Town Square: A primer on Montclair government
By ELIZABETH SARON MILNER
Special to Montclair Local
Montclair voters will flock to the voting booth on May 12, for the municipal election where they will elect a new Town Council to serve for the next four years.
Unfortunately, this statement was likely to be false even before the COVID-19 crisis and the move to a mail-in ballot election.
Even though local government has more impact on the day-to-day lives of Montclarians than any other level of government, there is a demonstrated lack of interest and involvement by Montclarians in local elections. The police, fire, sanitation, libraries, development, parks, infrastructure, schools, and a budget of over $225 million all fall under the jurisdiction of local government. However, six of seven town council candidates ran unopposed in 2016, and voter turnout was only about 7%. In both 2008 and 2012, where there was choice on the ballot, only about 1 in 4 registered voters voted. Research from The Knight Foundation says that one reason for low voter turnout is a “poor understanding of local government. An objective of the League of Women Voters is to “foster education in citizenship.”
On May 12, Montclarians will vote into office seven new town Councilors for four-year, concurrent terms. Montclair has a nonpartisan form of government. Council candidates do not declare an affiliation with a political party. A voter may cast four votes: one vote for Mayor, a vote for two Councilors-at-Large, and one for a representative from the ward in which you reside.
Montclair is divided into four wards. The Mayor and Councilors-at-Large represent the entire town; while Councilors from each of the four wards represent their ward constituents.
While the full Council generally meets twice a month, individual Councilpersons may participate on the various town Boards and/or Commissions. Such Boards and Commissions are established and governed by town ordinance and consist of citizen volunteers.
The empowered bodies and the responsibility of each are:
- The Board of Education oversees management of the school district.
- The Planning Board reviews site plan and subdivision applications, prepares Master Plan, and proposes changes to land use ordinances.
- The Zoning Board of Adjustment reviews applications for variances from certain land use ordinances.
- The Development Review Committee reviews site plan applications.
These commissions advise the Council on their areas of expertise:
- The Historic Preservation Commission protects Montclair’s architectural heritage.
- The Housing Commission oversees affordable housing.
- The Civil Rights Commission concerns itself with discrimination and affirmative action
- The Environmental Commission advises on sustainability and the environment.
The town website has a full description of each Board/Commission and a volunteer application to participate on a Board/Commission. You can visit it at montclairnjusa.org.
Montclair government is structured under the Faulkner Act, with a Council-Manager form of government. In this governmental structure, the Mayor presides over the Council. The Council exercises legislative and policy power, and the Town Manager is the chief executive and administrative official of the municipality. The Town Manager prepares the town budget, appoints and removes department heads, attends Council meetings with a voice, but no vote.
It is important to note that the Mayor has three powers vested in him beyond presiding over Council meetings and being just one of seven votes on the Council. The Mayor appoints the Trustees of the Public Library, the Historic Preservation Commissioners, and the members of the Board of Education (BOE).
The BOE manages the school district; and, by law, the rest of the Council members have no responsibility for overseeing the schools. Responsibility for the schools vests solely in the BOE. With respect to school budgets, however, the Mayor, two town Councilors, and two members of the BOE, sit on the Board of School Estimates.
Serving as a Town Councilperson is a volunteer position with the payment of a stipend to cover attendance at events, supplemental health insurance, and other expenses. The 2019 budget showed $66,000 appropriated for Mayor and Council salary, wages, and other expenses.
The recently adopted town budget for 2020 is $93 million. The school budget for the 2019-2020 school year is $131.9M. Property taxes are collected to support these budgets. The respective portions of property tax bills are: schools, 57 percent; town, 25 percent; Essex County, 17 percent, and library, 1 percent.
Essex County is governed by a county executive and Board of Chosen Freeholders; all elected officials. Among other tasks, the nine members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders are responsible for the County budget. Municipalities in Essex County are levied a tax for County expenses based on the aggregate assessed property values of each town.
This is just an overview of how our local government operates. There are many resources available to delve into the details of local government, not covered here, including the specific town and county websites. Candidates for office may also have their own websites that provide information on their backgrounds and positions on issues. The citizens of Montclair pay a lot in taxes and expect a high level of return for what we pay. Education is important to make informed decisions on who will be the best stewards of taxpayer monies, effective managers of our town services, and persuasive leaders.
The author is president of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area.