Critics often take aim at New Jersey for having too many municipalities. Compare the Garden State to the Lone Star state. Texas is huge with 269,000 square miles with over 1,200 municipalities and three forms of local government. New Jersey is more than 30 times smaller than Texas, yet has almost half the number of municipalities and 12 forms of local government.
Alan Zalkind directs the Center for Government Services at Rutgers University also serves as the executive director for the New Jersey Municipal Management Association. He knows all about how New Jersey municipalities came to have a dozen forms of government dating way back to the 1700s.
“It started in 1797 with the township form, and then over the 1880s and 1890s three or four other forms were created. 1950, the Faulkner Act was adopted, which is the Optional Municipal Charter Law. Three of the forms were created then. In 1981, one last form was created. So over time, over the last 200 some odd years, it started with one and we’re now up to 12,” Zalkind said.
Zalkind says townships and boroughs make up about 65 percent of New Jersey’s local governments.
“The basic services, the essential services, do not vary from town to town. The only difference is the configuration, the legal configuration of the government. For example, boroughs have a mayor and six elected people. Townships have a mayor and three to five elected officials. So it’s only the configuration of the town. The services are universal to every single municipality in New Jersey,” he said.
Zalkind served in Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson’s administrations of the 70s and 80s. He says New Jersey’s local governments have four main traits.
“How the mayor and council are elected — whether it’s by popular vote or whether the council that selects mayor; whether the council serves concurrent or staggered terms; whether there are partisan or non-partisan elections; and whether the council districts are at-large or ward districts. Those are the four critical questions that are germane to every configuration of local government,” he said.
Zalkind says what’s important is where the authority lies in the different forms.
“The authority rests generally in one, two or three places. In the legislative bodies, the Legislature can be both the legislative and the executive where there is no mayor or a weak mayor. It could be between a mayor and the council and the mayor has some of the responsibilities. Or it could be delegated to the manager, by an ordinance, where the mayor and council say, ‘you’re in charge of these six departments. You can hire them. You dictate their policies. You dictate their priorities. You do the budget for us,'” Zalkind said.
Zalkind says there’s movement toward having a manager — one person who can deliver services and is accountable as opposed to several people on a council or commission.
The Rutgers Center for Government Services has trained thousands of municipal appointees over the last 60 years, such as tax assessors and others, making sure they know how to professionally do their jobs.
“We train municipal officials who have to be certified in their job — tax assessor, municipal finance officer, purchasing agent, clerk. They all have to abide by the same rules and regulations. That’s part of what the state requires. We train people to be certified by the state to fill those roles. So the person that works in Glen Ridge should not be markedly different from the person that works in Maplewood. They should be carrying out the same functions. That’s because the state constitution rested enormous authority in uniformity,” he said.
In some cases, eight rigorous courses to prepare for the state exam. Some students fail.
“Those students are entitled to take the test again, not just once. In some cases they take it again and they pass. In other cases, they don’t pass pass the test and they cannot be appointed by law. The constitution says you have to have a certified clerk, a certified assessor, a certified finance officer and a few other positions,” Zalkind said.
Zalkind says a 1947 law affords New Jersey enormous authority over municipalities: authority to review and approve each local government’s budget, authority to take over cities’ finances and more. Two examples: Camden and Atlantic City.
“It’s not a discretionary choice on behalf of the state. The state has the legal authority and has exercised that authority by taking over the finances, the personnel decisions, in both locations. The hiring and firing, the budget that’s adopted or not adopted, the expenditures that are made or not made are done with the advice and consent of the state. The state has people in both of those jurisdictions controlling the day-to-day operations,” he said.
A lesson in municipal government make up and shake up.