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Camden school and zoning board decisions reveal that ‘home rule’ has limits in the city

In Camden, the school board will soon be elected, rather than appointed. But the district remains under state control. And the city zoning board recently discovered its decisions are subject to an extraordinary veto provided under the separate state oversight of City Hall. So much for "home rule" in Camden.

Camden activists Kevin Barfield, Mo'neke Ragsdale, R. Mangaliso Davis, Vida Neil, and  Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad at a press conference Friday thanking city voters for "winning back democracy" in a Nov. 6 referendum, the result of which will be restoration of the direct election of Camden school board members.
Camden activists Kevin Barfield, Mo'neke Ragsdale, R. Mangaliso Davis, Vida Neil, and Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad at a press conference Friday thanking city voters for "winning back democracy" in a Nov. 6 referendum, the result of which will be restoration of the direct election of Camden school board members.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The prospect that Camden will resume directly electing school board members next year is most welcome.

But the fact that state supervision of the school district will continue is an unwelcome reminder of how long  the city's independence has been limited by political and economic circumstances.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's already a conflict about whether the first Camden school board vote in years ought to be held next spring, or concurrently with the general election next November. Three terms on the nine-seat body, members of which have been mayoral appointees under the state's complete 2013 takeover of the district, are set to expire in 2019.

But no matter when the election is held or who is elected, the board's role will remain advisory only, at least for now. All decision-making power will continue to rest with state-appointed acting Superintendent Katrina McCombs.

In Camden,  it seems, home rule comes with an asterisk.

Consider: Mayor Frank Moran supported what struck me as a confusingly framed and worded Nov. 6 ballot question about the school board's future. By an overwhelming margin, city voters rejected the proposal to keep the status quo,  thus ending mayoral appointments and paving the way for direct elections beginning in 2019.

"The people have spoken to the powers that be," said former City Councilman Ali Sloan-El. "They should listen.

"I hope the school board referendum sent a message to the mayor to come back to us — to come home to the people," he added. "The people should have the right to govern themselves."

Moran did not respond to my requests for an interview.

Sloan-El also criticized the mayor's move to nullify the city zoning board's decision granting a variance for and allowing the construction of a controversial digital billboard just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the Delaware River waterfront.

The veto, announced Nov. 5, was hailed by some as a victory for the grassroots, but Sloan-El said it reflected Moran's support for "millionaires" seeking to make money off the city.

Either way, the veto was an exercise of an extraordinary mayoral power made available under a 2002 state law that put Trenton in control of City Hall. In other words, Moran was able to overturn a decision by eight city residents who sit on the zoning board because elements of Trenton's 16-year-old takeover of the municipal government he now heads will remain in effect until 2020.

The veto — welcomed by residents in the surrounding neighborhood but galling to others inside the city — suggests how much power over Camden's affairs remains under the influence of people who don't live there. Billboard opponents included Liberty Property Trust, a nationwide development firm with headquarters in Malvern, and the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a stand-alone, semiprivate organization that has become the city's de facto redevelopment agency.

Moran is hardly an outsider. But his political career has been shepherded by the Camden County Democratic organization, making him vulnerable to criticism of being under the thumb of George E. Norcross 3d, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.

"It is clear that [Moran] is not his own man," billboard company owner Drew Katz was quoted as saying after the veto.

Lewis Katz, his late father, had been an owner of the parent company of the Inquirer and Daily News at the time of his death in 2014 and was sometimes a Norcross ally and at other times a rival. Drew Katz told the Tap into Camden website that Moran "has chosen to side with those who receive tax credits and give nothing back" to city residents.

That seemed to some (me included) as a reference to the array of developers Norcross, and hefty state incentives, have been instrumental in attracting to the waterfront and downtown.

"While George does not know to whom that statement applies, it clearly does not apply to him, as [he] has been one of Camden's largest cheerleaders and benefactors," Dan Fee, a spokesperson for Norcross. said by email Friday.

The younger Katz has described the 16-story billboard as consistent with the philanthropic legacy of his dad, who was born and raised in the city. He said billboard proceeds after expenses would underwrite in perpetuity the Camden Charitable Funding Project, a foundation set up to disburse grants to qualified Camden nonprofit organizations.

But Moran's veto characterized the billboard as "a substantial detriment to the public good" — mainly for its potential negative impact on waterfront and neighborhood redevelopment.

The veto was made from "a development perspective," said activist and educator Keith Benson, president of the 1,200-member union representing Camden school district teachers. "Nonprofits are always strapped for cash and are essential [service providers] to people who live here. By the mayor saying no, a lot of people have missed out on opportunities."

As for the school board, "the election should be in the spring," said Benson.

"I know the game they're playing. They want the advantage of bracketing [Norcross-supported] board candidates" with other party candidates on the November ballot, he added.

McCombs — a proud product of the city school system — has not yet decided when the election should be held, district spokesperson Maita Soukup said, adding that the matter may well come up at the Nov. 20 meeting of the board.

No doubt a lot of folks will be there to advise the superintendent how best to proceed. Let's hope she listens.