This election season, as well as last, I have been fascinated by how the county Democratic machine is involved in municipal politics in Berkeley Heights. What’s fascinating is that they are managing a complete take over in anonymity.
Berkeley Heights is considering a change to their form of government. They would change to an elected mayor and a six-member council. Should voters approve the change, the existing governing body would be dissolved. Anyone wishing to continue serving on the governing body would have to run again next November. All three candidates for council this year support the change, as well as massive redevelopment plans for the township.
This all sounds innocent enough until you consider that Union County Manager George Devanney, who is powerbroker/State Sen. Raymond Lesniak’s (D-Union) nephew, is on the committee which is spearheading the campaign to change the town’s power base.
Last year, the all-Republican council hired the county manager’s wife, Angie Devanney, to be the city administrator. As the county administrator of the Open Space Trust Fund she negotiated a deal for the county to buy contaminated land in Berkeley Heights with the fund. At the time of her hiring Committeeman David Cohen heaped praise on Devanney for her negotiating skills. No one mentioned that the land's past ownership included a Greggorio. Mayor John Gregorrio is the infamous Mayor of the City of Linden.
A lot of things aren’t being mentioned in Berkeley Heights.
This charter change could mean that Berkeley heights would give up five elected officials for one all-powerful mayor. Each of the current committeepersons has the full authority and responsibilities of a mayor, with one given the title to chair meetings or to sign legal documents. Now, all are accessible to the public. They work directly with town employees to resolve issues and vote on contracts, appointments and budgets.
In the strong mayor/council form, only the mayor can talk to employees or direct the town administrator. The mayor creates the budget alone and submits it to council for approval. The mayor appoints all committee volunteers and professionals, hires employees, awards contracts and determines policy. The developers would have to have the approval of the mayor. If a resident has a problem or concern, that person must find the mayor.
The council's primary function is to create legislation, which the strong mayor can veto.
The town of Barnegat is considering this same change this year and they estimate the cost to change their form of government is $60,000 to $100,000 just to rewrite and publish the town codes. I don’t know what the salaries are of the current committee people in Berkeley Heights or how they would compare with a Mayor’s salary, staff and perks. There would also be a cost for the new election next season.
No one is mentioning these costs to the voters. If Berkeley Heights votes for this change, I believe that most current labor contracts will become null and void; employees will be subject to being fired. All professionals would be at the will of the new mayor for appointment. The zoning and planning board members would get a complete overhaul as well.
What could go wrong? Or more to the point: what could go right for the county Democrat machine in this supposedly-Republican stronghold?
Suppose the newly elected all-powerful mayor of Berkeley Heights wanted to be a municipal judge when he grew up. Although he'd be a Republican on the ballot, he might be inclined to tip all the new contracts, patronage jobs and appointments to a Democrat county powerbroker who would have the power to make his dreams come true.
If this deal was being presented honestly to the people of Berkeley Heights then all the players, costs and consequences would be out in the open.
The town will be so transformed by this change in their government that the people of Berkeley Heights should also be considering a change of the town name while they're at it. I’d recommend Linden West.