A push for fair and democratic board elections in New Jersey got a major boost this past July when Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation that would codify a fair process for electing board members. The passage of the law also signals to all developers and community associations throughout the state that New Jersey values fair, transparent and accessible elections for all of its citizens. It was the culmination of a decade-long battle by homeowners from one particular New Jersey community who sought change in a governance structure that only favored a select few.
When we think of modern governance and our opportunities as citizens to participate, we still like to believe that our vote counts. Not only does this matter in a presidential election or mayoral runoff, but even in the most local of concerns: that of electing people to a board of trustees for our community association – the place we call home. Yet for years, this precise issue of owners being denied meaningful access to participate in their own governance has been the source of dispute in one community called Radburn, located in Fair Lawn.
Founded in 1929, Radburn boasts a community of over 3,000 people who reside in 469 residences of diverse style and architecture. Although Radburn’s planning was far ahead of its time, its governance structure – now almost 90 years old – is anachronistic. Radburn is a community where only those nominated by a nominating committee may run for most board seats. The catch? The nominating committee is controlled exclusively by the board. The owners are not members of the association. Only those who have served or are serving on the governing board are members of the Radburn association.
In 2006, a group of owners sought the aid of the courts in efforts to kick wide open the election doors long closed to only the select few already serving on the board, or their allies. Ultimately, though, an appellate court concluded in 2010 that nothing in Radburn’s bylaws contradicted any provision of New Jersey law. The court held that ‘[W]ithout a basis in legislation, it is beyond our authority to effect such a change in the relationships between community associations and their members.’”
Upset by this result, a number of Radburn residents turned to New Jersey State Senator Robert Gordon for help. In September 2016 Gordon introduced legislation that would democratize the process of electing members to an association’s governing board. Given the long history of being denied the ability to meaningfully participate in board elections, the Radburn residents sought a bill that would provide significant detail on the nominating, election and voting process.