newcomers and those who are just too busy to engage in details of municipal issues) our council and mayor are only accountable to the Democratic nominating process. They are not accountable directly to the voters, because the voters don’t put them in or throw them out. Oh sure there may be some individual candidates now and then juggling within the Democratic party on a ballot, but ultimately if a candidate comes out of the local Democratic party (which charges membership dues to participate in their elections and holds meetings for their membership at which party decisions are made) that candidate will win the election at the ballot due to “coattails”. So, you can sign petitions, come to council meetings, organize efforts around municipal issues you care about, but ultimately, unless you have clout in the local Democratic party, the muni officials really don’t have to worry about you. And this is not by accident, why do you think we recently changed our Mayoral elections to the same years as Presidential elections if it wasn’t a means of locking this in? I’m a Democrat, but don’t think this is a good situation for our town, and I would wholeheartedly support moving to non-partisan municipal elections and a ballot construction with municipal candidates placed outside of party columns to untether from those coattails. This way, the candidates have to actually reach out to the general electorate of municipally interested voters. There are profoundly important municipal issues that don’t fall neatly
    along national party lines, including issues of planning, zoning,
    parking, policing, etc) and our candidates should be accountable to Princeton residents on such issues and not just accountable to us on national party affiliation. Where can I go sign that petition?!

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    I would like to see the change, too. I know a number of extremely intelligent, experienced, conscious, talented republicans and independents who would be a well needed addition to the government. To me, at this point, with only 3 exceptions, commissions, boards, council, it is a “clique”.

  • Blake Cash

    We would be better off with a system which allows citizens to initiate referendums, removing power from the council.

    This was America, a place to be proud of. I am no longer proud of our political process, bought with money and power. It appeals to the weakest, who end up being our elected officials. It does not matter if in a “non-partisan” structure we know who the Democrats and Republicans are, parties have no power in the structure.

    Our leaders have a choice, they can work back towards a system of representative government, or they can find themselves inside the house when it burns down. The days of asking nicely are rapidly coming to an end.

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