Stipend Debate Delays Vote on Revised South Orange Charter

December 10, 2013 at 11:26 AM

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Renewed debate over stipends for trustees and a change in titles delayed action on the village charter at Monday night’s Board of Trustees meeting.

The board voted, 4-1, to table approval of the charter. Trustee Sheena Collum, who served on the Charter Review Committee before being elected to the board, voted against the delay. Trustee Deborah Davis Ford was absent.

Three changes to the charter, which sets out the South Orange municipal government structure, had been included in the document. One, which would drop “township” from the village’s name, is not controversial. However, a provision that would pay trustees an $1,800 stipend and the village president a $2,400 stipend drew angry comments from several residents during the public hearing.

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“This should be a volunteer job,” Stephanie Kennedy told the board. “I can’t see why the trustees should be paid … you should be proud to volunteer for the village.”

Leslie Pogany said that she has not seen a lack of candidates for the board. “When you put a pay scale on something, it takes a little bit of the heart out of it,” she said.

Some residents who spoke said they were made aware of the changes to the charter through emails and letters to the editor published in local media, including The Alternative Press, from former Trustee Michael Goldberg, who opposes implementing the stipends and changing the titles of elected officials.

The third proposal would change the board to the village council, rename trustees as councilmembers, and give the title of mayor to the position of village president. That provision prompted a call from Trustee Mark Rosner to revisit the idea of changing the form of government.

All three of these proposals were voted on in a nonbinding referendum in November 2011 (read story here). The question on paying stipends passed by a handful of votes, the question regarding changing the titles of village officials passed by a margin of 400 votes, and residents overwhelmingly approved of dropping “township” from the South Orange name.

Collum said she was concerned by both the timing and the completeness of the information distributed in the days leading up to Monday’s meeting. “I’m going to commit myself to giving a full version of what the charter review process was,” she said before speaking at length about the committee’s work.

“I will be reaffirming what the community asked this board to do,” she said of her support for the charter revisions.  “I encourage my colleagues to support this charter and move forward.”

Rosner noted that with the adoption of a policy that allows for trustees to put in for reimbursement of expenses, the stipends are less of an issue. His concerns centered on the village form of government. “I personally would like to see us go back to the charter review,” he said.

“I personally have no interest in looking at our form of government,” Collum countered. “Let’s do something with this charter review – vote it down if we must … it’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’”

Levison proposed separating the controversial revisions from the rest of the charter. “I do not believe in stipends,” he said. “It’s a back door in being able to support political campaigns.”

After the ordinance was tabled, the trustees directed village counsel Stephen Rother to prepare a second version of the charter for a vote. This version would drop the two controversial provisions. Village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr. said the trustees could vote on the charter with all three items at its Dec. 23 meeting, and if that was defeated, they could then introduce an ordinance for the amended charter.

Both Collum and Rother noted that even if the charter with the stipends were approved, the charter stipulates they would not go into effect for the current terms of any sitting trustee. Given the legislative process required to approve the charter, which must be voted on by the state Legislature, “it could take years for this to happen,” Rother said.

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