Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A lesson to be learned

The recent bribery trial of Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo continues to send ripples through the normally placid pond of township politics.  Bencivengo rightfully resigned one day after a federal jury convicted him on all counts of accepting money in exchange for offering his political influence. 

Filling the vacancy created by the resignation has caused lawyers to examine and re-examine state law to ensure proper process is followed. At the same time, it has generated its own set of controversy and questions.

Under the Mayor/Council form of government the presiding officer of the municipal governing body (council president) assumes the duties of mayor immediately upon the vacancy of the office.

The governing body then has 30 days to appoint an acting mayor to hold the office until a special election can be held to choose a replacement to complete the term. If the vacancy comes after a certain point in the final year of the term, the acting mayor chosen by the governing body completes the remainder of the term (no special election held).

In the case of municipalities with partisan elections, such as Hamilton, the party whose nominee held the vacated seat (the GOP in the current example) has 15 days from the creation of the vacancy to submit three names to the governing body to consider for the appointment as acting mayor. In municipalities with non-partisan elections, the governing body selects the individuals for consideration.

Watching the second act of this political soap opera is not just about the entertainment value. Sure, it offers us lots of opportunity for sarcasm and snarky comments. It also provides a valuable lesson in why we must all get involved in carefully vetting and choosing our elected leaders.

For Trentonians who have already learned the hardships of making poor choices in leadership it provides a very real case study of what we may ourselves be going through in a few months time.  Should Mayor Mack be indicted, go to trial and be convicted, our city will be faced with the very same scenario, but with some complicating twists of our own making.

The elevation of the council president to acting mayor upon the vacancy of the office will most likely set off a pyrotechnic display not witnessed in Trenton since Dec. 26, 1776. Any decision made by the person assuming the mayor’s chair is likely to be questioned/challenged by the governing body, the members of which can rarely agree on what day of the week it is let alone actions to be taken. (Example from Hamilton: the dismissal of Business Administrator John Ricci by acting Mayor Kevin Mears is generating comments and criticisms according to press reports).

Complicating matters will be the oversight on hiring and firing granted the DCA via the state aid MOU. No mayor of Trenton, acting or elected, currently enjoys a free hand in making key personnel decisions such as department directors and the business administrator. There are, however, other appointed (non-contractual) employees who could be, and probably should be, immediately dismissed by any acting mayor.

The selection of a replacement mayor, whether temporarily until a special election is held or to complete the remainder of the current term, will be the real battle.

Who will guide the process?

Our governing body is short on experience and, in some individual cases, completely void of comprehension of their rights and responsibilities.

The legal department, also short on knowledge and experience with municipal law, has to date not been particular assertive in matters of technicalities.

The deliberation over who should be appointed acting mayor will likely be a comedy of errors and omissions. With no local party committee to winnow down the choices to three, any and all interested and legally qualified parties will have to be given their due before a group of finalists are put up to a vote.

There are already two individuals who have filed with NJ ELEC to run for the office of mayor in 2014, a third has announced an exploratory committee and at least a fourth who has previously expressed an interest in running. That list does not include any sitting council members who may be eyeing “the big chair.”  

How many more names might be tossed into the hat? How will individual loyalties and personal plans of members of council figure in the decision making?

Can we expect a smooth, orderly and proper decision to be made by at least five members of a governing body that has been largely stalemated on any major initiative over the past 27 months?

What will happen to the “business” of the city while the above battle is fought? For over two years the city has been adrift due to the incompetency of the Mack administration, the inexperience of the governing body and the inability of the two branches of government to get the simplest things done (remember the toilet paper crisis of last spring?)

The events of the past couple of years in Trenton and Hamilton show just why it is so important for all voters to actively participate in the election process. Researching the background, experience and qualifications of all candidates before heading into the voting booth is the beginning. Keeping elected officials accountable and our government transparent is equally important.

If we want better government, we all need to be better citizens. Otherwise, we are likely to see repeats of the disasters we are living through right now.


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