The original plan for the Bergen Grassroots meeting on March 22 was a presentation by Bergen County NAACP President, Anthony Cureton on From At-large to Good Governance in Bergen County” as a follow-up to Cureton’s December proposal that election of Bergen County Freeholders be, at least in part, by districts. The agenda then called for responses from the several Freeholders expected to be in attendance and only then an open discussion.  Cureton turned that sequence upside down by turning immediately to the meeting’s participants themselves and seeking their views of the current all-at-large as compared to a districted selection of Freeholders.  His turned out to be an particularly adroit decision because what then followed for the next 65 minutes was an energetic discussion among a very knowledgeable gathering of Bergen citizens with strong and divergent views on how best to choose county legislators.

That dialogue included the active engagement and expression of views by the two Freeholders present, Maura DeNicola (Republican) and Steve Tanelli (Democrat) each of whom expressed support for some early action to assure better demographic and geographic Freeholder representation, but concern also that the potential consequences be anticipated prior to the Freeholders being asked to consider a specific proposal. The other current public official in attendance, State Senator Weinberg, also indicated a preference for Freeholder districting and noted the anomaly that in Bergen County there are 5 legislative districts (in whole or part) but election of only at-large Freeholders.

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From left: Anthony Cureton, President Bergen County NAACP Chapter, Freeholders Maura DeNicola and Steve Tanelli, and Bergen Grassroots President Charles ‘Chuck’ Powers.

Other active participants in the discussion moderated by GBR Stering Committee chair Chuck Powers included former Teaneck Mayor, Jackie Kates, experienced public attorney, Martin Cramer, GBR steering committee members, James Kinloch and Sandra Silverberg; Hackensack Citizens for Change activist Kathleen Salvo; Northeast Block Association President, Gwen Acree; BGR participants Lorraine Bogert of Oradell and Julie Otto of Fort Lee, former Bergen County NAACP head, Carter Jackson, and Alan Sohn, Teaneck Council candidate.

In the end, there was agreement about the need for additional information and careful policy thinking but also agreement on the need to test several working hypotheses:

1) the right answer to the issues Cureton has raised is likely complex and the path to securing it may well be full of serious potential potholes that could make the result worse. Yet clearly finding some way of taking the hefty Bergen geography and its demographics into better account in the selection and work of the Freeholders is both clearly important.

2) if the answer to better County representation involves changing important county constitutional issues it would have to run through a County Charter Study Commission that in turn would either have to be approved by a majority of Freeholders or by a county-wide referendum. Both paths are rigorous.

3) there are actually important precedents to this question being raised in Bergen County, and specifically nearly 30 years ago when, in fact, the County’s governance structure was importantly changed but did not include districting;

4) there is an a serious lack of public understanding of what Freeholders do – the fact that they are the county legislature budget, that the budget they pass is half a billion $, that key decisions and mechanisms for health care delivery, emergency preparedness, parks and libraries are made at the county level. Bergen is, in population, the largest County in the state. (Even among this very comparatively well-informed crowd, most participants acknowledged they could not name the seven current Freeholders – nor define where the term Freeholders comes from.);

5) there may well be important lessons to be learned from how other counties in the state and elsewhere manage this same issue (Essex being perhaps the most interesting in that it does elect a majority of its 9-member Freeholder Board by district some similar geography and demographics). The process by which it got to that form was quite arduous. (See: http://www.essex-countynj.org/index.php?section=essex/gi.) [BGR Steering Committee member Ed Lipiner has developed a chart of how several other key counties address the issue that is appended to this summary.]

6) an intriguing idea emerged late in the discussion that Freeholders formally themselves assign each Freeholder a specific geographic area – shaped by demographics – as a short-term surrogate for formal representation of sub-portions of the County.

7) the assembled group appeared to agree that it is essential that the data be obtained about how the County got to its current governmental definition. Several also suggested that opportunity be afforded to those Bergen residents who have been involved in this question over the years be tapped and given the opportunity to discuss their experience. Bergen Grassroots committed in the meeting to tracking down report from the 1985 study commission process. (It may be found at 1985 Study Commission Report. The County’s administrative code may be found at http://www.co.bergen.nj.us/documentcenter/view/849

Anthony Cureton’s final word was that he intends actively to pursue the districting of Freeholder election issue and ended with “see you at the next Freeholders’ meeting”.  Some 45 minutes later, most of the meeting’s participants were still clustered together in small gatherings fleshing out elements of the ideas presented in the session.

Bergen Grassroots’ Steering Committee is now planning to continue its research and interactive discourse on this important question and will certainly be exploring the options suggested at this initial meeting.  at its next meeting on May 1, 2014.

BGR Steering Committee member Ed Lipiner has developed this very useful matrix showing how some  nearby NJ Counties compare on key factors in the selection and constituting of their freeholders:

BC Election Options

 

 

Bergen Grassroots opens inquiry into a set of
County representation issues at its 
March 20 meeting,
7:30 at the Ethical Culture Society,
Larch Avenue and North Street, Teaneck

Also: Reflections on Bergen Grassroots recent multiple efforts on Pay-to-Play, and Health Care Insurance Deadline Reminder

From the Chairperson’s Desk
March 18, 2014

To: Grassrooters
From: Chuck Powers, Bergen Grassroots

It has been a good month for Bergen Grassroots (see below) This week’s BGR meeting may open up a new and important issue for those of us concerned about how elected officials represent us legislatively – should they be elected at-large, county wide or should the county be divided into districts for at least some of our legislative (Freeholder) choices.

