Does Clifton's Form of Government Need a Change? Some Say Yes.
Some Clifton residents think that it’s time for a change in the way our city is governed. Two different but overlapping perspectives have emerged, each with the ultimate goal of bringing Clifton into a more modern era of greater government transparency and accountability.
A small group of lifelong Clifton residents calling themselves Clifton Citizens for Change - Jim Daley, Joe Canova, Dona Crum, Ray Robertello, and Larry Grasso - have organized in an attempt to address what they see as a political stagnation of the city. They looked at our form of government and asked themselves if it was archaic or forward-looking. Together, they are hoping to bring Clifton to a more inclusive and transparent form of governance which begins, they say, with having an elected mayor. Jim Daley said that in order to really highlight the important issues and to ensure that the most qualified person is elected as mayor, that position should be on the ballot and not simply be left to the new council to choose. It’s a small step, Daley said, but the group did not think that Clifton was ready for a huge change right out of the gate. Most other towns in New Jersey, he said, have what is called a strong mayor. In this form of government, the mayor does the things our city manager does. They are the chief executive of the town and will typically have a business administrator to help with that side of things. This type of mayor is a full-time employee with a full-time salary. Of the 37 towns in New Jersey with a population over 50,000 only Lakewood, Union City, Union Township, Middletown, West New York, and Clifton have a mayor who is selected by the council. The other 31 have strong mayors who are elected directly by the voters.
In the Facebook community group, Clifton News and Community, reactions were divided. Margaret Curreri said, “More people would like to keep our current system with a codification that somehow the people's top vote-getter is mayor without council members’ vote. Then [it’s the] people's choice.” Robert Popowich, another resident, said, “Sadly a lot of people [don’t] know how our government works. A council member can nominate someone for mayor. Tradition doesn't belong in a true democracy. I love the idea that we can pick the most qualified person for mayor."
If their petition to make this change is successful it lays the groundwork for potential future changes. The goal, he said, is always to empower the voters of Clifton by putting more of the decision-making in their hands. With the decline in printed newspapers and local media coverage greatly diminished, educating the voters is more challenging than ever. Still, it is vitally important if we are to have a truly representative government.
In addition to electing the mayor directly, the group is recommending staggered elections to allow for continuity on the council so that the entire slate isn’t changing over at once. Another benefit to staggered elections is that there is more of a chance for dialogue on issues rather than elections becoming popularity or name-recognition contests because you won’t have 17 people running at the same time, as Clifton did in the most recent cycle. There would instead be two seats up during one election and four council seats in the next. With a smaller pool of candidates in each election, there would be more opportunity for actual discussion.
Some residents have questioned if it’s fair to shorten the term for some of the recently-elected councilors, as would happen if this were to become a reality. Daley said that if this question makes it on to the November ballot, the voters will decide if we should supersede the “you were elected for four years” issue or not. “If we want to change the government you have to do something at some point,” he added. “We are trying to change the charter and the voters get to decide that.” The charter is the form of government that the city operates under and Clifton is currently acting under the City Manager Act of 1923, a 100-year-old charter that was enacted when Clifton was a markedly different municipality. State legislature sets term limits for city council at four years, as determined by the law. If voters change Clifton’s charter by voting for this, that usurps the four-year law.
Addressing the issue of what this process could cost the city, Daley pointed out that all municipal elections are held on general election dates and whether you have one issue or 20 on the ballot, the cost is the same. If you have to hold a special election (like a referendum), that would cost the city about $75,000. If enough signatures are collected (need 10% of registered voters so about 6,000) on the petition before September 7, the question of whether we should switch to an elected mayor with staggered elections will appear on the November ballot at no additional cost to the city. Outside of that window, a special election would be needed unless the signatures were held for another year and the question put on the November 2024 ballot.
If voters decide to elect a mayor directly, the mayor would remain the face of the city but still would not be a strong mayor. They would have the ability to direct conversation and policy. The City Manager doesn’t have that ability; he runs the town but doesn’t set policy. He takes that direction from the Council. Candidates running for mayor would need to be more demonstrative and explicit about what they think needs to happen in the city and where it needs to go since they would be running for that position. Candidates who did not win the mayoral seat would not then become a council member. People would have to run for one or the other position.
Key points for residents to consider:
- Signing the petition lets the question go to the voters who can then decide if they want to change the charter or not.
- Signing the petition does not make any changes.
- The proposal, if adopted by the voters, would make no radical changes. Instead, it would bring more accountability for those elected and greater transparency to the voters.
- With staggered elections, voters would not need to wait for four years if they are dissatisfied with how things are going. It’s a similar model to how we elect our Congresspeople.
If you believe that voters should decide on whether this is a good plan or not, you can sign the petition. If the petition meets the threshold of 10% of voters’ signatures, the question will appear on November’s ballot and it will then be up to the voters to say yes or no to the proposed changes.
