By LINDA MOSS
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver summed up the takeaway Tuesday night at a packed meeting on New Jersey government, a session meant to be a guide for would-be activists to navigate the system and its politics.
“I tell constituents that you’ve got to be as aggressive as the paid lobbyists are,” Oliver, D-34, said to an audience of more than 200 people, an overflow crowd, at the municipal Council Chambers.
Former Assembly Speaker Oliver was part of a panel, “Knowledge is Power: A Primer on Local, County and State Government,” that was organized by Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville and Mobilizing Montclair, a start-up community group formed following the Women’s March in Washington on Jan. 21. As Baskerville explained, the session’s goal was to teach citizens “how to be more powerful and effect change.”
In addition to Oliver, panelists included state Sen. Nia Gill, D-34; Brendan Gill, vice president at-Large Essex County Freeholder; and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, D-34, who described some of the intricacies of government on the regional and state levels — including the practice of senatorial courtesy, the process of trying to get action taken on a bill in the Legislature and the reapportionment of state and Congressional districts.
Nia Gill and Brendan Gill are not related.
There was also much discussion about the post of the New Jersey governor, with its veto power over the state budget and legislation as well as its ability to appoint judges and county prosecutors, all of which make New Jersey’s governor the most powerful among all the states, according to several panelists.
Rachael Grochowski, representing Mobilizing Montclair, explained that she was among those who had helped organize bus trips from the township to the nation’s capital for the Women’s March. When when participants in that event came back to New Jersey, they didn’t know how to go about organizing and being politically active on a continuing basis, she said, so they started their group with a mission of “education, information and activate.”
Mobilizing Montclair is gearing up to “make a real difference against the alarming and regressive agenda taking hold in all areas of our government,” according to a flier it had at the panel.
The township, a traditionally diverse and progressive municipality, has been a hub for organizations that have rallied to oppose and to “resist” many of President Trump’s mandates, including those regarding immigrants and refugees.
Both Brendan Gill and Nia Gill, a Montclair resident, took the opportunity Tuesday to voice their support for effectively making their respective jurisdictions sanctuaries for immigrants.
Freeholder Gill said that his board is debating whether Essex County should designate itself as a sanctuary county, prompting applause from the audience.
“For the record, [they have] my full support to get that done,” he said.
Sen. Gill said that in some parts of the state local law enforcement is starting to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up undocumented immigrants, and that Gov. Chris Christie is trying to make “an example of New Jersey for the repressive, oppressive agenda as it relates to immigration” because the state is the most diverse in the nation.
Last month she introduced legislation to bar New Jersey law enforcement officials from cooperating with federal authorities to detain nonviolent undocumented immigrants.
While lamenting the governor’s power to veto line-items in the state budget and to make key appointments, Nia Gill said there are checks and balances built into the system. For example, state senators must sign off on judicial appointments in their districts, a practice known as senatorial courtesy.
The panel kicked off with Joseph Hartnett, a former Montclair township manager who is now the chief executive officer of Newark Watershed & Conservation Development Corp. Hartnett gave an overview on how municipal government has evolved nationally and locally over the years.
In 1979, as permitted under the state’s Faulkner Act, the township voted to change from a commission to a council-manager form of government, Hartnett said. Under that system, the township manager acts as the CEO and runs the municipality on a daily basis, without interference from the mayor and council, according to Hartnett. The elected officials set policy, with the mayor having the power to appoint township Board of Education members.
The council-manager arrangement is sometimes challenging for the elected governing body, said Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, another panelist.
“The Faulkner Act is pretty clear that it is not appropriate for us to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the government. … The directive is not to stick your nose in some things,” Jackson said.
Confessing that his “real passion” was “paving and curbing roads,” the mayor outlined the pros and cons of serving in local government.
“Public service is difficult,” Jackson said. “It is a very demanding community with high expectations. But it’s something that I have experienced all my life. … But there are so many satisfying things that come from it.”
Oliver — who recalled being “astounded” her first year in office when she would be swarmed by lobbyists in the hall going to committee meetings — urged citizens to write, call and seek face-to-face visits with their legislators in order to get the changes they seek. They should even picket their lawmakers’ offices if necessary, she said.
“A legislator pays attention to that, and understands that they have to respond to the positions and priorities of their constituencies,” Oliver said.
Urging residents to be active, she said, “If you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu. Trust me, that is absolutely what happens.”