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.
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: