Local government in New Jersey facts for kids
Local government in New Jersey is composed of counties and municipalities. Local jurisdictions are simpler in New Jersey than in other states because every square foot of the state is part of exactly one municipality; each of the 565 municipalities is in exactly one county; and each of the 21 counties has more than one municipality. New Jersey has no unincorporated areas, independent cities, or consolidated city-counties.
The forms of municipality in New Jersey are more complex than in most other states, though, potentially leading to misunderstandings regarding the governmental nature of an area. With five types and twelve forms of local government (plus several non-standard forms in municipalities with special charters), some areas of New Jersey are administered significantly differently from other states. To make matters more complex, New Jersey also distinguishes between regional, consolidated, and countywide school districts and school districts that serve only a single municipality. As well, the total area of any given airport may or may not lie completely within the boundaries of a given municipality — or even a given county.
New Jersey is divided into 21 counties, and all are governed by a Board of Chosen Freeholders, which typically serves as both the legislative and executive body. The boards consist of three, five, seven or nine members; only Warren County, New Jersey has a board of 3 freeholders, with voters rejecting expansion to five in November 2007. The means of election of the freeholders varies from all freeholders elected in districts, all elected at-large, or mixed district and at-large freeholders. Elections are first past the post for single-member districts, and for at-large elections when only one seat is at stake. For at-large elections with more than one seat, plurality-at-large voting is used.
All counties in New Jersey hold organizational meetings on or right after New Year's Day. At this time the boards elect members to leadership positions on the boards. Depending upon the specific board these offices include director, deputy director, president, vice-president, chair, chair pro tempore, vice-chair. Also at this organizational meeting each freeholder is assigned as liaison to one or more departments of the county.
Five counties have a separately elected county executive (Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Mercer). A sixth county (Union) has a county executive that is appointed by the board, analogous to the council–manager municipal form of government. In these counties, the Board of Chosen Freeholders retains only legislative authority. Most of the rest of the counties also appoint a county supervisor/administrator who is responsible for routine administrative operations of the county government. New Jersey counties have powers that are intermediate between the broad powers of counties in Pennsylvania and the limited powers of counties in New York. Counties in New Jersey do not have tax collecting power.
New Jersey is unique in the United States for having five distinct types of incorporated municipalities. Each type of municipality has equal legal standing, rights, and powers as any other type or form. Unlike other parts of the United States, New Jersey does not have different tiers of power or legal standing for its municipal governments.
The borough form of government is New Jersey's most common, being used by over 200 of the state's municipalities. Although it was once quite rare, the boroughitis phenomenon of the late 19th century led to the incorporation of large numbers of new boroughs.
The town form of government dates back to the late 19th century when towns were first incorporated in the state. The town government law was rewritten in 1988. In this form of government, a mayor is elected at-large plus eight councilmen – two from each of four wards. The mayor presides over council meetings and votes as a member of the council. The mayor has veto power over ordinances that can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the council. All appointments to municipal offices are performed by the council. Currently, only nine of the state's 15 towns still have the town form of government, with most of the rest opting to switch to one of the newer optional forms.
The township form of government has a group of elected officials (the township committee) which serves as both the executive and legislative authority. This form of government is one of the oldest and is derived from the town meeting form of government used in New England, where the township committee has similar functions to the board of selectmen. The township committee has either three or five members elected at-large. Every year, the committee chooses one of their members to be the "mayor", becoming the moderator for meetings of the township committee but having no special powers. In general, all legislative and executive powers are exercised by the committee as a whole. The committee, however, may appoint an administrator to oversee day-to-day operations of the municipality. The township form of government is only available to municipalities that are of the township type. Out of the 246 townships in the state, the township form of government is used by 144 of them.
The village form of government was made possible by the Village Act of 1891. This form consists of a five-member Board of Trustees elected for staggered three-year terms. The board selects a president and a treasurer from among the members. New incorporations under this form were stopped in 1961.
