Montclair, NJ – A bridge in Edgemont Park has been broken for so long, there’s a Twitter account chronicling its sad state of disrepair. Lately the bridge feels like a metaphor for Montclair’s government. For all the great things that do happen in the township of Montclair, residents are getting frustrated with what’s not getting done, or not being done efficiently.
That frustration had residents at a recent Montclair council meeting asking who is running the township. It has led others to question whether Montclair’s government should change. Much like its now obsolete municipal building, some wonder whether Montclair has outgrown its form of government.
Montclair and The Faulkner Act
Back in 1916, Montclair adopted a Commission form of government under the Walsh Act, which called for the election of five Commissioners on a non-partisan ballot every four years. In 1980, following a charter study commission recommendation, Montclair abandoned its Commission form of government and adopted a Council-Manager plan under the Optional Municipal Charter Law, commonly known as the “Faulkner Act” form of government.
In the council-manager form of government, the mayor is considered a “weak mayor” in that he or she does not have the same political power and administrative authority as a mayor who serves in the mayor-council form of government. Aside from the power to appoint the trustees of the public library, historic preservation commissioners or serve on the Planning Board, the Montclair mayor has no executive powers. And while the town manager reports to the council as does the town attorney, every other employee is hired, fired, promoted, etc., by the town manager.
It isn’t always easy being the mayor in this form of government.
“I had more access and influence as ‘Ed Remsen private citizen’ than I did as mayor,” says former Montclair mayor Ed Remsen, who served from 2004 to 2008, and now serves as president of Studio Montclair.
There were many things you were not allowed or supposed to do, says Remsen, such as calling town employees directly. The mayor has to go through the town manager, but a resident can call an employee of a town department and ask them to fix something on their street or report a problem.
Remsen says many Montclair residents, especially the new ones, don’t realize how limited the mayor’s role is.
“When I was mayor, anyone who came from New York City thought I had the broad powers Mayor Rudy Giuliani had at the time,” Remsen recalls.
Remsen says Montclair’s current form of government can work when you have a talented, responsive town manager with a high functioning mayor and an organized council that communicates well and often. He thinks it’s time for Montclair to reinstate or reconstitute the charter study commission.
“It’s healthy every 15-20 years to ask, ‘is this form of government still working for us?'” says Remsen. “We might have outgrown this form of government. A charter commission could look at all possibilities in a thoughtful, deliberate way.”
Cary Chevat, secretary of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP and secretary of the Montclair Democratic County Committee, says you only have to look at the growing list of problematic projects in Montclair – the Glenridge Parking Deck that failed inspection, two pools closed during summer due to park construction projects, the lack of senior services leadership, restaurants and businesses like Ascend not being able to open, and Edgemont Park’s broken bridge — to know Montclair needs to be fixed.
“You go down the line and you have an unresponsive township manager, no transparency and no accountability,” says Chevat who adds that the current system maintains a bloated bureaucracy that is loyal to the town manager and to maintaining the status quo and not working for the voters.
“If you had an executive mayor, the dispensary would be open and the town would not have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The pools would be open. The bridge would be fixed,” says Chevat, who adds that if the Edgemont Park bridge was in a county park, it would have been fixed in a month, not sitting broken for more than a year.
Christa Rapoport, chair of the township’s Civil Rights Commission, is also in favor of a strong mayor form of government.
Rapaport, who demanded an an investigation after learning of Black firefighters’ allegations that a recently administered promotions test put them at a disadvantage, has been frustrated by the lack of transparency and unresponsiveness of the town manager. She also questions how the town manager, who oversees the department being investigated, would be involved in hiring the investigator.
“There is a breakdown in effective town government. The cost is very expensive and taxpayers are bearing the burden,” says Rapaport, who adds that the Civil Rights Commission has received zero support and believes a strong mayor would remedy that.
Fix Government or The People in Charge
Robert Jackson knows all too well the challenges of being mayor of Montclair. Jackson has the distinction of being the only person in the history of Montclair to have served as mayor two times. His first term from 1987-1988. He was then elected in 2012 and served eight years, getting re-elected to a second term in 2016 and ended his time as mayor in 2020.
“To borrow from Cassius: the fault lies not in our form of government but in ourselves,” says Jackson. “The vision, commitment, and competence of the Township Manager, Mayor, and Township Council determine the effectiveness of our municipal government, irrespective of structure. Like an elected school board, a strong-Mayor municipal government is not a panacea. Leadership in any configuration is.”
Martin Schwartz, who served as Mayor Jackson’s appointee to the Planning Board, doesn’t think form is the issue.
“The problem we have is not so much the structure of our Faulkner Act, manager-weak mayor council system — which could work well here,” says Schwartz. “The real problem is that this and some other recent councils have not used their oversight and information monitoring powers well to force Town staff and administration to operate from clear goals and policies.”
Studying Montclair Government
If Montclair wanted to change its form of government, it could either go back to its previous Commission form of government under the Walsh Act; or adopt a Municipal Manager form of government from the Municipal Manager Law of 1923; or seek State Legislative approval for a special charter form of government; or stay as a Faulkner Act form of government, but select from one of the other alternative plans.
But the only way a change to the form of government could happen is either by direct petition requiring referendum approval or a charter study commission.
It was a charter study commission that changed Montclair from the Commission form of government to its current council-manager form. Under the Commission form of government, each Commissioner serves as the head of different Montclair’s departments.
William Harrison, who currently serves on Montclair’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, was one of five people elected to a charter study commission do an extensive evaluation of Montclair’s form of government.
Harrison said the commission form of government the township previously had with five commissioners each heading up a department “created a number of problems with getting things done because of overlap and confusion over who does what.”
When Harrison served on the commission, he and other members did an extensive evaluation, meeting with representatives of many different towns to learn what worked in terms of form of government and reviewing all the charter study commission reports from other towns. This led to the decision to recommend the council manager form.
Harrison believes having a charter commission revisit the issue of Montclair’s form of government is a good idea.
“My observation practicing law in many towns in the state is that at the end of the day form of government can make a difference in terms of how well a town runs, but it’s much more important who the elected officials are, who the town manager is and how well they function. That is as important — if not more important — than the precise form.”
Montclair Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis also sees a benefit in some kind of government study.
“The jury is out on whether our challenges are due to the form of government that we have, the individuals who are in government or some combination of both. This is something that needs to be seriously deliberated,” says Yacobellis. “In my mind, leadership is like conducting an orchestra. The conductor may not know how to play any of the instruments. But they know how each one should sound and importantly, how they should all sound together. The business of Montclair needs to be conducted similarly so that intention, work, resourcing and results are relatively harmonious.”
When it came to whether the township should have an elected or appointed board, the League of Women Voters Montclair Area (LWVMA) took a strong position.
Donna Ward, spokesperson for the LWVMA, said the League adopted the position to support a council-manager form of government in 1979, as it was considered preferable to the then Commissioner form of government after a League sub- group studied the issue. The rationale included the desirability of having a full-time chief executive in charge, improved cost efficiency, one single town budget, not five competing budgets, etc.
“If the township were to undertake another study, the League would very much like to be involved, since the needs of the township may be different now,” says Ward.
What do you think?