Discord over a movement to change Brigantine's form of government mounted this week in the lead-up to today's City Council meeting.

Other local groups are launching their responses to a petition drive by Respectable Government for Brigantine, a predominantly Republican group pushing for a referendum to revert to a three-member commission form of government from the existing seven-member council. A similar movement in 1989 resulted in the city abandoning the commission.

Meanwhile, a number of contentious issues - from the dog park to a $4 million bond ordinance that was voted down earlier this month - means today's meeting may again be a lengthy one. The last two meetings both ended near midnight after six hours of discussion.

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"If we start at 10 in the morning, that gives us a longer time period to go to midnight," said Mayor Phil Guenther, a Republican, with a laugh.

Guenther plans to be more proactive in setting reasonable limits for public comment, but he said some aspects are out of his control.

"We keep getting agendas with 20-some items and many of them are going to take a lot of time to go through," he said. "Meetings that go over six hours are not productive."

Councilwoman Lisa McClay, one of the Democrats voted into the new majority last November, disagreed. "It's the mayor's responsibility to preside over the council meetings," she said.

The length of meetings is one of the stated reasons for the citizens' group's petition. Their proposal would eliminate the ward system of geographic representation. Instead, three elected officials would each head specific city departments, taking on many of the responsibilities of the existing city manager.

Vince Sera, vice president for Respectable Government for Brigantine, said 900 signatures have been gathered so far out of the goal of 1,700 to overcome any challenges. About 1,400 are needed in order for the referendum to appear on November's ballot.

"We're on a good pace," he said.

But a number of residents have questioned the group's methods.

Anne Phillips, of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association, said there have been widespread reports of members of the local carpenters' union walking door-to-door to collect signatures.

"If you're going to have a referendum for people in your community, it should be done by residents who have knowledge of the community," she said. "These people aren't either."

While there is nothing in Brigantine city code that would prohibit residents of other towns from circulating petitions, some have balked at their intrusion.

Resident Joan Rees-Evans said two men, both residents of other towns, showed up at her door asking for her signature. When she quizzed them about the issues, she said, "they had no idea what they were getting signatures for."

"Why would you go somewhere to try to change the form of government?" she said. "They didn't have an answer."

McClay had a similar experience Tuesday with union members who said they live in Mays Landing and Northfield.

"I at first felt intimidated to see these two men," she said. "They were nice guys, actually, but they had no idea what they were doing."

Frank Koch, Respectable Government's president and the local school board president, is listed as a representative on the Carpenters Local 255 website. Koch did not respond to a request for comment. Sera could not be reached for further comment.

Guenther, who himself signed the petition, said there's no way of knowing who's circulating it.

"There are a number of carpenters and members of the building trades in Brigantine," he said. "If Frank Koch's involved, I'm sure they're supportive of him."

The commission form, which already operates in beach resorts such as Margate and Ventnor, could be the solution to inefficiencies like the lengthy meetings, Guenther said. Opponents, including Phillips, have said the commission would place too much power in the hands of a few people.

For their part, Phillips said, the Taxpayers Association placed ads stating their opposition of the proposed change in local newspapers this week.

McClay said the Democrats are also trying to spread the word about their opposition.

"If it does go on the ballot, I'm sure there will be a counter campaign," she said.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


Follow Wallace McKelvey on Twitter @wjmckelvey

If you go

WHAT: Brigantine City Council meeting

WHEN: 10 a.m. today

WHERE: City Hall, 1417 W. Brigantine Ave.

For more information:

Call 609-266-7600

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