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Consensus elusive on changing Middle Township government

Consensus elusive on changing Middle Township government

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MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — After nine months of work, an advisory committee charged with studying the best form of government for the township presented its findings to Township Committee on Monday without recommending any specific action.

Instead, the 17-page report outlines four options for township government, including making no change to the three-member committee that has run the township for decades.

According to Mike Butterfield, the chairman of the advisory board, the 18 members did not reach a consensus on a recommendation, and he was not willing to present a specific recommendation without the unanimous support of the committee.

The report, which was set to be posted to the township website, states some members believed no change was needed to the form of government, while others pushed for some change. The consensus was there should be some change, but the report does not recommend what that change should be.

“It’s like a cat rodeo. It just doesn’t work,” was how advisory committee member Mark Logan described the process after the Monday meeting. He pointed out that the resolution founding the advisory committee states that it could make a recommendation if it deems that appropriate.

Possibilities included expanding to a five-member Township Committee or working toward a council-manager form or a mayor-council-administrator form.

After the meeting, Mayor Tim Donohue said it is unlikely any further steps will take place this year. Any change in the form of government would have to come from a referendum. Without a strong recommendation from the committee or a groundswell of public opinion for change, he does not think it likely residents will gather signatures in time for an August deadline to get a question on November’s ballot.

Further complicating the process, a law signed Friday increases the number of signatures needed to get a change-of-government petition on the ballot. Such a movement is underway in Atlantic City. The total number needed is based on the number of voters who participated in the most recent election of members of the state Assembly.

Donohue had pushed hard for the formation of the advisory committee last year. At the time, Democrats controlled the committee, and Donohue was not mayor. The election of Theron “Ike” Gandy tipped control to the GOP, putting Donohue in the mayor’s seat.

In pushing for the study, Donohue said he wanted to keep partisan politics out of the issue. The members were chosen to balance membership in the two parties and unaffiliated voters, as well as among the various communities in the large and diverse township.

Meeting regularly for nine months, the committee interviewed a number of current and former members of government and spoke with experts on municipal government. The report outlines seven areas of concern, including the effectiveness of the current form of government, its efficiency, partisan and nonpartisan forms of local government, the potential to directly elect the mayor, elections, the possibility of creating municipal wards to ensure representation from various communities and issues with the Sunshine Act.

With three members of the governing body, any two members amount to a quorum. That means they cannot discuss municipal business outside of a formal meeting or risk violating the state Open Public Meetings Act.

The report investigated 12 potential forms of government.

Of the various options for change, increasing the number of committee members from three to five would be the least onerous. It would still require a referendum but would not require the election of a charter study commission.

During Monday’s workshop meeting, Committeeman Michael Clark said he remains opposed to increasing the size of government. Currently the lone Democrat on the governing body, Clark is seeking reelection this year.

According to the report, the advisory committee members spent a considerable amount of time on finding ways to directly elect the mayor. Under the current form, Township Committee chooses the mayor from among its members. The mayor leads the meetings and can serve as the public face of the township but does not have any more authority than the other two members.

After the meeting, Butterfield declined to offer an opinion on the best solution.

“My opinion is we should do what’s best for Middle Township. Without a unanimous consensus, I would not want to make a recommendation,” he said.

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