New Jersey is holding elections this year for the Bergen County Board of Freeholders and the County Executive. NJ is one of the last remaining states in the country to use this terminology for their elected county government. A “freehold” is someone who owns property and while property ownership is no longer a requirement for voter eligibility, the title has stood the test of time.
The name may be odd, but the Bergen County Board of Freeholders is, simply, the legislative body of the county government. They write and draft laws for Bergen County, just as the Congress does for the Federal Government. Each year, two or three seats are up for election which ensures that party control of the board is up for grabs almost every November. The County Executive, who is elected to a four-year term, operates like the Governor or President.
The county government controls a small but substantial budget of approximately $500 million. $350 million comes from taxes paid by the citizens of the county. The rest is contributed by the state.
In this election season, two Democratic incumbents are defending their seats: David Ganz and Joan Voss are facing challenges from Republicans Robert W. Avery and Bernadette Coghlan-Walsh.
Republican County Executive Kathleen Donovan is pitted against current Democratic Freeholder James Tedesco. If Tedesco wins the election, the Democrats will have the opportunity to appoint his successor until another election can be held.
The big election issue this year has been determining ways to consolidate countywide programs to provide more efficient and cost effective programs for the majority of the population. Tedesco recently unveiled a new education plan that would encourage school districts to study mergers to manage growing educational costs. The plan also includes a program for students with disabilities who turn 21 and lose eligibility for services coordinated by local school districts. Tedesco did not explain how he would pay for these additional programs, although past educational spending increases have been offset with reduced expenditures in other areas. Donovan campaign manager Mark Campbell has claimed the Tedesco plan almost certainly result in increased property taxes.
The Democrats are also in favor of folding the county police department under the auspices of the Sheriff’s Office, which Donovan opposes. In a recent interview with Mark Bonamo of Politicker NJ, she noted that if she could “consolidate services” she “could cut people’s taxes by a third,” or around $200 per resident. This equates to small, but significant savings for the high taxed Bergen County. Nevertheless, she argued in the same interview that “there are many other services we could share, such as public works, repair services, municipal courts and energy cost consortiums” before the county police. (Of note: Police protection for High Holiday service is provided by the towns and will not be affected in any way.)
If the primary results are any indication though, the Democrats hold a slight advantage. Although neither party held competitive primaries, Ganz and Voss each received 14,000 votes compared with the Republican candidates’ 10,000. Obviously, a full campaign cycle will dramatically increase turnout, but the primary results demonstrate that the Democrats may be slightly more excited to get out and vote come this November.
On top of that, nearly one third of registered voters are aligned with the Democrats while only slightly more than 20% side with the Republicans. However, many registered with a party years ago and may no longer be affiliated.
Then there is the 2013 election to consider. The six candidates last year all finished within just two percentage points of each other. Of course, there was the Christie bump last year and although Cory Booker has a similarly high profile, he won the county last year by about 20,000 votes–with his election all but guaranteed, it is not clear how many new voters he can bring out to the polls.
The Democrats are also trying to tie the local Republican Party with the Christie administration and the Bridgegate scandal. Given the proximity of Bergen County to the George Washington Bridge this may prove to be an effective strategy. Donovan rightly claimed in that same interview that “Neither my opponent nor I were involved in Bridgegate, so I don’t see that it has any effect on the election at all.”
Only time will tell.
The Board of Freeholder elections will take place on Tuesday November 4.
Zachary Schrieber is a graduate of Hunter College with a degree in political science. He is currently a reporting intern with Tablet Magazine.
By Zachary Schrieber