By CARY CHEVAT
Special to Montclair Local
Montclair needs an executive mayor. It will come to a surprise to most voters that Mayor Sean Spiller has no administrative authority as mayor.
Spiller, like mayors before him, has virtually no authority beyond that of any Township Council member. He votes with the council and appoints members of certain boards (including, until recently, the school board — though that power was stripped away in November’s referendum giving Montclair an elected school board). But beyond that, the title of “mayor” is ceremonial — giving the person who holds it no executive power.
The most powerful person in Montclair is the unelected township manager.
Here is an overly simplified explanation of our version of a “council-manager” form of government, under the Faulkner Act (ironically named after a former Montclair mayor): The Township Council sets policies through local ordinances and through resolutions, but has limited influence on the actual execution of those policies. Under our form of government, the manager is chief executive of Montclair, with full administrative power over the day-to-day management of the township, including the hiring and firing of employees, with limited input from the council.
We see the consequences of the power of the township manager in the current crisis of the Montclair Library, as well as the township administration’s recent decision to let leaf blowers be used for half a month longer than the Township Council intended — a decision that was quickly rescinded. The council was reacting to policy decisions made by the township manager, or in the latter case an employee who reports directly to him. In both cases, while there may have been discussions with some council members, the manager didn’t need any prior approval from the council.
Legally, no council member can direct any township employee concerning specific township business. All their inquiries must go through the township manager. So, the next time you want to complain about geese poop in Edgemont Park, just call the parks department yourself; your council member is not allowed to.
Almost every day, I receive a phone call from a resident frustrated with the lack of response from the township bureaucracy — calls not returned, questions not answered and poor customer service. I consider myself relatively knowledgeable about the township, yet even with all my contacts I had trouble plugging in an electrical outlet.
In 2019, all the Jewish temples in the area invited the Montclair Community to celebrate Simchat Torah, a joyous holiday at a public event on Church Street. While we properly obtained the event permit, no one knew how to turn on the electricity for a small speaker system. How can you have dancing in the streets without music? My journey through the township bureaucracy took several days, visiting six departments, including engineering, which requested a plan from a licensed electrician on how we would plug in the outlet. I was then informed by the township manager that he was reluctant to turn on the power as there was no policy on use of this outlet. At the urging of several council members, the power was turned on.
The real point of this story is that an executive mayor would have found a way to make the bureaucracy work for the residents instead of being dictated by requirements of the bureaucracy. Elected officials understand that they are accountable to the voters while the township manager, by design, has no accountability to the voters. This lack of accountability is enabled by a lack of transparency, as is evident in the handling of the recent credible allegations of racial incidents by senior township officials.
Those hundreds of dancing residents would have remembered the decision of an elected mayor to turn on (or not) the electricity for an event. There are no consequences to the township manager. An elected mayor can be voted out of office while it is difficult to remove a contracted township manager. Now that Montclair voters have overwhelmingly approved an elected school board, it’s time to deal with the real governing issue in Montclair — an unelected, unaccountable township bureaucracy.
I am recommending that the Township Council create an appropriately funded commission to review our current form of government. We should explore switching to the “mayor-council” (strong mayor) option. Under this provision, the mayor would be the administrator of the township, with oversight by the council and with the township manager reporting to the mayor. Ironically, we will have to vote to change to the form of government that most voters believe we already have.
While we are at it, we should reconsider related issues such as staggering terms of office and moving the municipal election to November.
A public commission would provide a public forum to explore these issues and allow the Township Council to provide a comprehensive ballot resolution for the voters to decide. While a commission is my first choice, as Vote Montclair has demonstrated, petitions are just as effective to make change happen against the status quo.
So, Montclair, how about it? Do we want a mayor that can turn on the electricity on Church Street?
Cary Chevat is the secretary of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP and the secretary of the Montclair Democratic County Committee (but stresses these are his personal opinions and are not offered to reflect the viewpoints of any organization).
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