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Trustees Put Charter Review on Hold

Trustees split on stipends, form of government.

South Orange Board of Trustees. Credit: Patch File Photo.
South Orange Board of Trustees. Credit: Patch File Photo.

The South Orange Board of Trustees has put the Village Charter Review on hold by tabling the resolution, which was scheduled for a vote on second reading and final passage on Monday.

The Village Charter has to come before the Board no less than once every 12 years for approval. From there, it goes on a long journey through the state legislature, which could take years for it to be finally approved.

Although most of the changes to the charter are uncontroversial, a few aspects have the Trustees in disagreement. Instead of a vote, the resolution was tabled until the Dec. 23 meeting.

“This ordinance makes a handful of changes to our charter,” said Village President Alex Torpey. “A bunch of them are outdated, gender specific and parts of it talk about local laws that are now trumped by state statute. There are many, many changes that nobody is that concerned about.”

However, there are three major issues on the Charter, he added. The first is dropping “Township” from the The Township of South Orange Village. According to Torpey, the word “Township” was only added to the title to make South Orange eligible for one specific grant, which because of the wording, was only available to townships in New Jersey.

The second issue is changing the title of the Village President to Mayor and the Board of Trustees to Village Council. The third issue is adding stipends for elected officials with $1,800 for Trustees and $2,400 for the Village President. The stipends to the position would not be implemented until the expiration of the current term. In other words, the stipend would not apply to the current Board of Trustees but to future elected officials.

All three issues were put to the public in the form of a referendum in 2011 and passed. However, the charter then failed when it came back to the Board.

“The cost of service is that if you are meeting with constituents, if you are doing appropriate outreach, you are grabbing a cup of coffee, you are making prints off your computer, you are traveling to different towns, these things just add up and they aren't things you add to your expense reports, they are just the cost of service,” said Trustee Sheena Collum, a member of the Charter Review Committee.

Several residents attended Monday's meeting to speak against the stipends, saying that it creates a slippery slope to pension issues. However, the Village Attorney repeatedly stated the charter would add stipends with no other benefits, including pensions.

“I've always admired the volunteers up here and the ones that served before us,” said Collum. “At any given time you are spending on the low end ten hours a week, on the high end maybe 40 or 50 hours a week.”

With those hours, the stipend works out to about one dollar an hour, she added. Village President Torpey also said he firmly believes that any resident should be able to run for office, regardless of their economic status. A stipend, for instance, could help a single parent hire a babysitter to enable them to attend the dozens of hours a week that come with the position, he said.

Trustee Howard Levison expressed his opposition to the stipends while Trustee Mark Rosner questioned the form of government as a whole.

“Many things have changed over the last 50 or 75 years from the original Charter to now in how the government works and what's expected of government to do,” said Trustee Rosner, also a member of the Charter Review Committee. “I'm not sure that it works best under this form of government. I would like to see us go back to the Charter Review Committee and rethink our government.”

“It took us three years to review this Charter,” responded Torpey. “This is totally crazy to delay this again. To kick this down the road because you don't want to make this decision tonight is really upsetting. I think we should take the recommendation that so many people put so much time into making and act on them tonight.”

Ultimately the Board voted 4-1 in favor of tabling the resolution with Trustees Rosner, Levison, Steve Schnall and Walter Clarke voting in favor and Collum voting against. Trustee Deborah Davis-Ford was absent from the meeting.

A second draft, which only includes the uncontroversial aspects of the Charter, that are “outdated and gender specific” will be prepared for first reading while the current version remains tabled. Both will be on the agenda for the Dec. 23 meeting.

Click here for more information on the Charter Review process and click here to watch the meeting in its entirety.

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