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Edison Township Council may revisit ward system debate

EDISON – The debate over whether or not Edison Township should adopt a ward system of government may soon be back on the table after more than a decade.

Councilman Richard Brescher has been advocating for the implementation of a ward system.

“I believe it’s a good thing for Edison because I see what other towns do and see it working,” Brescher said during a Township Council meeting on Sept. 8.

The township’s current form of government of seven council members are chosen at large by the entire population of Edison for four-year terms. The terms are staggered.

Through a ward system, Brescher said the mayor is beholden to concerns brought up through council members for different wards.

“[Under the current form of government] we do different things that make each of us happy [but] might not benefit all residents,” he said.

Brescher said a ward system would be beneficial in areas such as the “historic and residential” Silver Lake neighborhood. For about a year, residents in the area have been fighting against a proposal for a warehouse at the corner of Glendale and Silver Lake avenues.

He said he did not know much about the area before the warehouse proposal.

Brescher also noted a ward system would be beneficial in terms of the entertainment and festivities Councilman Joe Coyle has worked to bring to the Clara Barton section of the township.

“My intention [as a council person] is to not run around and get potholes fixed [and/or] get a sign put up,” he said. “I didn’t think that really was part of our job, but the public has used that as an avenue to get things done. It’s something that has been going on for 20 years.”

Councilman Alvaro Gomez said he had concerns about the potential shift from specific council responsibilities – legislative, budgetary, and to some degree judiciary – and needed a better grasp of how it would change the role of a council person under a ward system.

“I’m not saying [a ward system] is right or wrong or wouldn’t benefit,” he said. “I think it has a lot more to do than a balance of power. We’re talking about changing essentially what distribution of power control as opposed to functions of what we’re supposed to play and it’s something we’ve never done.”

Gomez said despite concerns he is open to looking at the pros and cons of a ward system.

Brescher said his goal, with the support of the council, is to introduce the ward system at the next council meeting on Sept. 22, hash out the pros and cons within the next year, and put it up on a ballot for the public to decide.

Ward System 

Former Councilman Bill Stephens petitioned for a ward system ballot question under former Mayor George Spadoro’s administration. It was defeated in 2003 by 29 votes out of over 13,000 cast. Under the law, the township had to wait four years before it could be reintroduced as a referendum question.

The debate resurfaced in 2008 under Mayor Jun Choi’s administration.

The nine-member ward system would divide the township into five districts, each with a representative on the Township Council. There would be four council members chosen at large to provide balance, but the system would do little to fundamentally change the mayor-council relationship.

A statute sets forth the Commission of Board of Elections to create a Ward Commission made up of redistricting commissioners, according to Township Attorney William Northgrave. The redistricting commissioners are made up of members of the Board of Elections, representatives of the township’s Democratic and Republican parties and the municipal clerk.

“The commissioners will determine where the lines go,” Northgrave said. “Wards have to be contiguous and equal in size. For Edison with 100,000 people, five wards would presumably have 20,000 people.”

Legislation allows for 2.5% deviation either way – lesser or larger – in population of each ward, he said.

“There is no formal role for the sitting council and mayor to be involved in the process,” Northgrave said.

In an article in NJ Municipalities Magazine Article on forms of government in 2007, Michael F. Cerra, who at the time was a senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey League of Municipalities and is now the executive director, said there is no “best” form of local government.

“While municipalities with larger populations tend to adopt a Faulkner form, many municipalities continue under other forms of organization which best serve the special needs of their communities,” he wrote. “By maintaining a wide range of choices, New Jersey municipalities continue the process of improving local government administration.”

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