Friday, September 26, 2014

Group Petitions to Change Hackensack's Form of Government

A group of forty Hackensack residents have started a Committe of Petitioners to change Hackensack's form of government.  The Committee is led by Ray Dressler, Frank Rodriguez, Pargellan McCall, Ralph Rivera, Clara Krejsa, and Rachel Velez. 

Hackensack currently operates under the 1923 Municipal Manager form of government.  Under the Municipal Manager form of government, the non-partisan council elects a mayor and has no executive authority aside from the appointment of representatives to boards and commissions.  The day to day operations of the city are run at the direction of a City Manager, who serves at the pleasure of the council.

The 1923 Municipal Manager form of government is, in many respects, antiquated. There are only seven municipalities in the State of New Jersey that operate under this form of government.  In fact, it was the recommendation of a Commission assigned by the State of New Jersey to review the 1923 Municipal Manager form of government to merge the Municipal Manager form of government with the Faulkner-Act.  The Commission's report states that the two forms of government are substantially identical with the exception that residents would be afforded Initiative and Referendum privileges under the Faulkner-Act.  The report actually directly addresses certain inadequacies with the 1923 Municipal Manager form of government and cites Hackensack as a specific example.  Specifically, with regard to recall provisions, the report states, "In the City of Hackensack it appears as though the use of the recall has become a political process.  How else can one account for the fact that in the last quarter of a century, there have been at least seven recall campaigns in the City? One must question whether the drafters of the recall statutes ever envisioned such overuse."  To read the report, click here.

Under the proposed Faulkner-Act Council-Manager form of government, the five council members would be elected in staggered terms, every two years, and their election would take place in November (not May).  This change would encourage greater voter turn out (as elections would coincide with general elections), save taxpayers the cost of a special May election, and the Committee of Petitioners insist would result in greater accountability to the residents of Hackensack. 

If this proposal is successful, the failure of elected officials to act will no longer prevent residents from pursuing beneficial local initiatives. Under the proposed form of government, residents would have the power to enact local legislation through the petition process, an option not currently available in Hackensack. Any citizen can have a proposed ordinance placed on the ballot by obtaining the support of 10% of the registered voters who turned out in the last general election, in an odd-numbered year. 

Under the proposed form of government, the people also have similar power to overturn actions taken by the council. 

“It is time to hold our elected officials accountable through the electoral process more frequently,” said Ray Dressler, spokesman for the group. “More importantly, it is time to give the power of legislation directly to our residents to be used by them, if necessary.”

Dressler is confident that the proposed form of government will be received well by the electorate.  The Committee will be at the Hackensack Street Festival, tomorrow, to discuss their proposal with residents, and obtain signatures for their petition. 

Critics view the proposal as a desperate attempt at a power grab by the Zisa-Hurwitz political machine (with whom many of the petitioners are affilliated). 

I see potential positives, and negatives, in the proposal. Initiative and Referendum rights for residents is something that I believe is a true representation of a “Government by the People," and should be afforded to all citizens. I also like that the citizens would have the ability to choose to elect council members from specific wards, thereby encouraging equal representation from all corners of our city. 

I am specifically troubled, however, by the Committee supporting a move to partisan elections. I truly believe that partisan politics has no place in municipal governance. Should the city make a shift to partisan elections, it lends credence to critics claims that this is nothing more than a political power play as the city will most definitely slip more deeply than ever before into the hands of Lynne Hurwitz and the Bergen County Democratic Organization.