OPINION: South Orange Can Address Longstanding Equity Issue With Proposed Charter Revisions

0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

The following opinion piece refers to the fact that on August 14, the South Orange Board of Trustees voted 5-1 to re-introduce an ordinance aimed at updating the township’s charter, including updating the official name of the town and titles for elected officials and staff, moving the May biennial municipal elections to November, allowing for ranked choice voting should the state permit it — and creating stipends for elected officials: $8,000 per annum for Trustees and $12,000 for the Village President. Read more about the re-introduction of the ordinance here.


The year is 1869. Three years after Governor Marcus L. Ward signed a state Constitutional amendment delivering the end of slavery in New Jersey. Sixty-two years after the New Jersey State legislature took voting rights away from property owning female and African American residents. In 1869, the Charter creating South Orange was written and submitted to the state legislature for adoption. “Men of well known business ability, honesty, and integrity have been selected to fill the important positions … restrictions in the sale of property being such as to exclude the worst elements of society and to encourage the settlement of enterprising business men in pursuit of pleasant suburban homes.”[1] The Charter included no provision for payment to those who served to govern the community and in contrast to 95% of New Jersey’s municipal governments, has not been updated for this feature since.

While the facts at the time are laid out in Founders and Builders of the Oranges, written in 1896 by Henri Whitmore, they are quite scant, and so the intent of the South Orange Founders cannot be inferred. We might imagine a perspective that only those with well-known business ability and therefore the financial means to volunteer their time were qualified to govern. Worse yet, we might imagine service to the exclusion of pay as a method to deter newly freed slaves from running for election, as had been happening in the post-Civil War south. There, “aristocrats and the cotton planters from the hinterland … formed an intersectional ruling class, bound together by kinship, economic, political and cultural ties.’”[2] Or maybe all we can infer is a blind, unthinking adherence to then contemporary norms. Regardless, the effect is clear. Today, hourly workers and gig workers who may not be able to afford the time needed to represent our community may be effectively unable to seek an elected position in South Orange.

This includes restaurant workers, social workers, artists and musicians, entrepreneurs, and teachers and university professors who supplement their pay with afterhours jobs, among others. People who live and vote in our community and who pay our property taxes, whether through home ownership or through rent pass throughs are not well represented in our governing body.

Many of those enraged by the prospect of paying our elected officials for their time have sounded the tax burden alarm, which merits analysis given our already heavy property tax burden. Here are the facts: the proposed Charter amendment includes stipends of $12,000 for the mayor and $8,000 for each of six council members. This annual cost of $60,000 would be offset every two years by over $70,000 in cost savings associated with another charter change proposal: moving our elections from May to November. The resulting increase in the Village’s annual expenses represents a dollar a year for our residents. While normally any increases in these amounts would be addressed as part of a municipality’s budgeting process, the drafters have instead proposed that this amount be enshrined in the Charter, without revision for at least 12 years, as a compromise for those in fear of rampant subsequent increases.

Most importantly, the Charter amendment to provide pay for South Orange elected officials should also be viewed from an equity perspective. A Charter written in the late 1800s, like our national Constitution, is difficult to scour for intent or to provide practical governance and support for long overdue improvements still needed to right systemic equity issues perpetuated by our “founders” and others through to this day. Since our national Constitution was written by those who had no intention of equality for women, the enslaved, or other marginalized populations, it has required amendment to achieve these goals. Our Charter as written in 1869 similarly enshrines an inequitable process that needs to be abolished now.

There has been a refrain from some in the community that elected officials should serve as volunteers, as was designed by the charter. That serving as an elected official is an honor and a privilege for those who want to give back to the community, which is somehow tainted by a modest stipend. One that doesn’t even begin to reflect fair pay for the time commitment involved. I easily spent far more than fifteen hours a week when I served as a South Orange elected official, as do many others, and incurred considerable financial outlay (thousands annually) by holding the position. It is, in fact, an honor and a privilege to serve as an elected official – one that is out of reach to those that don’t have the financial wherewithal to volunteer their time and as such leaves their advice and council out of the governing process. This is abhorrently inequitable, particularly in a progressive community like South Orange. It is time for a change.

[1] Whitmore, Henri; Founders and Builders of the Oranges, 1896, Henri Whitmore, page 356
[2] Hannah-Jones, Nikole; The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project (p. 198). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Related Articles