By Joe Hoshaw, Jr.
Mayoral elections have been pretty ho-hum in Trenton the past decade. In fact, ever since first winning the job in 2001, Mayor Gerald Brown has run unopposed in re-election bids in 2003 and 2007.
From all appearances so far, this year might be a different story. At the very least we’ve certainly had more intrigue than usual in trying to learn who the candidates are going to be.
One way or another we should know the answer to that this month, since potential office-seekers have until 4 p.m. May 10 to file a petition with the required 40 signatures of registered voter to be eligible to have their names on the election ballot — and a three-day window (until May 13) to change their minds and opt out.
City Clerk Kyle Stack has been expressing her interest in running for mayor since last year, and was ready to put the process in motion earlier this year. But her potential candidacy was thrown into question when she learned that a 2010 change in the rules governing state pensioners might make it difficult if not impossible for her to serve in the position.
Brown said in February that he would not run for office — but with the caveat that he might reconsider that decision if no viable candidates step forward to seek the job.
Stack said she’s running, and she could very well fit the mayor’s definition of “viable ” in terms of qualifications, but her ability to serve in the job may not be totally clear by the time the filing deadline passes. That element of doubt, combined with his concern that some potentially unqualified candidate could file at the last minute and end up not having any opposition, was enough to convince Brown to rescind his earlier decision and run for a fourth term.
Stack, who has served as clerk since 1985, is planning to retire when her current term expires in November. She was forming plans to launch a mayoral bid in January when she learned that new rules implemented by the Municipal Employees Retirement System, which sanctions her pension, might preclude her from collecting that pension if she were to take on another governmental job in Trenton within two years of leaving her current post.
She believes there is uncertainty over the intent of the new rule and whether or not it should come into play for a part-time elected position that pays what is perceived by many as token compensation for meeting attendance. And while the new rule was put into place as a way to thwart double-dipping by state employees, she doesn’t believe the intent was to create financial hardship for people wanting to serve in low-paying elected positions — which, by the way, are decided publicly by a vote of the people.
The pension board, which has sought and received a legal opinion on the matter from an administrative law judge, is expected to review Stack’s request and perhaps provide clarity at its monthly meeting May 10-11. And, yes, also note that those dates coincide with the election filing deadline, further complicating matters from Brown’s perspective, since he likely wouldn’t know what the pension board’s stance was prior to having to turn in petitions to seek re-election. And he’s not convinced the matter will be fully resolved by the pension board’s decision.
Both Stack and Brown have filed their petitions to run for the office, and both say they are in it for the long haul. Stack, though optimistic that the pension board will rule in her favor, has said she likely would not be able to serve in the position, which pays a maximum of $12,500 annually, if she is not able to begin collecting her state pension. She said she would, however, be willing to forego the mayoral compensation if that were an option. She has indicated that a legal challenge might be a possibility also, should the pension board’s decision not clear the way for her to collect her pension if she’s elected mayor.
Brown, meanwhile, said he has no trepidation about serving as mayor for another four years, even though he was willing to forego that opportunity just a few months ago. Even in announcing his initial decision not to run, Brown expressed a reluctance to give up involvement on a number of efforts initiated by his administration. Now he’s hoping he won’t have to.
So, the way things are shaping up right now, we have a 10-year incumbent mayor and a popular longtime clerk with an intertwined network of friends and supporters set to square off in a campaign for the city’s top elected office.
I suppose it’s redundant at this point to say things could get interesting. Stay tuned.…
The mayor’s race isn’t the only race that might provide a little more interest than the last few city elections, which have been largely uneventful.
While City Assessor John Dahlquist is expected to seek re-election, Treasurer Randy Schoen is not. The treasurer’s office is getting some major changes this year as well, with the role of treasurer being converted from a full-time $72,000-a-year job to a part-time $7,000-a-year job. The day-to-day activities of the Treasurer’s Office will be handled by an appointed deputy treasurer instead. Former Councilman Michael McCullough has filed petitions to run for part-time treasurer.
With Stack stepping aside as clerk, longtime Deputy Clerk Trish Gearhart has filed petitions to run for the post.
All three incumbent council members whose terms expire this year – Dan Gillespie, Bill LeFevre and Mary Ellen McLeod – have obtained petitions from the City Clerk’s office, but none had turned them in as of press time.
All of the city elected positions are four-year terms.
One other bit of trivia to emerge from this still fledgling campaign season: Stack last month became the first mayoral candidate in the city’s history to announce their candidacy via an online social media post, putting the word out to her Facebook friends on April 22.
Joe Hoshaw Jr. is editor and co-publisher of the Trenton Trib. Email him at email@example.com.