EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange City Council deadlocked at its regular meeting on Monday, April 11, with the votes split 5-5 regarding what is normally a routine occurrence: paying bills.
Normally when this happens, the executive branch of local government is expected to break the deadlock; however, Mayor Lester Taylor was on vacation, so the responsibility fell to acting Mayor Dwight Saunders, usually the director of the city’s Code Enforcement Department, to solve the dilemma of Resolution I-4.
But before Saunders could break the deadlock, Councilwoman Jacqueline Johnson asked her council colleagues for permission to change her “No” vote to “Yes,” and the resolution was passed by a 6-4 majority. The council voted in favor of allowing Johnson to do so.
“There is a need, unfortunately, to pay bills prior to the approval of council and my position is, I will not vote on paying for something that’s already been done; it doesn’t make any sense,” said 1st Ward Councilwoman Amy Lewis, who was one of the five opposition votes, on Monday, April 11. “If it’s been done already, then why do you need my vote? So that’s my position on it. This is my first time on council and I’m not sure what the past has been; however, it has to make sense to me in order for me to support it. We’ve got to make sure that it’s right.”
“I voted ‘No’ the first time because we’re trying to get the administration to change how the bills are paid and council is actually looking at changing the way the bills are paid,” said Johnson on Monday, April 11. “See, this happened back when former Councilman William Holt was on the council. The bills are ratified; they’re already set. So if you have any questions or you don’t want a bill paid or a check pulled, you can’t do that. So we decided to do that and we wanted to do that.”
Johnson said she also didn’t want to change her vote, but said that “sometimes you’ve got to compromise and bend and flex a little bit in order to get things done.”
“And I’ve always been the conciliatory person on the council,” said Johnson. “I agree with the chairman. We don’t need anybody to come into our house and vote. There’s nothing sinister about this. It’s just the way it’s been done for the last 30 years.”
But Johnson, 5th Ward Councilwoman Alicia Holman, Lewis, and two of their council colleagues said it’s time for that particular tradition to change. City Council Chairman and 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green said it was good that the council didn’t need Saunders to come in and cast a tie-breaking vote.
“As the chairman, one thing you have to do is make sure that you are balanced across the board, in terms of how the meeting is conducted, but one thing I’m not going to tolerate (is) when we have a vote on the floor and we disagree that we have to have the mayor or even the acting mayor come down and break the tie on my floor,” said Green on Monday, April 11.
“I think, collectively, as a council and a legislative body, we can reach a compromise or come to some kind of agreement, whether that means putting the vote back into committee or one or two of us being the bigger person and think if the bigger picture when it comes to certain votes, so we don’t get into 5-5 votes. Because, at the end of the day, when you have a 5-5 vote and the mayor or acting mayor comes down to cast a vote, he’s going to vote for what he wants and what’s best for him.”
Green said he doesn’t want anyone to believe there is a rift on the council that can be exploited for any individual or group’s benefit.
“It’s a council matter, it’s a council vote; and we have to be aware of how the public views us and the way that we handle the city’s business,” said Green. “We don’t want to get into the habit of 5-5 split on the council that would give outsiders the opportunity to come in and try to exploit a perceived division among our members. No outsiders in our council meetings.
“I think that it’s healthy and productive for the council to have these kinds of debates where the public can see it and hear it, because they’ll get to see that we’re not a rubber stamp. We’re individuals with our own minds, our own opinions and our own uniqueness. And I respect that,” Green said.