Wards needed for vital city change
Let us begin with the observation that New Brunswick is an incredibly diverse community, comprised of students, small business owners, families, academics and professionals — in short, people of virtually all creeds, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a consequence of this diversity, each of the city's neighborhoods faces specific challenges and has unique needs. Unfortunately, under the current at-large system of representation, to use the term loosely, the needs and concerns of many New Brunswick residents, primarily students and minorities, have simply not been heard or, worse, have been deliberately ignored by Mayor Jim Cahill and the members of the city council. When the city's public schools need more funding and better facilities, when many of its neighborhoods are far more unsafe than others, when law enforcement resources are being used inefficiently, ineffectively and often unconstitutionally to criminalize peaceful activities, our least empowered citizens deserve, at the very least, some assurance that their voices are being heard, that their concerns matter as much as those of their more affluent neighbors. As it stands, the current system is inherently undemocratic, privileging the concerns of the city's wealthiest and most powerful interests over all others. The construction of luxury hotels, deluxe condominiums, overpriced restaurants and multistory parking decks in the downtown area, all to the benefit of the commercial sector, have dominated New Brunswick's agenda for years while ordinary residents have been lucky to receive the occasional platitude about job creation or safer roads. It is this type of unequal treatment that inspired concerned New Brunswick residents to launch a campaign for change.
Frankly, the only way to improve the predicament city residents currently face is through the institution of a ward system in the city. Students and minorities effectively have almost no voice whatsoever in the at-large city council, and this situation will continue indefinitely without fundamental change to the city's system of governance. Among the most important points to note in this debate is the fact that running for city council under the at-large system is tremendously expensive, meaning that many well-meaning and community-oriented residents of the city are from the start discouraged from running for office simply because of a lack of campaign funds. Of course, candidates could accept campaign donations from special interests, but this will obviously do nothing to alter the pattern of commercial favoritism we have seen in the city government over the past decades. It is plain to see how this situation threatens our democracy: The balance in a given candidate's checking account becomes far more important to the electoral process than his or her actual policies and ability to represent constituents. In a true democracy, candidates' ideas and level of dedication, rather than their finances and connections, should determine whether or not they are elected. By allowing each of New Brunswick's six wards to elect its own representative to the city council along with three at-large members, the cost of running for office will be greatly reduced, as candidates will have to reach out to only a few thousand voters in their own neighborhoods, rather than all 20,000 registered to vote in the city. Beyond all this, a ward system will also make city council members far more accountable to their constituents, a key feature of any healthy democracy.
It is a historical fact that at-large systems have been used to disenfranchise voters and eliminate or lessen the discussion of local residents' concerns. According to Empower Our Neighborhoods' press kit, "New Brunswick has several unique characteristics that make it different from most other mid-sized N.J. cities. It has an astounding number of its residents renting, as well as large foreign-born populations, crippling poverty and an extraordinarily young median age [of 23.6 years]. Renters and young people are less likely to vote (or at least to vote in New Brunswick), as are the urban poor and foreign-born population in the city. As a result, other groups of residents (largely from the affluent wards of New Brunswick) sweep their candidates into office each election. This effectively disenfranchises poorer residents, immigrants and students, who could not possibly constitute enough support to elect anyone to citywide office aside from the political machine's candidates."
Further, EON notes that many other N.J. cities comparable in size to New Brunswick, including Wayne, Old Bridge, Piscataway, Atlantic City and Hoboken, have instituted a ward system and that cities all across the United States have been eliminating at-large seats from their councils in an effort to better address their residents' needs. There is no good reason for any New Brunswick resident not to support the creation of a ward-based system, unless, of course, he or she is benefiting from the status quo. This past year, the city of New Brunswick spent more than $100,000 in legal fees in various attempts to block the ward question from being placed on the ballot, according to reports. As the majority of council members and city officials live in New Brunswick's safest and most affluent neighborhood they see no need for change. But for the majority of the city's residents, change is vital and the creation of a ward-based system is the best means to achieve it.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology.