The Republicans in Mount Laurel have found out the hard way that sometimes when you poke a bear, the bear bites back.
The Township Council — all-Republican until last year, when two Democrats were elected — decided that a year before the pivotal 2020 presidential election, the governing body should be nonpartisan, because partisanship has no place at the local level.
Many in the community took issue, believing the proposed ordinance to hold a voter referendum was a poorly masked ploy by Mayor Kurt Folcher, Councilman Irwin Edelson and Deputy Mayor Linda Bobo — all up for re-election next year — to avoid running alongside the humongous Republican elephant in their column, Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, the three Republicans pushed ahead with their plan for a referendum this November. The initial vote was 3-2 along party lines. The vote to adopt will be on Monday.
That’s the poke.
We didn’t fall for the partisanship defense, and neither did Carol Murphy, a Democratic New Jersey Assembly member — and a Mount Laurel resident.
That’s the bear.
Faster than you can tweet “covfefe,” Murphy used her power and persuasion in a Democratic-controlled Legislature to fast-track a bill, introduced late last month, that would amend state law regarding the number of signatures needed on a petition to change municipal elections by referendum.
Under the current law, a referendum can be initiated by 10% of the local votes cast during the last Assembly election, or by a simple majority of the council.
Under Murphy’s changes, at least 25% of the local votes would be required, or the approval of at least two-thirds of the governing body.
In the ruthless game of politics, it pays to have a defense if you go on offense, and the Republicans didn’t figure on Murphy in their own backyard.
It’s also disingenuous for Folcher to complain about Murphy’s power play by stating, “It is pitiful that Carol is so partisan that she can rush a bill through the state government. ...” Equally flimsy was his argument that a nonpartisan election would benefit the town because it works so well for school boards and fire districts. When was the last time you voted in a fire district election? Or have you ever?
This was always about partisanship.
How this controversy plays out remains uncertain. It’s possible that the Legislature could approve Murphy’s bill, which was cosponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, and get the governor to sign it into law before the council’s Monday meeting.
It is also unclear if this legislation would actually affect the referendum, since the ordinance is already in the works, so the matter could end up in a courtroom.
But even if it doesn’t, we support the bill and the higher vote percentage. Changing municipal elections from partisan to nonpartisan should not be taken lightly, especially if the election date changes from November to May (Mount Laurel’s Republicans claim they would still endorse a November election date).
Under Murphy’s bill, Mount Laurel would have to get 3,205 signatures. If Folcher, Edelson and Bobo sincerely believe this is what their community wants, how crazy could it be to get 3,205 signatures in a town with over 40,000 people?
No more crazy than poking a bear.