Charter Study Question Needed

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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During the commotion and upheaval that took place when the Mayor's position was being finalized early in 2023, I was hoping the municipal governing body would have taken proactive steps in reforming how local government operates here in Clifton.

Sadly, nothing happened -- then or since.

Clifton was fortunate the right thing was done in elevating Ray Grabowski to the Mayor's position. But that outcome emerged from the narrowest of margins via a 4-3 vote. Given all that happened, the impetus to put in motion needed structural changes should have spurred on a broader assessment of how our city functions.

To believe nothing of a similar nature will happen again in 2026 is having one's head buried in the sand. Just realize - nothing now prevents the 7th place finisher in the '26 election from being selected Mayor.

What's missing?

At the heart of the matter is whether the governing body can demonstrate relevancy in dealing with the key issues impacting nearly 90,000 people living here?

A few months ago, a citizens' group organized a meeting at the Elks Lodge and presented reforms on how local government should operate. Several members of the council attended that meeting and the general viewpoint from those attending was a shared dissatisfaction on how things were operating at 900 Clifton Avenue.

Did any of the council members attending spur on a discussion for real reform with the rest of their colleagues? No.

Let's keep in mind, the functionality of government, at all levels, is to serve people.

Government accomplishes functionality in meeting the needs of the people who live here now -- not in the distant past.

Clifton's existing form of government came into existence in the 1930's. That "fit" worked for a number of years. Clifton then was overwhelmingly white with neighborhoods essentially similar in composition and composed of related housing stock.

Clearly, the Clifton of today has evolved greatly since the 1930s. The diversity of the people living here is greater than ever before. The neighborhoods have equally evolved with a range of distinct quality-of-life issues abounding.

The turbulent and unfocused conduct of council meetings has only prompted whether local government, as presently constituted, can stay both relevant and effective. Getting meaningful things accomplished lies at the heart of government and Clifton's existing governing body, after being in office only one year, is straining to remain focused with no clear and sustained vision for the future.

Several years ago, three people on the council (Joe Kolodziej being one of them) joined me in putting a question on the ballot regarding the movement of our municipal elections from May to November. The rationale was simple. November provides a more optimum time frame for a greater number of people to cast ballots. There were a few loud naysayers but when the question was decided the citizenry approved the switch nearly 2-to-1 in favor.

What that vote indicated was that citizens are ready to implement the kind of needed changes that timid and blinded elected leaders fail to bring forward. Oftentimes, those in elected office are more concerned with self-interest than what is needed on a broader level for the general interest.

In 2024, Clifton and the rest of the USA will have a Presidential election. That election historically brings out the greatest number of voters. The governing body in Clifton needs to place a question on the ballot asking citizens if a charter study of local government should be put into motion.

Getting the consent of the people is what keeps government credible. If the people of Clifton do not wish to have a charter study, then the matter is settled. However, if the people of Clifton say "yes" then the process for orderly and needed improvements will be put into motion.

I attended and spoke at the November 21 council meeting and asked the governing body to place a charter study question on their agenda for an upcoming work session. When I served on city council, I suggested such local government changes and was rebuffed. Unfortunately, the connection between the words "vision" and "Clifton" were not embraced by my former colleagues.

Government must always be aligned to the needs of the people. Clifton's form of government worked for many years. However, the evolution of Clifton requires a government that deals with the people and related issues here now.

Government is akin to getting a suit of clothes. From time to time, one needs to make sure the existing body still provides the perfect fit for the clothes selected. As a body ages the previous fit may no longer work and getting needed tailoring is essential. Shaping the future -- not living in the past -- is what Clifton needs to remain vibrant and relevant in 2024 and beyond.

The council can show true leadership and place in front of the voters a simple "yes" or "no" question on whether a charter study is needed. Failure to do so will indicate a governing body tone deaf and blind to the needs of the people living here now.

A charter study question gives the stakeholders of Clifton the rightful final word.

The time is now.
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Matt Ward is a former two-term Clifton Councilman, past member/president of the Clifton Board of Education, and former Commissioner on the Clifton Planning Board.

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