Home rule in jeopardy as east-west relations transition
Home rule, that last sacred cow of municipal and school government in New Jersey, has seemingly been under attack for decades. The effort to separate the people further and further from the people who govern appears to have increased in recent years, however.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Atlantic County’s pursuit of a countywide court system based in the former county courthouse on Main Street in Mays Landing, the county seat? Or the failed bid to create a countywide dispatch system?
One of the only truly successful consolidation efforts across county lines has been the sending/receiving relationship between the Hammonton School District and the Waterford School District for grades seven through 12. (Folsom is also included at the high school, grades nine through 12.)
In general (once the tuition rate was adjusted) this relationship has benefitted Hammonton, Waterford and Folsom for more than 20 years. While Waterford receives one board seat to Hammonton’s nine, they have voting privileges. (Folsom does not vote due to the small size of its student population at the high school.)
Waterford chose to go with Hammonton after the Lower Camden County Regional School District dissolved in the late 1990s. Building their own middle school and high school would have allowed Waterford to retain their home rule from a school district standpoint but would have cost a lot more money than joining the Hammonton School District, which eventually held a successful $33 million bond referendum and built a new high school and early childhood education center.
The Hammonton School District grew bigger, and by doing so, retained its home rule.
So, too, did the Hammonton Joint Municipal Court, which was solely Hammonton until the municipality added courts from nearby municipalities Folsom, Egg Harbor City, Buena and Mullica Twp. in recent years.
Like the school district, Hammonton made sure it was the “hub” of the wheel rather than just a spoke. By consolidating others into the school and the town entities, Hammonton strengthened its position.
What does that decision to embrace a hybrid of home rule and consolidation mean to you and your family? It means, most importantly, that you still have close contact with the people who govern you. Your elected officials are people whom you know, whom you run into in church, at a local store or at a local restaurant.
I believe that the further the gap is between the government and the governed, the more likely it is that the people will be ruled by those in power, and the less likely they will participate in democracy on the local level.
Most consolidation of power leads to more rungs on the government ladder, and less chance for the average citizen to have their say in what goes on in their community, from who is hired to how many vehicles are purchased for the school or municipal fleets to how much is being spent on municipal water and sewer infrastructure, new streets and new school buildings.
Hammonton, one of only a handful of municipalities incorporated as a “town” was founded in the New England spirit of nearly-direct democracy. To this day, 155 years after the town’s origination, people walk into council meetings and speak directly to the mayor and council or school board. It’s expected.
As I have said before in this space, east-west relations continue to be in transition. Hammonton is a key battlefield in the push-pull political fray between Democratic-controlled Camden County and Republican-controlled Atlantic County. Do either of these political machines serve the best interests of our town and its residents?
The battle against home rule is also being waged by politicians who would rather see national issues creep down to our municipal and school level for their own gain. Witness the recent discussions about the Bill of Rights at the council meeting or the mask debates at the school board meeting.
These discussions, while important to the people involved in them, eat up time and resources that could be used on municipal matters.
The point of it all is this: further erosion of home rule and, by association, local control.
Will our local leaders hold the line and do what’s best for Hammonton?
That remains to be seen.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.