(EDITOR’S NOTE: Joe Grillo wrote this column which appears in the Oct. 4 issue of triCityNews. Grillo is the chairperson of the Asbury Park Democratic Organization.)
We know how important these midterm elections are for our country, our state and our region. We have the opportunity to vote in a Democratic bulwark against a White House whose disposition and politics build walls to further divide us. As Democratic municipal chair in Asbury Park, I’m committed to electing Democrats up and down the line to resist Trumpism in all of its forms.
But I’m also asking Asbury Park to fight back locally against permanent divisions that threaten us via three questions for city voters on this year’s ballot. I’m voting no on all three. But I’m most concerned with Municipal Question No.1, which looks to dissolve the current city council and draw up wards each represented by a single councilperson who would run in another (another!) city wide council election next year.
A vote for Municipal Question No. 1 is a vote to bring the political instability and chaos of the past back into Asbury Park.
In theory, the arguments for a ward system are supremely valid, and rooted in genuine and tragically real grievances. It goes like this: With the influx of new residents, rising living costs, and seemingly unfettered gentrification, the historically African-American quadrant in the southwest of the city is shrinking, its community is slowly being pushed out and thus, the argument goes, its political voice must be protected, conserved, and empowered by creating wards. In theory, a ward system would provide institutional representative equity by forcing the city to have a seat on the council just for that quadrant. It’s a valid argument. But creating wards does nothing to address the grievances that threaten the west side, and would create permanent divisions in a city struggling to create unity.
The reality is this: when you look at cities throughout New Jersey, wards become like little fiefdoms. Like Mafia territories. Mini-political bosses emerge. And residents are compelled to kiss the boss’s ring in order to get things done.
You want that pothole fixed? Go see your ward councilman. And, be nice, because if you get on their bad side, good luck with that pothole.
Because other ward councilpersons don’t represent your particular ward, they are less apt to concern themselves with your problems. Over time, wards create permanent divisions between different neighborhoods. Wards are the exact opposite of what we are trying to accomplish in Asbury Park, which is political unity, civic empowerment and social equity.
The second reason I am voting no is because there has always been council representation from the southwest. On every single winning ticket in the past two generations, whether it was Mayor Butch Saunders, Mayor Kevin Sanders, Mayor Myra Campbell or Councilwoman Yvonne Clayton.
I’ll go even further: a ticket without African-American representation from the southwest cannot, and should not, win in Asbury Park. Period.
So let’s keep it real – this is essentially a recall election. And the reason the petitioners are looking to recall the current city council is not because there isn’t enough “west side” representation on the council – it’s because Yvonne Clayton and Jesse Kendle don’t take orders from the petitioners’ small clique, who, in turn, take orders from power bases outside of the city and the county.
The third reason I am voting No is that neither Asbury Park, nor the petitioners, have control over how these wards are going to be drawn up. The county draws up those lines. Wards are drawn based on voter population. Because of low voter turnout in the southwest over the years, its proposed ward will surely also encompass other parts of the city. What happens if the county draws up a ward that includes both the southwest quadrant and parts of the northwest quadrant? How about a south ward that encompasses both the downtown central business district and the southwest quadrant? Not only is that possible, it’s probable. There is absolutely no guarantee that the petitioners looking for permanent representation from a shrinking demographic will get that with a ward system — we have little to no control over how these wards are drawn up.
The final and most important reason I’m voting no is because creating wards does not address or resolve the specific grievances that the petitioners, and the rest of us, are concerned about: comprehensive affordable housing, equitable workforce development, common-sense controls on unfettered gentrification and greater representation from people of color on the city’s numerous committees, boards and commissions.
I support representative equity, which is what a ward system attempts to address but fails miserably. Creating wards does not create equity. Not by burning the whole house down. The way to do it is to support city council tickets that best reflect our growing diversity and then push those representatives to go deeper in identifying and resolving the city’s clear, present and urgent issues of inequity.
These municipal questions are an attempted power grab. Plain and simple.
As both Americans, and as residents of one of the most progressive small cities in America, I believe that we are all tired of political divisions. We’ve come a long way in Asbury Park, and still have a long way to go. But we go it together, not divided.
Instead of building more walls to divide us, let’s keep Asbury Park united.
Vote “NO” on Municipal Question No. 1.