On Monday night, the South Orange Board of Trustees discussed the for the first time since November’s election. In November, the residents of South Orange were to the charter.
The South Orange Charter Review, a group of seven citizens and village officials were charged with evaluating how the charter that governs South Orange is working. They to the Board of Trustees in June 2011 as to which parts of the charter should be changed.
At Monday’s meeting, the Board of Trustees read the recommendations one by one and commented on each.
Recommendation 1: Change “Township of South Orange Village” to “South Orange Village”
In November, voters said that they would approve this change by an overwhelming margin. 2,067 (78.09%) were in favor of the change, while 580 (21.91%) were opposed. The name was previously changed to include “Township” to bring eligibility for certain federal assistance. However, eligibility no longer depends on the township designation.
The trustees unanimously agreed with the voters that the name change was necessary. They also made clear that signs in the village wouldn’t need to be changed, but future signs would be the ones affected. Therefore, no major costs would be necessary by the change.
Recommendation 2: Change “Village President” to “Mayor;” and, change “Board of Trustees” to “Village Council”
In November, voters said that they would approve this change by another overwhelming margin. 1,561 (59.26%) were in favor of the change while 1,073 (40.74%) were opposed. Despite the approval of their constituents, the majority of the trustees said that they were personally opposed to the measure.
Prior to the discussion on the charter, Amy Dahn, a South Orange resident and a former President of the Montrose Park Historic District Association, spoke in the public comments portion of the meeting about . Dahn spoke of what the founders of South Orange’s intent was when they named the position.
“The founders and builders (of South Orange) specifically chose a non-partisan village system with all of its unique ingredients,” said Dahn.
Dahn asked where the confusion over who governs South Orange comes from. She also questioned whether the change would open the town to partisan politics.
“Bottom line, is this title change really just a matter of convenience for you,” Dahn asked the trustees.
Trustee Michael Goldberg agreed with Dahn saying that the names are part of what makes South Orange “unique.” He said that the time it takes them to explain what their positions are isn’t too much.
Trustees Howard Levison and Mark Rosner agreed as well. Levison said he agreed with Dahn’s “characterization of what the town is about.”
Village President Alex Torpey came out strongly in favor of the change saying that while he would agree with the others in a “different time in history,” that the name change will benefit both the officials and the town outside of South Orange.
“So much of what we do as a government is done outside of South Orange these days,” said Torpey. “Whether it is writing grants or trying to lobby to other towns or going to workshops or meetings and simply people don’t know what a Trustee or Village President is. I don’t think I’ve ever been introduced or had to introduce myself where it doesn’t require this explanation. I think it takes away the external validity of what we are as a government if we always have to explain ourselves and what we do for people.”
Torpey went on to explain that the terms “mayor” and “council” are universally referred to as elected officials, while the terms “trustee” and “presidents” are more universally equated to positions on corporate boards and non-profits.
Trustee Janine Bauer agreed with Torpey, saying the titles were confusing to people outside of South Orange.
“I very much am in favor of “mayor” and “village council,”” said Bauer. “The only compromise I can see and I really have thought about this long and hard, is that I think Amy is right, we are doing this for our own convenience. I admit it. But, it is extremely confusing and quite frankly the number of people especially in South Orange, never mind outside of South Orange where this really drops into the convenience box, the number of people within South Orange who don’t know what the legislative body or “who is in charge,” I’m asked quite frequently that.”
However, Bauer was willing to offer a compromise of retaining the titles while South Orange has a unique charter. However, she says that the town needs to prepare for a future change of
Trustee Nancy Gould agreed with Torpey, but said that she could go “either way” on the name change.
“It is really confusing when you introduce yourself to people and you have to unwind and explain,” said Gould. It is really confusing and it’s consistently confusing and it happens all the time. That being said, if you want to keep it historic, I’m fine with that as well. I’ll go with whatever the majority (of trustees) wants to do.”
Trustee Deborah Davis Ford, who was late to the meeting, signaled that she would be in favor of the changes.
Recommendation 3: Provide Village President and Trustees with annual stipends without any other benefits
In the question of whether the Village Charter should be amended to provide the Village President an annual stipend of $2,400, without other benefits, and provide Village Trustees with an annual stipend of $1,800 each, without other benefits, the voters were the most divided. 1,330 (50.67%) residents voted in favor of the change, while 1,295 (49.33%) were opposed.
Trustee Mark Rosner opened the discussion by saying he supported the recommendation. One of his main reasons was the pricy political events in Essex County where a lot of work gets done in the towns. Typically the South Orange governing body has to pay out of their own pockets to go to these events.
“South Orange is always underrepresented at these events,” said Rosner. “And those important State Senators and Essex County Executives say that if you’re not there, and you don’t show up to ask, then you can’t have it.”
Rosner said that if stipends aren’t enacted, then he would support a better re-imbursement system in the village. Trustee Bauer agreed with the need for a better re-imbursement system, though she said she is “absolutely against” providing elected officials with stipends. Trustee Levison said he was against stipends and also said that he thinks Rosner’s analogy refers to “pay-to-play.”
Trustee Goldberg brought up Maplewood officials and said that while they get a small stipend, he doesn’t see them getting more benefits than South Orange. He also said that “it’s tradition.”
Trustee Gould said that she was originally in support of stipends; however, after looking at the current budget conditions, she has reversed her decision and is now opposed.
Village President Torpey said that he supports stipends for elected officials, however not for them to go to political events.
“I think that it’s a serious shame that we don’t compensate people to a certain degree in this form of government,” said Torpey. “I think it’s a classest policy that’s not explicit, but certainly implicit. Basically if you don’t make enough money to incur government expenses, you can’t be on this governing body.”
