Cranford takes another look at changing their government

CRANFORD — If the township is going to make a move towards changing its current form of government, residents will have to make their voices heard on the issue or forever hold their peace.

Last week Mayor Tom Hannen said the township will be repealing a 2012 ordinance approved late last year that would have paved the way for a charter commission to investigate changing the current form of government.

Although the ordinance is scheduled to be repealed at the June 11 township committee meeting, Hannen said the issue is far from dead.
“In order to move forward we have to repeal the old ordinance that allowed us to establish a charter commission,” the mayor explained, adding that by doing this he hoped residents would come forward to say how they feel about the issue one way or another. Right now even he is on the fence.

“I’m not sure what to do. This is about Cranford’s future and how residents will be governed, not just about the present,” Hannen said, suggesting whatever the township decides should be based on input from residents.

“I hope repealing the old ordinance brings out residents so we can hear how they feel about this,” he said, pointing out that the governing body needs to know how people really feel about the current form of government and if a change is something they want.

But that is not the only problem facing Hannen. Two minority Republican members on the committee are strongly in favor of a charter study and the mayor said he cannot ignore their concerns.

Last year the Republican majority on the committee introduced the ordinance late in the year, but later the matter was shelved. Support further weakened when the Democrats took over control of the township committee Jan. 1, but Hannen said the timing was just “all off.”
“It was late in the year when it was brought up, right around the holidays when most people are busy. Now we have had the ability to think about it clearly and the timing is better,” the mayor said.

At the time, former mayor David Robinson, Lisa Adubato and Andy Kalnins supported the measure while Democrats Kevin Campbell and Edward O’Malley did not. At a recent meeting Campbell was still against changing the township committee form of government, telling fellow committee members he did not see it as a “cure-all” for the problems facing the township.

“I haven’t heard anyone express any real support for a charter study or for changing our form of government,” he said, adding that only two people actually commented on the issue in the past. O’Malley saw things from a different perspective.

“I don’t see this as a public support issue. I see it as effective government and effective access,” he said, mentioning it was not “effective” to keep bringing up the subject every five or six years.

Hannen is keeping an open mind but did feel bringing aboard an experienced, full-time administrator changed the picture considerably from last year when the township was in a state of flux.

“Having Joe Hartnett has been a blessing. He is on top of everything and has everything under control, which is a big change from last year,” the mayor said mentioning that he believed a lack of long-range planning caused the problems the township experienced in the past.
“We need to plan three years ahead, not one,” Hannen said, explaining the township is a business “and businesses plan ahead more than a year.”
On the other hand, while Adubato admitted the addition of a full time administrator certainly resulted in improvements, she felt there was no harm in asking residents how they felt. Specifically she pointed to how inconsistencies from year-to-year resulted in the township getting mired in situations like Birchwood.

Birchwood is a builder’s remedy apartment complex development on Birchwood Avenue that the township and residents living adjacent to the proposed project have been against since its inception. As a result the township incurred well over a half million in legal costs to fight the project, a number that some officials say is more “like a million.”

The question of changing the form of government in Cranford is not a new one. Periodically the issue has surfaced and then gone off the radar again.

In fact, in 2007 when the matter was brought before voters in a referendum, 75 percent were in favor of a change. Records indicated there was unusual turnout when the issue came up on the ballot, considering it was not a federal or gubernatorial election, with 3,611 residents in favor of changing the form of government and 1,984 against.

This all changed the following summer after a nine-member Charter Study Advisory Committee spent months investigating whether a change in government was in order. In August 2008 this committee recommended keeping the current township committee form of government, suggesting the administrator’s role be extended to increase efficiency.

Although the community came out in force to support a change in government, when it came time for the advisory committee to hold a public hearing on the issue, only a handful of residents attended and the township only received six emails on the topic.

Currently the township operates a committee form of government with five members elected at large for three-year terms. Although there is a mayor, the position is not elected at large, but rather decided by the majority members on the committee, as is the deputy mayor position.

There are four forms of government municipalities can choose from under The Faulkner Act, a 1923 state law that permitted towns to choose between four types of government.

The township form, like Cranford, is the oldest form of municipal government in New Jersey.
Following that is the town form with the mayor and councilman selected in partisan, not political, elections.

There also is a city form of government with an elected mayor and council, like Rahway and Linden, and the borough form, which is the most popular form of local government in the state where the mayor is elected to a four-year term.

Springfield is a year into the process of investigating whether to switch to one of the three other forms of government, with a referendum expected to be on the ballot in the November election.

A charter committee appointed in January consisting of five members is currently looking into all options and is expected to render a decision by August. Like Cranford, this is not the first time the issue surfaced.

In Springfield in 1958, a charter committee looked at other forms of municipal government and made recommendations but nothing came of it.

In 1996, the issue again came up and a Springfield Government Study Committee looked into how the township government was organized and the processes it used but again, nothing came of this venture. This past November voters approved a referendum by a 170-vote margin, with the vote tally coming in 2,391 to 2,221 in favor of looking further into a change. Even though political power on the committee switched from Republican to Democrat, the measure did not die in the process. A charter committee was formed to look into the matter and is expected to return with a report by August.

According to a report by the charter group, it will look into several issues, including studying the present form of government by interviewing both present and past governing body members, civic leaders and media representatives. The group also will hold public meetings to inform voters of other forms of government prior to preparing a report with a final decision on the matter.

The charter group said after digesting this information they will decide whether to retain the current form of government, retain it with modifications, suggest changing to one of the three other forms of town government, or petition the legislature for a special charter, which could include amendments to the present town charter.