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Election ordinance hearing set

Oct 03, 2016 06:50AM ● Published by Samantha Sciarrotta

By Samantha Sciarrotta

Bordentown City residents are divided over an ordinance that would change the date of the city’s municipal election.

The measure is up for public hearing later this month, and many residents voiced their opinions at a special commissioners’ meeting held Sept. 19.

In August, residents submitted a petition to the city clerk to enact an ordinance that would, if passed, move the date of Bordentown City elections from the May standalone to the November general. The petition was submitted with 128 signatures, 16 percent of the 798 voters who came out to the polls in the 2015 election. 

At the Sept. 19 meeting, Mayer Joe Malone, Deputy Mayor James Lynch and Commissioner Zigmont Targonski voted 3-0 to bring to ordinance to public hearing.
If the ordinance is not passed at the public hearing Oct. 10, it will likely go to a special election vote, as it is too late to add the ordinance to this November’s ballot. Bordentown City is one of three towns in Burlington County and one of 13 in the state that still holds a municipal election in May.

Resident Jonathan Chebra, 29, started the petition. He and other city residents went door to door for two weeks during the summer asking for signatures, though some residents attending the Sept. 19 meeting said they were never approached. He believes, if enacted, the ordinance will save the city money (up to $10,000), as well as increase voter turnout.

“I nearly missed the last election,” he said. “And I like to think that I’m up on things. That’s when I looked into the numbers a little bit more and realized that only 18 percent of registered voters showed up at the last municipal election. I realized that the commissioners could pass a simple ordinance and change our municipal elections from a May standalone to the November general to increase participation and reduce the cost to the taxpayers. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I started the process.”

The reaction to the petition was “overwhelmingly positive,” said Chebra, a New Jersey Hospital Association employee who has lived in Bordentown City for five years. Many people he spoke to did not know the election cost the city money, or that the option to move it to November existed.

Chebra said that 30 percent fewer registered voters showed up to the polls in May than in November for the last three elections. He estimated that the city could save between $12,000 and $20,000 by moving the May election based on data collected from Delran, Evesham and Mount Laurel, but mayor Malone said it would be closer to $10,000, which is what the city spends to hold the election.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, though, some residents like Carol Hill expressed concerns with the ordinance, like the city’s nonpartisan standing.

“One of the reasons I have Republican friends is because I live in a nonpartisan community and got to know a lot of people who I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “One of the things I love about this town is the nonpartisan flavor it has. I’m very worried that this may change.”

The ordinance would not change the city’s nonpartisan status—that can only be done through a referendum. Hill and other residents, though, took issue with a 2012 ballot from Mount Holly that Chebra provided as a sample. The county seat  recently moved its May election to November. On the ballot, the local candidates are offset from the national and state candidates, marked off in a separate, outline box with the red header that read “Nonpartisan Candidates” at the top.

Some residents, though, were concerned about the way the local candidates lined up with Democrats and Republicans running for state or national office above them on the ballot—their fear was that voters, for one party or the other, might go right down their party’s line without reading candidate names or the office they are running for.

Chebra countered that argument. 

“Most voters will be able to walk in and clearly differentiate,” he said. “I think that we shouldn’t underestimate our electorate. People who are engaged, who want to get out and vote, they’re smart. They take a look at the issues.”

Some residents argued that the May election was a city tradition, part of what makes the city a unique place to live. Hill said the money the city spends on the election might be worth preserving that feel. Bill Mercantini said this change could spark others until Bordentown City becomes “just another town.” The May election is  part of the city’s sense of identity, said Malone.

“We’re a one-mile-square town,” Hill said. “We can keep some traditions. We’re not a sprawling township. I feel like those things are important.”

Bordentown City is unique, agreed Chebra, and he believes moving the date of the election will not change that.

“We all agree that Bordentown City is a tremendously special place, and that these three commissioners have done a damn fine job,” he said. “I think that changing the election to November doesn’t lose any of that specialness…There are many things that we’ve had for 100 years and more. I would argue that voting is something that you don’t stick to just because of tradition. A hundred years ago, our ballots looked very different, and voting looked very different.”

Resident Jennifer Sciortino agreed.

“This is not an attack on the administration, on the people that run it,” she said. “It’s not that at all. This is just about doing it in a more sensible way. Just because we’ve been doing it for 100 years, I as a woman would not have been able to vote. There is one argument for not doing something the same.”

One resident said that moving the election to November could give voters more time to get educated, while another who has lived in Bordentown for four years said he wasn’t even aware that the municipal election was held in May. Another resident suggested that hitching the local election to the general election might beef up participation.

Some, though, were afraid grouping the elections together will distract voters from the issues.
“Having a May election, the emphasis is really on who is running in this town,” Hill said. “We’ve had some meaningful elections in the past that were highly contested because the focus is on the people here in town.”

Chebra said, though, that change doesn’t have to be scary—it also doesn’t mean that the original process is broken. It might just need an update. It’s a matter of facts versus fears, Sciortino noted.

“I don’t think that this is any kind of push to say that the city is mismanaged in any way,” she said. “Change isn’t always initiated because of dysfunction.”

The public hearing is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 at the Carslake Community Center at 7 p.m.
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