Contributed by Duke Smith and Bill Harrison, 2002
In the November 1971 general election, three Democrats were elected to serve on the Borough Council. They were the first Democrats elected in over 40 years. P. Joseph Gibson, Joyce Leuchten (first woman ever elected to Council) and Adrian “Duke” Smith had included in their campaign proposals an intention to introduce an ordinance authorizing the formation of a charter study commission.
At the May 15, 1972 meeting of the Council, Joe Gibson introduced and Duke Smith seconded Ordinance No. 447 authorizing an election of a Charter Commission to study the form of government in Mountain Lakes, in accordance with New Jersey Laws of 1950, Chapter 210 as amended, February 1, 1972 (Faulkner Act).
There had been a similar commission through citizen action in 1960. The commission recommended a change to a non-partisan Mayor-Council form of government with a trained, professional business administrator. The proposed change was voted down by the public by the narrow margin of 22 votes (905-883).
At the June 19, 1972 Council meeting the second reading of Ordinance No. 447 was opened to the public, and a lengthy discussion took place.
Reasons given for the formation of the commission were: inefficiencies of present form, very busy Council people who tried to be policy makers and also had administrative responsibilities, over time local government had become more and more complex, with the added demands from state government on local communities, and the need for professional management.
Reasons given against the formation of the commission were: the present system was working, change would add costs and undermine the work of the current Council, no groundswell for change, and the Council could and would make the necessary changes in how the Borough was administered. The vote was held, and the three Democrats (Gibson, Leuchten, Smith) voted aye, three Republicans (Von Toerne, Marti, Tompkins) voted no. Mayor Walter Lilley (Republican) voted no, thus defeating the ordinance. Under that form of government, the mayor only voted to break a tie vote.
In July 1972, following the defeat of the Charter Study ordinance, Bob Wason, President of the Mountain Lakes Homeowners Association, organized a petition drive aimed at putting the Charter Study question to a public vote in the November general election. The law allows for the question to appear on the ballot if 25% of the registered voters sign the petition. If a majority of voters then vote for a Charter Study Commission, five elected commissioners will review the form of government for nine months. A report and recommendation will then be submitted to residents who will vote for or against the proposal.
The requirement of 25% of the registered voters signatures was met, and twelve Charter Commission candidates met the petition requirements to appear on the November ballot. They were, Robert Wason, Nancy Kogen, Nathaniel “Buzz” Bedford, Cynthia Mott, Everett Elerath, Erhard Thierfelder, William Harrison, George Richmond, Joseph McCabe, Donald Weitz, Robert Kopp and Maurice Brady.
On November 7, 1972, the charter question passed by a vote of 1293- 846;. 60% of the voters approved. There was an 82% voter turnout, and the following vote was recorded for commission members.
It is interesting that, in the Council election also on that day, Councilman Joe Gibson who first introduced the charter study ordinance and his running mate Emil Schell who supported the formation of the Charter Commission were defeated by Bill Robinson and Bill O’Brien, both of whom were opposed to the commission. Bob Wasson, the driving force behind the petition was not elected to the commission.
With Everett Elerath as chairman, the Charter Commission completed a nine-month intensive investigation of the existing Borough form of government (an elected mayor and six elected council members) to recommend whether it should be changed, remain unchanged or strengthened by ordinance. The Commission was assisted, at no cost, in its endeavors by two consultants, Allan S. Olsen and William Struwe, from the Department of Community Affairs, State of New Jersey.
The Commission interviewed local officials, past and present, and citizens, held public hearings, conferred with elected and appointed officials from other communities, and researched different forms of government.
The Commission came to a unanimous conclusion that a change in form to Council-Manager Plan E of the Faulkner Act would result in a strengthened, more clearly responsive or accountable form whose operation would be more economical or efficient. Specifically, its main features would be:
- A seven-member Council elected under party labels for four-year overlapping terms; no other elective positions.
- A Mayor chosen by his or her colleagues on the Council.
- A Borough Manager appointed by the Council on the basis of his or her professional qualifications, accountable to the Council for effective performance of the government and serving at its pleasure (i.e., no tenure).
- Appointive powers granted to the Council for the selection of the Attorney, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment officials, Clerk and others.
- Definition by Council of powers and duties of administrative departments, boards and offices deemed necessary for conduct of borough affairs.
- Separation of legislative and administrative functions.
- Referendum, initiative and recall.
On November 6, 1973, the voters approved the change in form of government as recommended by the Charter Commission, 842-755; 53% of the voters approved. The local Republican party and its four candidates opposed the recommended change in government. Two Republicans, Bill Taft and Floyd Tomkins won seats on the Council, Democrat Renton Bond won the other seat. Republican Bill Robinson defeated Democrat Duke Smith for Mayor. The losing Republican was Arlene Mirsky. The losing Democrats were Hal Levey and Jay Conlan.
Because a new form of government was to take place in January of 1975, all seven seats on the Borough Council were open at the November 1974 election. In the meantime (1974) the Charter Commission members were appointed as an Administrative Code Committee to draft an administrative code for the new form of government, which code was adopted by ordinance in January 1975.
On November 5, 1974, 7 Republicans, 7 Democrats and 1 Independent were on the ballot for election to the Borough Council.
On New Years Day 1975, the first meeting of the Borough Council was held, and William O’Brien was elected mayor by his fellow Borough Council members. As required under the new charter, appointments were made to commissions, committees, and boards. All members’ terms had expired on December 31, 1974. At a Council meeting held on January 9, 1975, Jeffrey Shapiro was appointed the first Borough Manager of Mountain Lakes. The new government was up and running.