At our next regular Bergen Grassroots Meeting on Thursday March 20 at 7:30 at the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck Anthony Cureton, President of the Bergen County NAACP will initiate the session with a presentation entitled: “From At-large to Good Governance in Bergen County“.  After his presentation at least 3 Bergen Freeholders have committed to joining us to give us their reactions to his proposal. And then there will be plenty of time to open the discussion and questions for other participants in the meeting.

Mr. Cureton[1] has suggested that districts be defined so that all or a majority of the members of an enlarged nine-member Freeholders board actually represent distinct geographical areas in the County.  He initiated this discussion with a statement made during the public portion of your Freeholder Public Session on December 17 2013 statement. But it is now being discussed not only by the Freeholders themselves but by citizens throughout the County and has gotten additional media attention in the past several weeks.

Although the initial presentation will be by Mr. Cureton, a goal of the meeting will be to not only understand initial sentiment for such a change but also to have identified and clarified options within or outside the general framework of the Cureton proposal. Such a change would, Cureton acknowledges, require several complicated steps by County entities and publics. He clearly states that his proposal is about the structure and not meant as criticism of any individual Freeholder or the current Freeholders generally. But Cureton particularly notes that no one from 5 large and contiguous Bergen municipalities (Hackensack, Teaneck, Englewood, Leonia and Bergenfield) is on the current Board and believes these areas and their demographics are regularly are not well represented on the Board.

Bergen Grassroots is hosting this session because it raises such important questions about what in the specific context of Bergen County constitutes effective democratic representation and specifically the advantages and disadvantages of at-large as compared to more specific elected official representation of specific geographical/demographic areas. The steering committee of BGR has not yet taken a position on the issue. Should we do so? The Press is interested to know whether we will and if so, what will be our recommendation.

Come help us decide

[1] Anthony Cureton is a graduate of Jersey City College and has earned a Masters from Farleigh Dickenson University in addition to doing coursework in organizational management at Notre Dame. He is very recently retired from the Englewood police force and has held adjunct faculty roles at both FDU and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is currently in his first full term as head of the Bergen County NAACP

 

The Record story on the initial Cureton presentation is on this website at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/236678071_NAACP_wants_freeholder_districts_in_Bergen_County_districts_is_floated.html

And there is a very recent 30 minute radio discussion of the concept  between Cureton and Record reporter John Ensslin. It may  be found at:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/recordtalkradio/2014/02/28/record-talk-radio-with-anthony-cureton

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Remember: Health care insurance deadline

Do not forget to make sure that all of your acquaintances know that if they are planning to be covered by Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) insurance for 2014, they must complete their application by March 31, 2014.  Among the several sources of information are these:

www.healthcare.gov

www.getcoveredamerica.org

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Let us hear from you:

Let us know if BGR should be addressing additional issues.  Example, the regional planning challenges illustrated by the debate over the height of the LG headquarters building planned on the Palisades north of the GWB.

Leave us a comment on our ‘Comment’ page if you can’t come to our March 20 meeting or beyond. Thank you.

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On February 19, as they were achieving a policy reversal by re-tightening the County’s Pay to Play ordinance passed just last Spring, several Freeholders promised additional action on this anti-corruption issue. As they did so, several Freeholders acknowledged that no matter what the County does, it will be unable itself to stop the “wheeling” into and around county prohibitions and thus the risk of the potentially corrupting role of large un- or under-regulated political contributions by current and aspiring public contractors remains.  To overcome these loopholes and gaps inherent in New Jersey having 241 state, county and municipal P to P laws, the Freeholders, citing the lineage of their own law, said they would soon petition the state to pass a strong law that would achieve better protection by standardizing and pre-empting the polyglot of laws in these lower-level jurisdictions. The next action would come In two weeks, the Chair predicted.

Rarely does a law-making body beat its own projected timeline for legislative action – but 13 days later on Tuesday, March 4, the Freeholders passed not one but two P to P resolutions, each of which appealed for new state action.  As noted, that first Resolution, 187-14, represented a joint call by a united Freeholder Board joined by the County Executive for passage of this new state pre-emptive legislation. In order for each Freeholder to discuss their reasons, the resolution was labeled a non-consent resolution. But all seven Freeholders, including John Felice (the one “no” vote on the 2/19 county measure) agreed and County Administrator Ed Trawinski again indicated the County Executive’s concurrence and active support.

It was the second measure – Resolution 188-14 –  that came somewhat as a surprise. Written and offered by Freeholder DeNicola and seconded by Freeholder Tedesco, this resolution strongly urges state action to fix the underfunded and thus hamstrung Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the state agency currently charged with enforcing a full-range of election laws and the entity on which current laws at every level depend upon for assuring election transparency and compliance. The impaired condition of this agency — and specifically its archaic and faltering computer system — had been identified as a major problem not only by Senator Weinberg but by each of the 4 other county officials participating in the Bergen Grassroots 2/17 workshop (see earlier story).

Discussion of this second measure indicated very strong Freeholder concern about the potential for abuse resulting from financial neglect of ELEC as an institution. The unanimous and intense concern is reflected in the Resolution’s urgency, addressed to both the legislature and the Governor, that these state officials find an early fix. Three Freeholders, DeNicola, Zur and Ganz, specifically indicated appreciation to Bergen Grassroots for hosting the 2/17 Pay-to-Play workshop meeting at which this issue was identified and several thanked Senator Weinberg for initiating and informing the discussion.

CLICK HERE to find quotations from several Freeholders and the Bergen Grassroots President about this second resolution, and the two resolutions themselves.