Local ballot questions pit neighbor against neighbor across N.J.

Referendums may energize some voters more than top-of-ticket races

Signs pushing for and against a Maplewood ballot question outside a home in the Essex County township. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

In every community across New Jersey on Tuesday, elected officials — and people who want to be elected officials — will ask for your vote. Depending on where you live, you also may be asked your opinion on all sorts of other things, from overnight parking and pot sales to fire trucks and turf fields.

About 30 towns have put public questions on their local ballots, relying on voters to help decide public policy fights or approve expenditures. These local referendums don’t often receive lots of attention, but they help create plenty of division.

While voter turnout typically dips during off-year elections, election watchers expect these local ballot questions could drive up turnout at the polls, especially in communities where controversial questions have polarized the public.

John Froonjian, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, noted that statewide ballot questions — there are two this year — can be “so arcane and bureaucratic that even the interpretive statement isn’t clear.”

“But on a local level, these are questions that strike at local emotion about issues that matter to everyday people. These are not abstract issues. It’s fields that their kids are playing on, for example. That makes it personal and more vital for voters to get out and express their opinions,” Froonjian said.

Ballot questions that ask voters to approve or reject spending on schools or municipal projects also can increase voting because they often involve items the public must pay for, said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University.

Trust in local government has sagged to its lowest point since 1997, according to a recent Gallup poll. That also could benefit local referendums, Pfeiffer said.

“Referendums can bring out a lot of voters, including some who may not ordinarily vote in municipal or school elections, because in today’s society, there’s a perception of a loss of trust in government officials,” Pfeiffer said. “So some people may want more issues brought directly to voters.”

Ballot questions represent one of the few times average citizens can directly contribute to making public policy, without actually running for office themselves, Froonjian added.

“When you are voting for candidates, you are voting for people to make public policies for you,” he said. “But when you are voting on a ballot question, you are voting to make a policy decision yourself. That’s powerful, and it can motivate people to turn out more than they otherwise would.”

A turf war in Maplewood

Long-simmering tensions boiled over in Maplewood this year as residents began a battle over the fate of DeHart Park and its beleaguered grass field, the only open space in this Essex County township’s least affluent and least white census tract.

The battle was last waged in 2008, when residents narrowly rejected replacing the grass at DeHart with artificial turf, a move that left resentment burning for a little more than a decade, even as the DeHart field grew ever more dilapidated.

Now, a resident-driven petition drive has begun a repeat fight the Township Committee sought to avoid when it approved a $1.8 million bond for turfing DeHart in a 4-1 vote this July. The referendum, which will decide whether the bond plan moves forward, pits pro-sports parents and environmentalist residents against each other in an acrid and highly organized political battle.

“It’s gotten really ugly. It’s going to be very tight, I tell you. There’s a lot of yes signs, a lot of no signs,” said Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis, who voted in favor of turfing the field.

Turf opponents charge replacement is needlessly costly and would create a heat island. They worry over the long-term impacts of crumb rubber likely to be used for the field, citing its effects on the environment and on children’s health. The Environmental Protection Agency in a 2019 study concluded — in findings it conceded were incomplete — that while crumb-rubber infill contains chemicals, human exposure appears to be limited. 

Supporters of turfing the DeHart field say it is needed to keep township sports teams operating. The existing grass fields there are pocked and prone to flooding, the grass in a state of constant decay from use, and the athletes that play there at continual threat of injury from the uneven ground, they say.

Emotions are running high here. A thread about the referendum in a local Facebook group included references to Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“The only assumption I can make is people are digging in their heels: ‘This is my opinion, and this is how I feel. I’m right. You’re wrong, and there’s no in-between,’” said Eric Shorter, communications director for Don’t Turf DeHart. “I fault the Township Committee for bringing us to this divisive point.”

Both sides expect a narrow vote in this progressive town of about 26,000. If it fails, the township may put more money behind maintaining DeHart or building a new grass field there, town officials said.

When you are voting on a ballot question, you are voting to make a policy decision yourself. That’s powerful, and it can motivate people to turn out more than they otherwise would.

