Montclair Considers Whether Township Government Needs To Be Fixed

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.

Edgemont Park bridge

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.”

The Midtown Parking Deck was completed in January but is still not open after a failed inspection.

Bloated Bureaucracy?

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.

Ascend Montclair is expected to finally open for recreational marijuana sales Friday after a long delay.

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?

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Mayor Jackson pretty much summed up one side of the problem…but he chickened out in not also blaming the public. Of course it is leadership, but it also public laziness and resistance to any civic responsibility. We just want to have that expeditious ‘one neck to choke’ form of accountability.

    This Council is failing in its biggest responsibility – fostering civic engagement. It discontinued remote public comment and remote participation in public hearings on important issues. It set a record for almost total opaqueness in this year’s budget process. It either simply eliminated citizen advisory panels or repurposed citizen advisory committees to narrow, “on-demand only” status, “we’ll let you know when we want your input”. It farmed-out goal setting and priorities to its subcommittees who then authorized municipal actions ($$$) outside of public view and often without bothering to inform their peers. And just because they can, they publish their meeting minutes 6+ months afterwards. In short, this Council is talking out of both sides of its collective mouth. It doesn’t want the headaches of an engaged public.

    The problems listed above? The Council owns everything about Redevelopment Areas (the parking deck), they dictate capital allocation & spending, they knew the pools would be at risk based with the timing of the repairs. The Edgemont Park bridge? They are paying for it out of the account of leftover capital funds approved for Edgemont Park in 2017.

    This is simply the nexus of bad government leadership and an apathetic, entitled public.

  2. And for those interested in land use folly, follow the development application for 192 Bellevue Avenue as it makes its way to the Zoning Board this September…after its review by the DRC and the HPC. This is another Sionas Architecture project that brought the plans for Bellevue Center, the first Warner Communications site plan, and the Bellevue Theater design. Thankfully oversized, overbearing projects that were never to reach fruition.
    192 Bellevue is not about what is there historically – which is not much. It is about the other purpose of our HPC ordinance and what new construction fits in with the character of our neighborhood commercial historic districts. The DRC just made a mess of it and I doubt we can undue their harm.

    Maybe we should get out of the historic district business and just focus on business.

  3. At some point Montclair will have to shift the focus from the latest social fad to efficiently running the town. Montclair is too diverse to make everyone happy. Apply tax dollars and time to infrastucture and let the groups with social issues work things out on their own.
    Montclair will not be such a great place to live if everything is falling apart.

  4. If nothing else, our town is entertaining. 75% of responders want to consider a new form of government. Keep in mind that in 2016 election we returned all 7 Council incumbents and that only one new candidate contested an incumbent. 8 candidates for 7 positions.

    In the last election, we returned 4 Council members. It could have been 5, but one incumbent decided to retire. Spiller vacated his 3rd Ward seat to run for Mayor against one of his council mates, but only 2 people ran for his 3rdW position. The 4th Ward was uncontested as only Cummings ran.

    Today’s Council membership consists of 4 members who will have served for 12 years straight.
    Councilor-At-Large seems very popular.
    The 3rd Ward’s choices over the years have not distinguished themselves as strong leaders. I have little expectation this will change.

    I am confused, but still amused. We dislike this Council’s performance. We have not, for the most part, benefited from a plethora of candidates to choose as replacements.

    Most residents don’t even understand our current system of governance much less the vague, but supposedly better choices to serve us. We have quite the track record of not attracting residents to even run for Council. We may face the same situation the BoE is facing where there are only 4 candidate for 3 positions.

    Just maybe most all residents don’t see good government as a joint effort.

  5. 10. Montclair

    The average homeowner in Montclair Township, Essex County, paid $20,320 in 2021, a $357 increase over 2020.

    It’s absolutely embarrassing how poorly run this town is for the amount of dollars they collect

Comments are closed.