As Torpey said that, Goldberg smirked and shook his head, bringing ire from Torpey.
“You make not be in that financial income bracket, but that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t in that description,” Torpey told Goldberg. “You need to look outside your own financial situation and think of other people.”
Torpey went on to say that having to “pay to be an elected official” goes against every “philosophy of government” that he has ever studied. He said that his opinion is that there is a principle that “in this country, you should not have to pay to be a government official. You should be able to represent people if you want to without taking money out of your own bank account.”
Torpey also brought up that the voters of South Orange approved this non-binding referendum and how surprising that was.
“I’m astounded that the community came out in such support of the stipends during a bad economy, I would’ve expected that to fail horribly,” said Torpey. “If you look at the state of government in this country and you look at the frustration of people, of residents and citizens of government, who is voting anywhere else in the country to give government officials money in their pocket? It just doesn’t happen.”
Torpey attributed that to “an understanding in our community that there is a principle to uphold that you shouldn’t have to pay money to be a government official.
Trustee Goldberg said that the Board of Trustees “signed up as volunteers.”
“We all volunteered to do this position,” said Goldberg. “If we can’t handle the time or whatever, that was our choice. We all chose to be here because we wanted to be here.”
Goldberg then accused Torpey of sending out “false information” before the election and that it skewed the votes in the favor of the stipends. On November 7, the day before the elections, Torpey sent out an e-mail blast where he incorrectly stated a number. He followed it up almost immediately with the correction in another e-mail.
Goldberg said that with the “budget crisis” that South Orange is facing, people would think they were “out of their minds.” He then said that it “doesn’t cost anything to do this job.”
“That is false, that is absolutely false,” Torpey said. “There is no way in the world you can justify that.”
He then pointed out the differences between the trustee position and the Village President position where Torpey has to spend hours performing executive functions. In addition, he pointed out that by adding this to the charter, it would not affect the current board, but future boards.
“To think that there is one person in this town who doesn’t run for office because they are afraid that they can’t afford it is horrible,” said Torpey.
Trustee Deborah Davis Ford said she supported the stipends. She pointed out that it’s a “small stipend and will not benefit anybody here (on the dais).” She mentioned that the stipend was for boards going forward. She also pointed out that people with “limited incomes” probably can’t afford to do this job.
“If you look at all the governments, there are some that I’m appalled at what they are given in terms of compensation, I think it’s obscene, I really do,” said Davis Ford. “But to be honest and realistic, there is a cost of doing this (job).”
Recommendation 4: Change adoption of resolutions to require affirmative vote of majority of Trustees present, not merely Trustees who voted
This was not asked to the voters in November. All the trustees were unanimous in supporting this change. The current charter states “No resolution may be adopted without the affirmative vote of a majority of the Trustees present and voting. The Village President may cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie vote.” The recommendation is to remove the phrase “and voting.”
Recommendation 5: Allow Village President to have the right to vote on adoption of the budget
This was also not asked to the voters in November. The trustees agreed not to change this since it’s the “Village President’s budget” and since he presents the budget, he should not have a vote.
Recommendation 6: Change biennial elections from May to November
This was recommended by the charter review committee to be presented as a non-binding resolution to the public. However, after none of the trustees present at the meeting would second Trustee Davis Ford’s motion to vote on it. It was re-introduced two weeks later in a special meeting; as there was no second to Davis Ford’s motion to vote.
On Monday, the trustees were finally ready to discuss it with November elections slightly being the preferred choice. Trustees Goldberg, Bauer, Davis Ford and Gould supported the move, while Trustees Levison, Rosner and Village President Torpey were opposed.
Goldberg said that while he was initially opposed, but after moving the Board of Education election to November, he had changed his mind and wants one big election.
Currently the Board of Education holds their elections in April. No definitive action has happened in terms of moving their election. But South Orange and Maplewood seem to support it.
Goldberg said that he doesn’t think that there will be a partisan influence in the elections because it hasn’t happened in Maplewood, where the elections are partisan.
Torpey questioned the statistics of previous elections saying that the turnout had different factors for different months and years. He also worried about the influence of partisan politics in South Orange’s elections.
“When we talk about the historic nature of this town, one of the great things about it is that there are no outside groups really involved in these elections,” said Torpey.
He went on to explain that while the elections would remain non-partisan, they would be happening in “partisan season.” Davis Ford said that they “have to trust the residents” not to be influenced.
Levison pointed out that there is a problem with the ballot as the municipal elections have the danger of being buried on the ballot. Torpey agreed, saying that it would also force municipal candidates to have to raise more money to compete with the bigger elections.
“We should be doing the opposite, taking money out of politics, not encouraging people to put money back into politics to compete with really big campaigns,” said Torpey.
Goldberg said that moving the elections will increase “voter turnout and engagement.” While nobody disagreed that voter turnout would increase in November, Torpey questioned how moving the elections would “engage the voters” since they would be going to the polls anyways and moving the elections does not mean they are paying more attention to the government.
“What this feels like is a gimmick,” said Torpey. “What this feels like is “we need to get more people involved so we will increase voter turnout.” But will people really be paying attention to town issues? I don’t think so.”
Trustee Bauer disagreed with that statement saying that moving the elections will get more people involved because "for whatever reason, people pay more attention to November elections."
There will also be a future discussion about whether the charter should even dictate when the elections are.
Upon the recommendation of Village Counsel Steven Rother, the charter will be revised with the proposed changes and then an ordinance will be created to pass it. Then the changes will be sent to the New Jersey legislation for approval by the assembly and the state senate. It is then sent back to South Orange, where it needs to be passed again by the Board of Trustees.