Council meeting stalwart Helen Hirsch wants to completely overhaul the way local government works.
Hirsch has pitched the idea of changing the city’s form of government at almost every bi-monthly City Council meeting in the last few months.
Right now, Hoboken has a full-time elected mayor and a nine-member City Council, including six council people who represent specific wards and three at-large members who represent the entire city. The mayor and three council-at-large seats are up for re-election this May, and the other six council seats are up in May of 2011. The terms are all four years.
Hirsch and some other residents have said the mile-square city can be better run if it is changed to a council-manager form of local government. In that form, the mayor and a number of council persons are always elected concurrently – eliminating midterm council elections. The mayor is not the full-time chief executive of the city. Rather, he sits on the council and acts almost like a council president. The mayor and council vote to hire a manager who runs the city and executes the legislation they discuss and vote on.
Hirsch believes this form of government brings more accountability to the executive officer position, because that person – the manager – usually gets a one-year contract and could be fired. Hirsch said this allows the elected officials to evaluate the lead administrator before locking into any long-term agreement.
Hirsch said in the more than 75 years that the town of Hackensack has been using this form of government, only nine municipal managers have been hired.
This lack of turnover, she said, shows a stability of leadership that is unparalleled in other forms of government. A good manager could work under several council-mayor administrations, she said.
However, looking at Hoboken, mayors have often lasted for more than one term as well.
Costs for smaller government
Hirsch also said fewer elections and a smaller council would reduce spending because extra elections cost money.
City Clerk Jim Farina said last week that midterm elections – elections for the six ward council seats that come two years into mayoral terms – cost the city more than $100,000. In cases where no council person gets more than 50 percent of the vote (which often happens if there are several candidates), a runoff costs roughly $10,000 per ward.
Hoboken’s proposed budget skyrocketed this year to $120 million, with a 47 percent overall property tax increase.
Current form started in 1950s
Farina was around the last time these big changes were being talked about, when former Mayor Patrick Pasculli was in charge, two administrations ago.
Pasculli said last week that in that he commissioned a study in the early 1990s to see if the council-manager form of government was the right fit for the population and demographic make-up of modern-day Hoboken.
Pasculli said the current form was decided on in the early 1950s by John Grogan, a man with high political aspirations who went on to become a U.S. Senator. Pasculli and others believe Grogan’s motivation to use the current form of government with 10 elected officials was political.
Before that, Hoboken saw a population boom between World Wars and navigated the times with only a part-time mayor.
“This was when our population far exceeded what it is today,” Pasculli said. “Mrs. Hirsch has a strong point.”
Now Pasculli is asking again: is the current type of government right for the city?
“It’s archaic, cumbersome, and oversized for Hoboken,” he said last week. “There are so many other forms of government that would be more fitting to the Hoboken of today.”
He said governing the town is “90 percent politics, 10 percent administrative.” So reducing the amount of elected officials would reduce the amount of politics.
“Governmental divisions create political divisions,” he said.
Reducing the number of council members would clip a few salaries as well, finding even more savings for the fiscally concerned.
Pasculli hopes to see a new study commissioned, maybe by the next mayor.
“A lot of candidates are running campaigns on reform,” the former mayor said. “Well, reform begins right there.”
“It’s archaic, cumbersome, and oversized for Hoboken,” – Patrick Pasculli
Mayor David Roberts has said in the past that he thinks there should be fewer council members and thus, less politics and arguing within the council. But when he publicly broached the topic last year, he was criticized for wanting less democracy. After all, debates and elections are essential to grinding out the best policy.
So is this debate about having fewer officials in general, or more about having a manager who might or might not be more accountable to the public than an elected mayor?
Hirsch said she is interested in the manager aspect, although she also believes that the full council should be fewer than nine people.
Councilwoman Beth Mason, an open-government advocate who may run for mayor this May, was doubtful that the change in type of government would make a big difference.
“You name the form of government, and I’ll find someone who has a problem with it,” she said. “The grass is always greener on the other side. With all that’s going on, is this where we want to focus our time?”
Roberts, who does not plan to run for re-election this May, agreed with Pasculli last week about what happened in the 1950s.
“The form of government in our city has outlived its usefulness,” Roberts said last week. “It was put in place in the 1950s for very political reasons.”
Roberts said that around election time, politicians are neither concentrating on business nor willing to tackle the tough issues. Besides council elections every two years, there are Board of Education elections every April for three of the nine seats on that body.
“Reckless decisions get made [at election time],” he said.
In his opinion, Hoboken needs to minimize council seats to five members who run at the same time as the mayor.
However, he disagreed with Hirsch that a manager is needed. He said a good administration needs a strong business mind, but not necessarily a new position of municipal manager.
Mandate from the people
A change in government can only come from a majority vote on a ballot referendum. But before the public can vote, the proposed change of government would need to get on the ballot in the first place. That would require a City Council resolution, or a petition from 10 percent of registered voters.
A third method involves creating a commission to study the need for a referendum, but Hirsch said this way would take too long.
“The council needs to do this,” she said. “It’s the easiest way. Then the public can vote, one way or the other.”
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.