While some residents appreciate the efforts of Clifton Citizens for Change, others think that their plan doesn’t go far enough and sees them as not being receptive to feedback. Resident JoAnne Nikovits MacBeth, who has been talking about another idea with former councilman Matt Ward said, “One group has a specific idea and doesn't want any input. [Another] group sees need but wants there to be more input.” “They (CCfC) want what they want and are not open to changes.”
Matt Ward, who at various times served on City Council, the Board of Education, and the Planning Board, said that he advocated for a change in how our government works years ago during one of his two terms on the City Council. During his tenure on the Council, city elections were moved from the spring to November to coincide with the general election cycle. The next logical step, he said, is to ask how we can improve on how the city actually functions. The most recent catalyst for considering a change was the debacle over who the new mayor would be. “Would you support the high vote-getter to be mayor” used to be a common question during election season but wasn’t a notable part of the most recent election. He acknowledged that by law, Council can choose any of the seven newly elected councilors, but because it has been such a strong tradition to nominate the person who won the most votes, it caused a lot of ugliness and tension in the city when some councilors opted to break from that tradition. Ultimately, the high vote-getter was chosen to hold the title of Mayor but it was a close vote and not without considerable controversy.
Ward said, of Daley, “I have a lot of respect for him” and that he agrees with both of Daley’s proposals - an elected mayor and staggered elections. “If you want to be mayor you should run for mayor. We stagger BOE elections and I agree with that part.”
Where Ward disagrees with CCFC’s approach is with regard to our at-large council, which that group does not seek to alter. Ward’s concern is that all seven officials could, theoretically, all live on the same city block and he believes that it’s important to make sure that all sectors of Clifton get representation on the Council. With a city as diverse as ours is, he said, “We need a process where candidates are more accountable by directly running for mayor.” He agreed that the race needs to be more competitive but also wants it to be much more representative. “Clifton needs to have a council that looks like the people who live here,” he said. There have been only seven women on the Council in the history of Clifton and no other minorities besides current Councilwoman Rosemary Pino.
CCFC wants to see a certain outcome but Ward believes that we need something more comprehensive. He and MacBeth would like to see a charter study, which would look at the entirety of what’s out there for running a municipality in New Jersey. In a charter study, the question would not be about only what some people think would work but would review all options and how they could best serve Clifton. City Council would have to vote to approve a charter study (it requires four votes) or a petition started by a citizen or citizen group would have to collect approximately 6,000 signatures (10% of Clifton’s registered voters). “For total transparency and to invite the body politic of this city, you need to have an open and thorough process,” Ward said.
A vote for a charter study or a successful petition would then pass the proposal to the voters on a ballot. Five people would be selected, again by the voters, to a charter commission to do the necessary fact-finding and testimony. They would have nine months to do this and would need to have it completed by August, by law. If the charter study were approved in the November 2023 election, the recommendation from that study would be before the voters in November 2024 which is also a presidential election. This would be optimal timing because a presidential election means more voters will show up.
The law is very clear. If Clifton Citizens for Change gets the needed 6,000 signatures, the question will be on the ballot and Clifton residents will be voting on that in November. If City Council takes action to do a charter study or a different citizen group collects the needed signatures for one, then that goes on the ballot. The question is, who gets there first? Both questions cannot be on the same ballot. By law, if whichever question (CCFC’s proposal or the proposal for a charter study) gets on the ballot is voted down, Clifton would have to wait four years to try something new.
Key points for residents to consider:
- Council has to approve a charter study via an ordinance and majority vote or a citizen group has to collect the required number of signatures on a petition.
- Citizens vote on whether or not to conduct a charter study in November. At the same time, people would be on the ballot to run for a position on the commission. You run for this the same way you run for Council (collect signatures to get certified). Candidates need signatures from at least 3% of registered voters or 100 signatures, whichever is lower. Elected officials could also run to be on this commission.
- The proposal, if adopted by the voters, would create a charter study commission that would be tasked with investigating all possible options and then presenting their recommendation to City Council. The municipality would need to fund the study - about $50,000 for attorney fees, a secretary, and expert testimony, according to Ward.
- Their recommendation would then appear on the ballot in November 2024 and voters would decide yes or no to the proposed changes.
When asked why Ward isn’t working with Jim Daley’s group to increase the likelihood of success, Ward again complimented Daley for what he and his group are trying to do but said, “I think that a charter study is the widest berth possible for people to provide their viewpoints.” Clifton’s current form of government was established when the city was 99% white. Today, that figure is under 50% for non-Hispanic or Latino white residents. Ward wants to see better representation and thinks that investigating the possibility of electoral wards would bring more people to the table. “I think it makes a better-governing body” when you have better representation, he said.
At the time of this writing, Ward had not started a petition but indicated that he was considering bringing it up to Council and asking for them to create an ordinance to put a charter study on the ballot. Ward believes that it is this Council's responsibility to ensure that a situation like the recent mayoral dispute does not happen again and supporting a charter study would be a good chance for them to show real leadership.
On supporting CCfC’s petition, Ward finished by saying, “I’d give it serious thought” but said that he would ask the same thing of that group - would they support a charter study?