The general election is coming up on November 8th and South Orange voters will get a unique opportunity to vote on three non-binding questions on the ballot this year.
The three questions are related to the charter review process that the Village has been undertaking for many months now. These three questions were the three the Board wanted public input on and you can find a great overview of the questions on our website here: southorange.org/ballotquestions. Here I would like to give my thoughts and share with you why I will be voting yes for all three questions on November 8th.
The first question is about changing the name from the current ‘Township of South Orange Village’ back to the ‘Village of South Orange.’ South Orange is indeed not a township but a Village and the township label was only added decades ago to make the municipality eligible for federal grant money available only to townships. That federal program was disbanded shortly thereafter, and the township label has neither anything to do with our form of government (Maplewood is a township, on the other hand, with a township committee, etc) nor provides us any benefit today. Much signage in town never even changed because fitting all of that in limited space is just practically difficult to do. South Orange has a lot of history as a Village, and I think that is what we should be called.
The second question is about changing the titles (not positions) of our elected officials. Currently, our Mayor is called a Village President and our Council a Board of Trustees. I cannot begin to describe the confusion anywhere outside of South Orange when someone says ‘Village President.’ Some people think it is a citizen position, some think it is the council president, some think it is a joke. In only five months, I think I can safely say that every single time I have introduced myself or been introduced as the Village President, there is the addendum ‘Well, that’s like the mayor.‘
I think the confusion and required explanation detract from the position, and although South Orange’s history is incredibly important to me, I think that a) we will gain more historical value by returning to the name the ‘Village of South Orange,’ and I think we can still use the preface ‘village’ in our titles, i.e. the Village Mayor and/or Village Council, helping to preserve our history as a Village. I’m certainly not one to take the more traditional side, but I feel as though our external validity is slightly diminished with such an obscure title. Furthermore, ‘Board of Trustees’ sounds more like a governing body to a corporation or nonprofit instead of to a government. On a personal note, I am very resistant to using corporate terminology in government (Using ‘constituent service’ than ‘customer service’ for instance).
The third issue is stipends for elected officials. Now, I am no stranger to volunteering, and I have a real passion for it. Currently, between being Village President and riding as an EMT on the Rescue Squad, I spend on average 60 hours per week doing unpaid work for South Orange. During this storm, I spent almost 70 hours in one week only dealing with constituent communication regarding power outages, and am available 24 hours a day to get called out on business, for no compensation. However, to ask someone to serve their community, especially in the capacity as Mayor, without even an iota of compensation means that we discourage or prevent people outside of a certain socio-economic bracket from being elected officials in town. On a philosophical and moral level I very strongly disagree with that. The financial burden of being in this position is tremendous, I can personally assure you, and should not exist as a deciding factor for potential candidates in the future.
Being in this position literally costs thousands of dollars of years even with just travel to government events, conferences and meetings. Getting anything done seems to revolve around breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings, and an elected official should never be unable to attend a meeting because they can’t afford it. Additionally, we are assuming this person has modern conveniences like a laptop, a car, mobile internet access, home internet, etc. At the very least, it is unfair to ask people to pay to be elected officials, forget anything else. That goes against every democracy-supporting bone in my body.
There are no benefits (pension, etc) associated with this change, and it is not a ‘slippery slope’ as some argue, as protections can and should be put in place on a percent increase over time in addition to preventing a governing body from being allowed to vote on their own potential stipend amount. There are only three (out of 22) other towns in Essex County that don’t provide elected officials with stipends – Essex Fells with a population of 2,113, Glen Ridge with a population of 7,500 and Cedar Grove, population 12,000, all much smaller than South Orange’s 17,000 (plus Seton Hall).
There are no doubt some who disagree with this, but the majority of governments compensate their elected officials and I believe allowing anyone in any financial income bracket to serve their community is the overarching and most important principle to American democracy that we must uphold. Public office should not be reserved for the wealthy, well-funded or well connected. It obviously isn’t about someone doing this for income either, as some may suggest, as the possible stipend amount would work out to about $1.15 per hour for my position. It’s about making sure people don’t have to pay, out of pocket, to do this job.
Some also may claim to make an argument about taxes, but helping to allow anyone to run would cost approximately 40-50 cents* per resident, an expense that most residents I’ve talked to are happy to contribute to ensure a more level playing field for anyone who wants to serve their community as an elected official.
I hope everyone will get out and vote Tuesday, not just for these ballot questions but for selecting our county and state representatives. Don’t let anyone tell you that one vote doesn’t matter!
*This amount was incorrectly reported as one to two cents, where it would actually be closer to a 40-50 cent increase in taxes.