Wildwood beach fees

Petitions have been used in Wildwood recently to oppose plans including an ordinance that would have created a beach utility.

Dale Gerhard

WILDWOOD — The city is rescinding an ordinance that would have created a beach utility, another demonstration of the power of the petition.

Residents in this shore community have used the power of initiative and referendum recently to reverse decisions made by the three-member City Commission including the 50-year lease of a Boardwalk property and beach, plans to buy a downtown property for recreation, and most recently the utility's formation.

Residents say the use of petitions gives them the ability to keep local government in check, but some city officials say it is being used to micromanage city government.

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It is a right given to them under their form a government, a commission organized under 1911's Walsh Act, which was the first New Jersey municipal charter law to give voters the powers of initiative and referendum, according to the state's Office of Legislative Services.

Municipalities organized under the Faulkner Act or Optional Municipal Charter Law also permit the initiative and referendum process.

Currently, 156 of the Garden State's 565 municipalities have the right of initiative and referendum, said Matthew Weng, a staff attorney with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

The original Wildwood beach utility ordinance, adopted Jan. 23, was designed to create a separate unit to run beach operations, but it met with opposition almost immediately. Those opponents then formed a petition committee and gathered enough signatures, 127 valid signatures in this case, to force the city to either rescind the ordinance or place it on the ballot.

"It depends on the municipality," Weng said. "Some towns you see it used pretty frequently, and in some towns not so often. It's certainly not rare."

Wildwood City Clerk/Administrator Chris Wood said the use of petitions to stop several ordinances in just a few months time was somewhat unusual based on his experience.

His office has the task of reviewing petitions, determining the validity of the signatures collected and then organizing an election if deemed necessary.

The elections can cost as much as $25,000 each, so he said the commissioners have opted to rescind the ordinances rather than take on the cost of an election.

Resident Dara Baltuskonis, has taken part in the recent petition drives.

The longtime Wildwood resident and a one-time City Commission candidate said having the option of using a petition to get issues before voters is important.

"It's about protecting my interest in the town, my financial interest," Baltuskonis said. "These are residents' tax dollars at stake."

Baltuskonis opposed the beach utility, for instance, because she said it made no sense to create a utility when the beach does not require beach fees.

She and four other residents — former Mayor Gary DeMarzo, Kathleen McCullough, Maryann Giblin and former City Commissioner Ed Harshaw — formed the latest committee of petitioners.

"It's not something I enjoy doing or I want to do, but I have to protect my interests," Baltuskonis said of the recent petition drives.

But while Baltuskonis sees the petitions as necessary, Commissioner Pete Byron questions the motives behind them.

"I think there's a place for them and a time for them, but I don't think they should be used to micromanage the city," Byron said.

Byron said that he and his fellow commissioners were elected to make decisions in the city's best interest.

"We were elected to lead the city. Let us lead the city," he said.

Instead, Byron said residents should come to commission meetings or meet with the commissioners individually before making use of the petitions.

The petitions require the collection of signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters in the last election, which comes to 117 in Wildwood.

Byron said that means a small number of people can push for a vote on ordinances.

But Baltuskonis said that she and her fellow residents use the ability to petition as a means of insuring that the city better control its spending.

"The administration is doing what it wants to do," Baltuskonis said.

But while Byron said he understands the need for initiative and referendum, he suggested the first option should be coming in and suggesting new ways for the city to operate and increase its revenue without forcing an election.

"We're not turning a blind eye to them," he said.

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