The people of Red Bank voted overwhelmingly – by a 70% margin – to establish a charter study commission. The Commission viewed this as a mandate to closely examine Red Bank’s Borough form of government – which has existed over one century – and determine whether a newer form of government should guide Red Bank through its second century.
Over the past nine months, the Commission has educated itself – and the public – by conducting numerous interviews of current and former Red Bank governing body members, current and former business administrators, current employees, a political scientist, local government experts, and elected officials from other municipalities. The Commission also received public comment at meetings, through written submissions, and informally made to individual commissioners.
The Commission finds that the Borough form of government is not meeting the needs of Red Bank. While it can be debated whether certain inefficiencies are caused by the form of government or its officeholders, the Commission finds that the Borough form itself presents two clear structural deficiencies that can be improved upon.
First, the Borough form lacks sufficient delineations of authority for officeholders, which has allowed councilmembers to meddle, micromanage, and overstep their role as individual legislators. The Borough form indiscriminately vests executive responsibilities in the collective mayor and council and contains an optional business administrator, allowing the latter role to be altered by the whims of council. The Borough form’s inefficiency is compounded by the governing body being nominally led by a “weak mayor” that only casts tie-breaking votes. The Borough form of government lacks defined and effective roles for the mayor, councilmembers, and administrator, which are required for Red Bank’s government to operate efficiently in the 21st century.
Second, the Borough form’s annual partisan elections have created a divisive environment that has undermined Red Bank’s government from properly functioning. The high frequency of elections prevents the council from embarking upon long-term projects without being impeded by short-term political considerations. The partisan system has caused elected officials to oppose the other party's ideas for strictly political reasons in divided government, and when there is one-party control, there has been in-fighting on public display that has prevented consensus building.
After reviewing the options available to it, the Commission recommends that Red Bank adopt the Council-Manager form of government with non-partisan elections, as further detailed in the Commission Report.
The Council-Manager form allows a directly elected mayor to serve as the head of government and as a voting member of the council – not just a tie-breaker. The mayor and council exercise all legislative powers and set the policy for Red Bank. In turn, the mayor and council hire a manager to run the day-to-day municipal operations. The manager carries out the executive functions, and the mayor and council are required to act through the manager. The Commission believes this structure will directly address and rectify the micromanagement issues that have been seen in the current Borough form.
The Commission also believes that non-partisan elections will improve Red Bank’s electoral process. The Commission finds that the current partisan elections have led to biannual division and acrimony. Nonpartisan elections will allow any candidate to run for office by filing a petition, counteracting the outsized influence of party endorsements and favorable ballot position, which has directly affected the council’s governance in recent years. Those elected would serve four-year terms, with elections staggered every two years.
The Commission will be submitting its recommendation to voters in this November’s general election. If adopted, voters will elect a new government in May 2023. This timing ensures that the newly-adopted government takes effect as soon as possible, rather than waiting for a November 2023 election that would allow the Borough government to operate in lame duck status for over a year. It will also allow the new governing body to be chosen in an election exclusively focused on Red Bank issues. The recommendation also provides for run-off elections in the unlikely event that candidates fail to attain a majority of votes for mayor and/or council. After the new government is installed on July 1, 2023, it may choose to move future municipal elections to November, which this Commission recommends that it do.
The Commission hopes that the breadth of this Report demonstrates the seriousness by which it took its obligations and the amount of thought that has gone into the recommendation it makes. The Commission remains grateful to the people of Red Bank for this unique opportunity to look into and improve our local government, and to those who assisted the Commission through this process, especially each of the parties that provided interviews to the Commission and the residents of Red Bank that offered public comments.