Local Autonomy in New Jersey in Order to Better Represent the State’s Diversity


At the mass level, democracy has innate problems. In France, a permanent narrow majority defines the reality of everyone in the state – at all levels – because it is a centralized, unitary state. There is no real autonomy at the regional or local levels. There are no differences in laws amongst the regions, because the regional governments do not have legislative authority. The preferences of a small majority are imposed on the entirety of the nation, with a few exceptions, such as the partly autonomous region of Corsica.

Even if we reject the idea of national democracy and embrace regional autonomy – like decentralized unitary government in Italy, or federalism in the US – there is a still a significant problem. A narrow and permanent majority or even a narrow and temporary majority can rule the state over the objections of a large permanent minority of voters. In New York, New York City voters, allied with urban and suburban voters, consistently outvote the rural and suburban voters. Because New York is a unitary and essentially centralized state, they impose their will upon these other people on a consistent basis. Delaware has a similar problem, leading to very dangerous and corrosive divisions between Northern and Southern parts of the state.

Even where a state is not riven by the urban-rural divide or ideological divisions between regions, local rivalries can deeply affect unitary sub-national regions, like we see in California. The state is unwieldy, in bad financial shape, and riven by interregional rivalries between Northern and Southern California. As a result, the state is extremely dysfunctional for a sub-national unit in a first-world liberal democracy.

New Jersey has a number of these types of problems. We have clear sub-regions: North, Central, and South. We also have a clear ideological divide, largely reflecting county boundaries. So, Middlesex County is Central Jersey but Democratic, and Monmouth is Central Jersey but Republican. The rural-urban divide is complicated by having different kinds of suburbs in New Jersey, and few states are more defined by their suburbs than New Jersey. 

New Jersey has “urban suburbs” like Edison and Woodbridge that are densely populated and could be described as cities without a true center. This is especially true of Edison, whose city center broke away and became its own separate borough. Urban suburbs are usually called townships in New Jersey, but not all townships are urban suburbs. In fact, there are plenty of rural townships in New Jersey that would not be considered suburbs at all. 

There are also townships with a small urban center but large rural hinterland, reminiscent of a medieval Italian city-state. Toms River is one of these townships. This type of suburb tends to be very different, leaning politically in a more conservative direction. This could be called ex urban or perhaps suburban small town would be better. I prefer rural-suburban.

These considerations show that New Jersey is culturally subdivided into numerous parts. Any attempt to govern the state in the unitary and centralized manner in which has been used to govern is flawed because of this essential and fundamental diversity. 

As a result, it is best to have a system of local autonomy within New Jersey. Under the current system, counties and municipalities only have the autonomy given to them by the state, which is revocable by state statute. Unlike the states, counties and municipalities have no inherent power under the New Jersey Constitution like states have under the U.S. Constitution. This is typical amongst the states.

If we accept that we need some kind of local autonomy to address the problems of diversity and representation that are quintessentially New Jerseyan, we realize that there are numerous problems that need to be solved in order to erect a workable system of local autonomy. In fact, there are six problems to solve problems of diversity and representation:

  1. Number: how many divisions we need to represent our people appropriately without being unworkable

  2. Symmetry: to ensure that no one regional unit is too powerful or has more legal powers than any other

  3. Enactment: convincing the state government to give up ower to local governments.

  4. Substance: what powers to give the local governments in question and how. This includes which governments to give power to; in this case, the counties and not the municipalities that will benefit from local autonomy

  5. Authority: we need to know who will have influence over the municipalities and in what ways and how to visualize the local autonomy scheme

  6. Form: dealing with the fact that county governments each have the ability to choose their own form, which would lead to multiple forms of autonomous governments for the state government to deal with on a regular basis

Twenty-one counties – in New Jersey’s case – are not too many units for a local autonomy scheme to work and are certainly enough units to not create a rival with the state government in any of the sub-state regional units. If this system were applied to other states with many counties, a new level of government incorporating multiple or even many counties might be necessary since a hundred little autonomous governments would be unworkable. Likewise, some states would need their counties to be broken up for this system to work.

