Threat to Asbury Park! Democratic leadership steps up against divisive and dangerous ballot questions

While Asbury continues to move forward in most ways, there are three ballot questions facing city voters this November that could have catastrophic consequences if passed. If you give a shit about our city, this should alarm you.

One ballot question would divisively divide our little city into three wards, with a council person representing each. Another would change our non-partisan elections to partisan, which is an invitation to machine politics. And the third would repeal the current ban on outside investors coming into Asbury Park to buy up housing for use as airbnb-style short-term rentals — a problem cities around the world are moving to stop.

Two different groups got enough signatures on petitions to get these divisive and dangerous questions on the ballot. Fortunately, civic and political leaders are stepping forward to oppose this typically Asbury Park political chaos. All five council members have announced their opposition. And now so has the leadership of the city’s Democratic organization.

Dem Chair Joe Grillo

Dem Chair Joe Grillo

Democratic Chairperson Joe Grillo, Vice-Chair Angela Ahbez-Anderson and Chair of the Young Democrats Jess Alaimo all say they’re opposing the three ballot questions. Grillo already issued a statement last week against wards, and Ahbez-Anderson and Alaimo plan to take on the partisan and airbnb ballot questions with statements in opposition in the coming weeks.

These are serious people. Grillo and Ahbez-Anderson are experienced members of the Asbury Park Board of Education. (Ahbez-Anderson is president of the board.) Alaimo is an up-and-coming progressive activist. Together they represent the diversity of Asbury Park: gay and straight, African-American and white, female and male.

I’ll let them do their own talking against the three ballot questions because this Publisher sometimes gets a bit out-of-control when I see threats like these to our beloved little city. This week I’ll attempt to be somewhat sane in explaining why these ballot questions would be a disaster for Asbury Park. Here goes.

With the ward ballot question, the city would be split into three wards with a council person representing each. Only the remaining two council members would be elected citywide. It’s madness. The city is way too small for this, and it would rip us apart. You’d have three of five council members just interested in their own little section of the city. I can’t think of any other municipality this small who does this. Meanwhile, every city with a ward system I’ve seen has a strong directly elected Mayor who runs the city day-to-day, and like a President or Governor, theoretically looks out for the interests of the city as a whole. A council with wards serves as the check-and-balance to such a strong mayor as the legislative branch of government. Asbury Park is nothing like that, with a five member council which includes the mayor as an equal member. Our council sets policy and oversees a professional city manager who runs the city. The council should continue to be elected citywide so there’s unity in Asbury Park.

If approved, the ward ballot question would also cut short the four year terms of the current council members, and make them all run next year. More madness. Obviously, this is a recall election in disguise — and that’s what I suspect is the real motivation of the political faction behind this, who’ve been unsuccessful in winning elections the old-fashioned way: by convincing a majority of their fellow citizens to elect their candidates.

The same political faction is behind the ballot question to make our city’s elections partisan. Right now, candidates all run in one column without party affiliation. But in a partisan system, they’d run as Democrats and Republicans. In overwhelming Democratic Asbury Park, the Democrats would always win, which means a handful of Democratic politicians who control the nominating process will control the city — the very definition of machine politics. Talk about disenfranchising. That the Democratic leadership in place right now opposes this tells you something: they’d initially be the power brokers. But they know that partisan elections are bad for the city, and eventually the faction behind this ballot question will start waging bitter and divisive battles for control of the city’s Democratic Party.

Here’s the mysterious part to this whole thing. There’s a five-member “committee of petitioners” listed on the one petition that got both the ward and partisan questions on the ballot. Yet two of the five say they oppose partisan government — even though they’re sponsors of this petition that got it on the ballot! Don’t expect the other three to tell me whether they also oppose the partisan ballot question they sponsored. So where is this partisan nonsense coming from? You got me. So excuse me for doubting the sincerity of those behind all this as partisan machine politics is about as disenfranchising as it gets.

A completely different group got the question on the ballot that would allow outside investors to come into the city, buy up existing rental housing and single-family homes and use them for short-term airbnb-style rentals. This is now a problem around the world, and the city council property responded to it. They enacted an ordinance limiting airbnb-style short term rentals to the homes of residents who live here — which was the original intent of airbnb. The council also grandfathered in all second homeowners who had been doing short-term rentals so they wouldn’t get hurt.

This ballot question would repeal the city’s short-term rental ordinance, which is meant to protect us from investors coming in and converting our housing stock into short-term airbnb-style rentals. The problems with such investor-owned airbnb housing are obvious.

First, it takes existing year-round rentals off the market, making rentals scarcer and thus drives up rents. Anyone concerned with affordable housing should vote no on this ballot question. Same with young residents who want to continue to rent here. The more that investor-owned airbnb housing takes rentals off the market, the less options there will be for current renters to stay.

And as a quality of life issue, residents should be against this ballot question. Outside investors using a house for just airbnb-type rentals takes away what makes a neighborhood — neighbors. Plus, this is an invitation to rowdy behavior as investors seeking a financial return are going to have less of an interest in who uses their short-term rental than a resident, who’d likely want to keep their home in good shape and have good relations with their neighbors.

The ordinance regulating airbnb-type short-term rentals in Asbury Park is now working. Residents and grandfathered-in second homeowners can use their properties for short-term airbnb-style rentals. We hear few complaints from homeowners that the restrictions are excessive. We hear few complaints about bad behavior from neighbors.

I say this ballot question making Asbury wide open to investor-owned airbnb housing only passes if there’s confusion among voters — the only people for it would be those who’d directly benefit from it financially, few if any of whom are Asbury Park voters. It’s inconceivable to me why most any Asbury voter would support this.

So that’s this Publisher’s sane take this week on the potential mess of all three ballot questions getting approved. Asbury voters should vote no on all three, and everyone else who cares about our city should hope they all go down.