CRANFORD — All efforts to change the township’s form of government are over, but the matter may come up again as it has in the past.
The issue of whether Cranford’s form of government is working for the township or not fell off the radar at a recent Township Committee meeting when commissioners voted 3-to-2 along party lines rescinding an ordinance that would have put in place a charter study commission. The move, supported by members of the public and former governing body members as well, was the answer Mayor Tom Hannen was looking for back in early June.
Hannen was looking to repeal an ordinance approved last year that would have paved the way for a charter commission to investigate changing the current form of government. But that was while the Republican Party had control of the governing body. However, while the Democratic Party took over control in January, he felt the issue was far from dead. In fact, he was hoping that by rescinding the ordinance residents would come out and speak their mind on the matter and that is exactly what happened.
Currently Cranford has a township committee form of government with five commissioners elected at large for three-year terms. Although there is a mayor, it is not an elected position but rather an honorary position determined by the majority members of the committee. There are a total of four forms of government which municipalities can choose from, but the township committee form of government is the oldest form of municipal government in New Jersey.’
There 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. But Cranford is not the only municipality with the challenge of whether to change the form of government. Springfield is more than a year into the process of whether to switch to one of three forms of government, with a referendum expected on the November ballot.
At the July 17 meeting, which LocalSource viewed via a recording from Cranford TV 35, the ordinance repealing the measure had a final reading and public hearing prior to a vote by the committee. During the public hearing, many residents stepped to the podium to air their views on the issue. While some were completely against such a change, still others felt the entire matter should be put on the ballot. Included among those who spoke on the change were several former governing body members, who felt changing the form of government that has been in place for more than 100 years should not even be entertained.
Ed Force, mayor from 1989 to 1991, said he had many concerns about changing the township’s form of government, including the cost to the township to investigate the issue and pay an elected mayor a salary. He said the township embarked on a similar study in 2008 and in the end it went nowhere.
“Yeah, we have problems, but changing the form of government is not the answer,” the former Republican mayor said, adding the township should continue working for the people.
In 2007 when the matter was brought before voters, 75 percent were in favor of a change. Records indicated there was an 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 only that the administrator’s role be extended to increase efficiency. In addition, when the advisory committee held a public meeting on the issue, only a handful of residents attended and the township only received six emails on the matter.
Both Force and former mayor Paul LaCorte, as well as other former elected officials, felt that if a change in government was made, it would become political very quickly and change the township. No one, though, brought up that in the present form of government there is an election every year and political power on the committee can shift from Democrat to Republican annually. This shift often carries with it a change in policy and goals.
Although Democrat Commissioner Kevin Campbell has been against such a change from the start, maintaining only 50 or 60 people were actually in favor of the change, the two Republicans on the governing body fully supported the opportunity.
Commissioner Lisa Adubato, who has been very outspoken on the matter, explained that having a commission look into such a change was merely a vote to study the township’s options, not change the form of government. She did agree, though, that residents needed a clearer understanding of what the study actually meant.
Andy Kalnins, who has been on the governing body for a few years, felt that with the current form of government, many projects end up being put off and never completed because newly elected governing body members need time to get up to speed on how township government works. However, no one challenged the commissioner to say this learning curve would not be any different with another form of government.
Democrat Deputy Mayor Ed O’Malley, who decided not to run for another three-year term in November, felt the current form of government worked and wasting any time on discussing a change was counter productive. Adubato and Kalnins balked at this, saying if the current form of government was working well, it could always be better.
“I expect I would be supportive of this kind of initiative in another four or five years, but right now it is just too soon,” the deputy mayor said, adding that while there was merit in re-examining things, he did not want to “get bogged down in analysis paralysis.”
He also noted that he studied other town’s form of government and the findings were inconclusive.
“They were all close on costs; we were a little bit less. We operate lean in this town,” he said.
Adubato said the fact the measure was being debated was enough to support the measure being put on the ballot
“One of the comments I heard tonight is that voters need to know what they are voting for. That is the very purpose of the study commission; to educate the public,” said the Republican commissioner, adding that the vote that night was not to change the township’s form of government. She also asked those who were so vehemently opposed to the change “what are you afraid of?”
Adubato has been very vocal about the problem she has with the current form of government, saying in the long run it costs the township more money than necessary. She also said this leads to ineffective and inefficient spending of money.
“The purpose of a study is to educate and inform,” Adubato said, adding that she isn’t necessarily right on the issue, but could not understand why such a change is “so repugnant to people.”
“Whatever it costs it will be money well spent,” she said, pointing out “it won’t be nearly the cost of what we lose in our current form of government.”
Campbell countered that by suggesting the number of people actually interested in this change was minor.
“The reason for doing it is that the community supports it, and there is no evidence of that,” he said.
“This isn’t just about administration of efficiency in government; it’s about Cranford’s identity. What has made our town what it is in some ways is our form of government. What makes Cranford special is that we are a tight knot community and the township form of government is one of the reasons,” Campbell said.
Kalnins felt the township would never know if there was community support without the measure going on the ballot.
“We’re not saying we would have a strong mayor form of government. There are many types available under the Faulkner Act and we would choose. I believe this form of government is good and we are doing good, but I think it could be better,” the governing body member said, adding that the Faulkner Act had been around for 30 years and there were checks and balances with all forms of government.
“If you don’t like what the mayor is doing, there are options,” Kalnins said.
Prior to the governing body taking the final vote, Hannen thanked everyone for their input and had a few words to say on the issue.
“What has been said tonight has been inspiring, if nothing else,” the mayor said, suggesting that if the current township committee does nothing, the next will.
“Under the current form of government the mayor usually has majority support of the committee and can get things done. I’ve heard all of my colleague’s comments and am of the opinion that at this particular time, I will be voting to uphold the ordinance to rescind,” Hannen said.