Government has changed several times already

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November question the latest effort to find the best form for Wildwood

WILDWOOD—Before Wildwood voters decide on Tuesday, Nov. 2, whether to change their form of government, they will have plenty of local history to consider to enhance their decision.

Since Wildwood was incorporated as a borough in 1895, and as a city merged with Holly Beach in 1912, it has played ping pong with its forms of governments, bouncing back and forth four times.

At issue in this fifth try is whether the city should replace the current governing body of three elected commissioners, from among whom a mayor is chosen, with a council-manager plan of the optional municipal charter law. That plan calls for five council members to be elected at-large by the public for staggered terms with the mayor to be chosen from among the councilpersons.

The commission form has been a hot subject in political circles ever since New Jersey Governor and President-to-be Woodrow Wilson signed what is commonly known as the Walsh Act into law on April 25, 1911. Supporters argue that the commission rule brings residents closer to their governments, because each commissioner is specifically responsible and accountable for certain departments. Opponents argue, among other things, that the commission form is outmoded in these more complex times, that it does not bring the professionalism to government that is needed now and that it is not as efficient as other forms of government.

The three-member commission also raises issues under the open public meetings law, because two members running into each other at a shop constitutes a majority of the governing body.

Others tend to argue that a form of government is only as good as the people who run it.

Spring elections in New Jersey are supposed to be non-partisan, but there are cases on record where political parties behind the scenes have been forces to change government forms, so it may work to their advantage.

Among Cape May County’s 16 municipalities, five still have commission forms, three of them on Five Mile Beach including Wildwood and its neighbors Wildwood Crest and West Wildwood. West Cape May and Cape May Point are also among them. Sea Isle City formerly had the commission form, but its voters rejected it in November of 2006 and turned to the mayor-council form under the Faulkner Act.

Among New Jersey’s 566 current municipalities, 32 now have commission forms, seven have the governments of the municipal manager act of 1923 and the borough form leads the pack with 218, the balance coming from other forms.

The commission form came to light during the nation’s Progressive Era from 1890 to 1920, when there was an attempt to reform and strengthen municipal governments in the United States. Wildwood started in 1895 with the mayor-council, then held a special election on July 23, 1912 when 346 voted for the commission form and 128 against. Twelve votes were rejected. Then on May 10, 1983, after a charter study commission report, the voters approved a new form when they rejected the 70-year-old commission form and replaced it with the mayor-council form.

That was not to be the end of the Board of Commissioners, however. It made a big comeback in the middle of the 1990s under the administration of Mayor Fred Wager and is still in effect.

The present commissioners who are moving for the change have decided to eliminate a study of the issue as is optional under the law. An extensive nine-month study and 52 page report in 1982, urging the change from commission to mayor-council, was submitted then by a committee headed by Mayor-to-be Victor Di Sylvester and also including current advocate Al Brannen, now an elected city commissioner, vice-chairperson Emma H. Jackson, Karen M. Dougherty and Edward Donnelly.

A major difference between that change and the one proposed now is that the 1982 version called for the election of a mayor by the people. Today’s version suggests the appointment of the mayor by his or her fellow elected councilpersons. The earlier one also proposed election of not only councilpersons-at-large, but by wards. The referendum, circa 2010, recommends five at-large council members, but no wards.


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