It is essential that each unit be about the same in terms of power or not so powerful that it can gain either undue influence in state government or an undue competitive advantage with its fellow autonomous units. In terms of legal mechanisms, all autonomous units must be equal. This solves a problem in regional autonomy that often occurs within first-level administrative divisions with autonomy (especially non-federal ones) and even in international organizations with some supranational institutions like the European Union.

Social policy has divided New Jerseyans in recent years, but the lack of obvious civil rights protections may lead to tensions on the other side of the political spectrum. Counties and municipalities need to know that they can take on bold social initiatives to enhance civil rights without being preempted by the state. For example, there needs to be more protections for privacy at work as well an anti-discrimination laws protecting socio-economic status and ideology. However, the state law does not properly protect the privacy of everyone from intrusion by their bosses and allows for discrimination against poor people and various mainstream ideologies like pro-choicism, pro-lifism, democratic socialism, and libertarianism.

Ultimately, there are so many reasons that local governments would want some autonomy across the political spectrum that most counties and the municipalities within them would support. With that kind of support from local government and the people, the state government would be willing to part with a small part of its authority. The State Legislature would go along with it, but the Governor would be harder to convince. Eventually, though a popular, transparent socio-political movement with the support of the State Legislatures, county legislatures, municipalities and the people would overwhelm his resistance and solve the problem of enactment.

The biggest problem is the problem of substance: what to actually give the counties as newly autonomous units of New Jersey. What is too much autonomy? What is too little? Do we rework the whole Constitution to create a New Jersey Federation? Do we give counties more autonomy without any real sovereignty? Howe do we achieve all of the proper balances?

Agreeing to disagree is impossible when the majority opinion wins over your deeply-held belief in an all-or-nothing statewide conflict of values. However, by creating mechanisms and rules for county-based values, we can get the state government back to important issues that are being mired right now in controversial social issues. Social issues should be decided by true geographical communities that know and understand each other, not on a state-wide basis.

One exception to the rule of not having big changes not directly related to local autonomy is that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision barring local governments from funding the rebuilding of churches for emergency or historical purposes would have to be constitutionally overturned. Right now, that provision would stand in the way of one important area of local autonomy that is important in the area of substance.

The state will be allowed, thorough this amendment to support churches and other religious institutions in strictly historical restoration and emergency rebuilding purposes where similarly situated secular buildings are affected instead of the current constitutional state of discrimination against religious institutions. 

As for the counties’ powers, they would be delegated by the constitution in a way that only future constitutional amendments could reverse. Counties, however, would also be entities of the state as they currently are. They would neither be federal entities as the states are nor merely creatures of the state, as counties and municipalities in New Jersey and the other states currently are, but something in between.

Among the enumerated powers of the counties would be the ability to keep the sale of marijuana illegal within the county (and all of its municipalities), the ability to require abortion clinics to be separate from facilities receiving public funding, the ability to enforce increased protections for disabled people, both related to an unrelated to physician-assisted suicide, and certain civil rights capabilities. Among the civil rights capabilities of the county, the local autonomous government may protect more protected classes of persons but cannot interfere with the state or federal government’s protection of individuals. Thus, a county can outlaw discrimination against people for socio-economic reasons and ideology but cannot interfere with the state’s protection of civil rights in any way. The county can protect disabled people more than the state, even requiring more safeguards against coerced “voluntary” death due to the statewide physician-assisted suicide law, but it cannot simply disregard the state law. The counties would also be able to mandate affirmative action in county colleges for uncovered vulnerable groups, such as Italian Americans. 

With all of these problems solved, we thus have our proposal for local autonomy in New Jersey. The counties would gain some control over the constituent municipalities within their borders, but the state would still be the ultimate overlord of the municipalities. Additionally, the state would have less summary power over the counties but would still be supreme to them in most things. Counties would have a list of enumerated, non-revocable powers in addition to their current powers. Their revocable powers can be preempted by state statute, but their non-revocable powers would only be able to be overridden by state constitutional amendment.