Orange Voters Seeking Term Limits in Local Elections, But They May Face Battle

Orange City Hall. Credit: The Four Oranges.

A petition was filed with the Orange city clerk last month that could leave the question of establishing term limits up to voters in the upcoming November election.

The Committee for Term Limits in Orange, the group behind the petition, needs 733 signatures to get the issue on the ballot in accordance with state law. The ordinance would cap a politician’s term in local office at eight consecutive years, but it would allow for a candidate to run again after a four-year “cooling-off period,” according to Derrick Henry, a committee member.

“There was concern about the longevity of some of our past and present municipal representation,” Henry told the Four Oranges.

If the term limits became local law, Mayor Dwayne Warren, along with four council members — Tency Eason, Kerry Coley, Jamie Somers-Johnson, and  Adrienne Wooten — would be disqualified from running again. The longest tenure on the council belongs to Eason, who was elected in 2002.

Henry, who is a board of education member, has had success in government reform. In 2017, he was a part of the fight to require school board members to be elected. “I don’t promise to win, but I do promise to fight,” Henry said.

In Orange, along with other municipalities incorporated under the Faulkner Act, citizens have the right to initiate an ordinance. But Renée Steinhagen, executive director of New Jersey Appleseed, fears it may not be a “proper subject” for a ballot measure.

“There is a very good argument that term limits are inconsistent with state law,” Steinhagen said.

Based on that legal analysis, her organization has in the past declined to represent citizens groups seeking to initiate term-limit ordinances. In New Jersey, the qualifications for a candidate seeking municipal office are spelled out in both state and municipal law. “It does not set forth any qualifications other than residency and voter age,” Steinhagen said. “If a municipality passes a term limit, they are now imposing an additional requirement.”

This same argument was used by the Township of Morristown in 2021, the year Mayor Tim Dougherty sought a fourth consecutive term, which he ended up winning. Although the five petitioners in that case met the procedural requirements spelled out in the state statute, the petition was still rejected as “facially invalid.”

“The proposed ordinance would regulate the eligibility of persons for the office of the mayor and members of the Town Council by establishing election qualifications,” the letter reads.

Interest in term limits in municipal elections have seen a major resurgence. In 2016, 75 percent of U.S. voters said they supported congressional term limits. In the last two years alone, petitioners in Morristown and Piscataway sought to bring the issue to ballot. In Hoboken, then-councilman Ravi Bhalla ran for mayor in 2017 with the campaign promise to establish term limits, though has backed away from the issue since taking office. In 2019, West Orange Councilman Joe Krakoviak, refused to run for a third term in deference to a belief in term limits.

In the past, a number of different groups have championed term limits, including women, who believe it leads to more diverse representation, and conservatives, who believe it results in less fiscal waste, according to a Public Opinion Quarterly report. Today, voters are taking up the cause of limiting time in office as a way to dismantle machine politics, Steinhagen said. 

Nevertheless, she believes other election reforms could help citizens defeat machine politics, such as instituting rank choice voting. “If people really want term limits in local elections, they first need to get state legislation to enable it,” Steinhagen said.

The deadline to submit the petition to the Orange city clerk is August 18. Those wishing to sign the petition can reach out to a CTLO member, including Kweli Campbell, Ricky Contant, Derrick Henry, Marquiso Jean, India Williams, and Sharief Williams.

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