New law eases municipal consolidation

This article originally appeared in the Courier Post

Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Wednesday that will ease municipal consolidation, opening the door for further study of a Cherry Hill-Merchantville merger.

The law allows the towns to seek state approval to begin the merger process through voter petition; an application by the local governing body; or a combination of the two, its sponsors said.

The previous law required each municipality to use the same method when seeking approval to form a Consolidation Study Commission.

Reaction from Merchantville and Cherry Hill leaders about the bill — and the continued possibility of a merger — was mixed Wednesday.

“The governor has signed into law a provision that puts these kinds of decisions back into the hands of the people,” Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt said.

“This was a reasonable and rational change to a law that was inflexible and in certain circumstances did not follow the will of the people.”

Said township spokesman Dan Keashen: “We’re all in (for a possible merger.) The mayor is ready to go and has said he is more than willing to study the issue and move forward with a productive group.

“If they (Merchantville) want to come and talk, we’re ready.”

“My feeling is, basically, that the general public elects the officials,” said Merchantville Mayor Frank North. “And those officials should be the ones to make such decisions.

“For a handful of residents to bypass the governing body is wrong.”

North said he had no preference as to whether the merger study is conducted or not.

“You can’t have a group trying to do a study without knowing all of the ramifications of working with the government of another town,” he said.

“If we can get a good, educated study of how the (two) governing bodies work, what the debts will be, the costs for public safety and service, as well as the negatives and the benefits to each town, then they (the residents) vote.

“If they vote to merge, so be it. If they vote not to, so be it.”

One of the residents “bypassing the governing body” North spoke of is Bob Stocker, a member of the Merchantville citizens’ group that originally proposed the merger study.

Stocker admitted Wednesday the process in Merchantville has been contentious.

“Since council rescinded our resolution, we have asked them for recommendations for new committee members,” he said. “We’ve asked Mayor North to recommend people.

“Now we believe we have a slate of committee members that reaches a compromise for all. We’re going to resubmit our application (for the study to be done) shortly, and we hope council will support us.”

Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Louis D. Greenwald, Connie Wagner and Valerie Vainieri Huttle drafted the new law in direct response to the state Department of Community Affairs’ invalidation of a consolidation study proposal.

DCA ruled the two towns submitted a hybrid application.

“I believe there are too many roadblocks in place for consolidation,” Lampitt said last month after the Assembly passed the measure.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to legislate common sense like this,” Lampitt said Wednesday.

“But at least this law will make mergers and efforts to control property taxes easier.”

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