The Vernon Township Council approved the creation of an ad-hoc committee to investigate a possible change in the township’s form of government during its meeting Dec. 12.
Vernon has a Faulkner Act “strong mayor” government that puts the mayor in charge of its day-to-day operations.
In 2011, the township’s government was changed from a manager-council form, resulting in Victor Marotta becoming the township’s first directly elected mayor.
Howard Burrell is the third mayor to be directly elected.
The committee will contain at least five people and will include one or two council members.
In June, then-Councilman Mike Furrey suggested returning to the previous form of government as a reasonable alternative to raising the mayor’s salary. The mayor has been paid $30,000 a year since 2011.
There had been several attempts to raise the mayor’s salary in the past decade.
Resident Peg Distasi said Vernon does not need to change its form of government.
“We just need qualified representation,” she said. “Our elections have become a popularity contest and our appointments as well. It’s not about who is qualified. It’s about who can get the most votes. That’s got to change. We need educated voters.”
Council President Patrick Rizzuto said he did not support the change from the previous “weak mayor” form of government. In 2011, residents were upset with a lack of vetting by the hired professionals and thought the “strong mayor” government would help alleviate the problem, he said.
“Based upon what’s happened since, I think people are saying, ‘We’re not seeing what we hoped to see.’ I think people were used to seeing a mayor or a candidate for government on a partisan basis.”
Vernon’s government is non-partisan. Two candidates ran for one seat in November. In 2021, five people ran for three seats.
“In the current form of government, it’s quite possible it’s nothing more than a popularity contest,” Rizzuto said. “People can simply sit back and do nothing and not express ... their positions on any issues that might affect the township.”
If a committee concludes that a new form of government is appropriate, it must submit a petition or initiate a statutory charter study commission. Either way, residents would vote on the change in a referendum.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of directly elected mayors who are strong in some areas and weak in others, and they’ve been able to rely on the judgment of others to provide the township with a balance,” Rizzuto said. “But suppose we have a series of elections take place here, and we don’t get that.”