While there are four municipalities that retain the Village type of government (Loch Arbour, Ridgefield Park, Ridgewood and South Orange), none of them still use the Village form of government. Loch Arbour was the last to do so, but on December 20, 2011, its residents voted to change to the Walsh Act form of government, with a three-member board of commissioners.
Form not restricted to type
In New Jersey municipalities may choose to operate under a different form of government. The New Jersey Legislature has provided optional forms of municipal government, but some forms carry restrictions and are not available to all municipalities in New Jersey.
Forms of municipal government
New Jersey municipalities are not restricted in their form of government by the type of municipality. Any type of municipality that chooses to do so can adopt one of the six standard optional forms of government listed below, with some exceptions. Municipalities may also adopt non-standard forms of government by having the state legislature enact a special charter.
Charter Study Commission
A Charter Study Commission is one of two options available to residents of New Jersey to pursue a change in their form of government. The other option is a direct petition. The charter study commission approach is only available under the Faulkner Act.
A charter study commission can be formed by a vote of the governing body. Alternatively, a ballot question to form a charter study commission can be performed through a petition or by the existing municipal governing body enacting an ordinance to form a commission. Voters simultaneously vote yes / no to form a commission and also vote to select its members (if it passes), with the top five candidates becoming the members of the commission.
Walsh Act of 1911
The Walsh Act was enacted in the Progressive Era as a way to remove corruption and political influence from local politics. Voters elect three or five commissioners in non-partisan elections. Each commissioner is in charge of specific departments within the municipality, and all serve 4-year concurrent terms. Together the commissioners make up the governing body of the municipality.
1923 Municipal Manager Law
The Municipal Manager Law was enacted in 1923 and is an optional form of government available to any type of municipality. Under this form of government, a municipal council composed of three, five, seven, or nine members is elected at-large with a term of office typically of four years. The council appoints several key officials, namely the municipal manager, tax assessor, auditor, clerk, treasurer, and attorney. The manager is the chief executive of the municipality and is responsible for appointing other officials and preparing the budget for council consideration. The manager serves only at the pleasure of the council. A mayor is also chosen from among the council members whose primary duty is to preside over council meetings. Only seven municipalities currently use this form of government.
Optional Municipal Charter Law
In 1950 the state legislature passed the Optional Municipal Charter Law, more familiarly known as the Faulkner Act. In the post-World War II era there was a general push toward more efficiency and professionalism in municipal government, as well as the creation of stronger executives at all levels of government. The 1947 New Jersey State Constitution, a contemporary document, reflects these trends as well. Under the Faulkner Act, municipalities can choose one of four different options for their form of government. They are:
- Faulkner Act (council–manager)
- Faulkner Act (mayor–council)
- Faulkner Act (mayor–council–administrator)
- Faulkner Act (small municipality)
New Jersey municipalities are not required to be governed by the its type, by the Walsh Act, the 1923 Municipal Manager Law or the four forms of the Optional Municipal Charter Law (Faulkner Act). A community that finds all optional forms unsuitable may request a special charter from the state legislature. Such a charter, unique to this municipality, allows its government to be tailor-made to its needs.
Unincorporated communities in the state of New Jersey are well-defined communities that are part of one or more incorporated municipalities but are not independent municipalities in their own right. While these unincorporated communities may have a sense of "communal character" and unique identity, they are all located within incorporated municipalities. There is no territory in the state of New Jersey that is not part of an incorporated municipality.
Some of the communities have official recognition as a census-designated place, such as Somerset, New Jersey which is part of Franklin Township. Other communities have their own ZIP Code because they have their own post office such as Deans, New Jersey, which is part of South Brunswick Township. Other communities were once single-owner large farms that were later incorporated into a neighboring township such as Middlebush, New Jersey. Some smaller communities are incorporated into larger urban areas, such as when Greenville was merged into Jersey City as a neighborhood.
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