Mayors give continuity to leadership


By: Packet Editorial
   One of the quirks of the township committee form of government — which is employed in Princeton Township, Montgomery, Plainsboro and about 140 other municipalities in New Jersey — is that members of the governing body, rather than the voters, get to choose the mayor.
   Every January, township committees holds their reorganization meetings, at which time the five elected committee members (or three in the case of very small municipalities) select one of their colleagues to be primus inter pares — first among equals. For the next year, that person gets to exercise all the powers granted by statute to the mayor, which range from such ceremonial duties as performing weddings to more substantial tasks, like signing legal documents on behalf of the township.
   There are two schools of thought — one that might best be described as the old school, the other as the new — regarding the designation of the mayor by a township committee. The old school, which prevailed in most townships up until the 1980s or so, held that a new mayor should be chosen each year. Traditionally, the township committee would choose as mayor in January the committee member of the majority party who would be up for re-election later that year, giving that member a shot at exercising a little more power and obtaining a little more visibility leading up to November.
   The new school, toward which many townships have gravitated in the past couple of decades, has rejected this tradition of rotating leadership in favor of continuity. In these townships, the same committee member has been chosen as mayor year after year. The driving force behind this change is the belief that a long-term mayor has the knowledge, the reputation and the political clout to better represent his or her municipality in discussions and negotiations with developers, interest groups and other levels of government — especially the state — than a succession of one-year mayors.
   All three of our area townships have become converts to this new school. Plainsboro was one of the earliest; Peter Cantu has now been mayor of the township for 27 of the past 29 years. In Princeton Township, Phyllis Marchand has just entered her ninth consecutive year as mayor, and her 11th overall. In Montgomery, Louise Wilson is starting her fifth year in a row as mayor.
   But Ms. Wilson’s mayoralty almost ended after its fourth year, thanks to a pair of her committee colleagues who evidently believe Montgomery should revert to the old school. At last week’s reorganization meeting, where Ms. Wilson was chosen as mayor by a 3-2 vote, fellow Democrat John Warms was one of the dissenters, declaring, "I don’t believe this form of government is established for someone to be mayor year after year after year." And Mark Caliguire, the lone Republican on the committee, added, "It’s an issue of precedent for one person to serve this long, and one I am not sure should be set."
   We’ve got news for Mr. Caliguire. In the 21st century, as the Plainsboro and Princeton examples attest, the precedent about which he expresses such concern is already firmly established. Most of the progressive municipalities in New Jersey that employ the township committee form of government have long since recognized the clear advantages of continuing leadership over rotating leadership. And while Mr. Warms is certainly entitled to his opinion regarding the philosophical underpinnings of this form of government, we respectfully disagree with him. We wonder, for example, how far he thinks Montgomery’s often-contentious negotiations with the state over the NPDC property would have progressed if the state Treasury Department had to deal with four different Montgomery mayors over the past four years.
   We don’t always agree with Mayor Wilson — or with Mayor Marchand or Mayor Cantu, for that matter. But we believe the continuity of leadership they have brought to their municipalities is far superior to the outdated and unproductive tradition of rotating leadership. We commend all three township committees for staying the course.