– John Froonjian of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy

School board fights in Montclair and Port Republic

Parents frustrated by the pandemic’s impact on schools protested and packed school board meetings around the state. And in two communities, that frustration resulted in ballot questions intended to transform how residents end up on the towns’ school boards.

Voters in Montclair and Port Republic will decide whether to switch from their current Type I board, with members appointed by the mayor, to a Type II board, whose members are elected by the public. Of about 600 public school districts statewide, 14 have appointed school boards, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In both communities, those pushing for an elected board largely are parents who feel like they don’t have a seat at the table, as well as activists in favor of increased voter participation and community engagement.

In Montclair, residents are burning up their computer keyboards to rally support on social media for both sides of the issue. More than 6,300 students attend kindergarten through 12th grade in the pricey, racially diverse Essex County township.

Parent Jonathan Farb said he supports an elected school board because he was frustrated that Montclair was among the last districts to return to in-person schooling last year, and hasn’t funded a long-range facilities improvement plan in over a decade. He feels an appointed board is problematic especially in Montclair, because its mayor, Sean Spiller, heads the New Jersey Education Association, the union that represents 200,000 teachers and public school employees statewide.

“His control of the board is overweighted to the needs of the members of his union,” Farb said.

As mayor, Spiller has appointed a majority of the Montclair school board’s seven members.

Vote Montclair, a nonpartisan good government group, calls for an elected board because “a vote for an elected BOE is a vote for voting rights.”

Critics say elected boards are more plagued by politics, and members are less likely to be diverse enough to represent the community or have the varied skills needed for the myriad issues boards decide. In both towns, a “yes” vote is one in favor of switching to an elected school board.

“A yes yote will allow an angry citizen, with only 10 signatures on the petition, to run for the school board,” resident Carolyn Lack said in a letter to the editor of the Montclair Local. “A yes vote can give the majority of registered voters a chance to curb tax increases by rejecting bond issues … A yes vote will become political, with candidates being associated with candidates running for higher office in November.”

Montclair has voted six times in 81 years to decide how its school board is comprised, the last time in 2009.

In sleepier Port Republic, people pushing for an elected board are primarily parents frustrated by the lack of in-person meetings earlier in the pandemic, as well as those who want more transparency, Acting Mayor and Council President Stanley Kozlowski said.

Port Republic is a small, predominantly white city located on the Mullica River just a few miles from the ocean in Atlantic County. Its public schools enroll about 100 students up to eighth grade.

“The pandemic was hard on everybody, and there were all kinds of feelings and emotions. Districts and parents were faced with a lot of difficult choices about their most valuable possession, their children, so that always becomes emotional,” Kozlowski said.

Contention over the election calendar in Teaneck

In Teaneck, voters will decide whether to move their nonpartisan municipal elections from May to November.

“Donald Trump unfortunately made politics nastier than it already was. A lot of people unfortunately subscribe to that sort of politics, regardless of party,” said Mike Pagan, a first-term Teaneck councilman.

Spring used to be the traditional time for nonpartisan municipal elections in New Jersey until a 2011 law allowed towns to move them to November. Forty-five towns made the switch, with supporters arguing November elections increase voter turnout in races for mayor and council.

That’s that argument from groups in Teaneck — the Bergen County Democratic Party and Teaneck resident state Sen. Loretta Weinberg are in favor — and other supporters of the ballot question.

“People are not programmed to realize that there are elections in May. It’s harder to take off. Businesses don’t give off or have vacation. Schools don’t have vacation. It’s harder for child care purposes, and turnout is significantly lower in May versus November,” former Teaneck Councilman Alan Sohn told the New Jersey Monitor in August.

The fight over Teaneck’s election timing landed in court earlier this year when the township rejected the petition required to get the question on the ballot. A judge sided with the petitioners, saying voters should decide when local elections should be held.

With results from the top-of-the-ticket races not really in doubt — the last time voters here voted for a Republican candidate for governor was in 1986, and its legislative district is overwhelmingly Democratic — the local races are where the campaign trail in Teaneck gets truly divisive.

“Teaneck has had a 125-year history of taking things personally,” said Councilman Keith Kaplan. “And there are a few that are very passionate.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.