Say Central Jersey exists, and many New Jerseyans will perk up. Try to include Union County in such a jurisdiction and, well — strong opinions will be had.
Such was the case Friday when New Jersey Association of Counties executive director John Donnadio unintentionally set off a kerfuffle when he announced two new groups aimed at having counties work more closely on regional issues.
The two new groups would be modeled after the Southern New Jersey County Commissioners Association, which has been in existence for 20 years and has created a strong network among county commissioners, administrators, constitutional officers and other county professionals.
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The new groups would be the Northern New Jersey County Commissioners Association and the Central New Jersey County Commissioners Association
Wait, Central Jersey?
It was music to the ears of many residents in the middle portion of New Jersey where there was growing consensus that this location could, just possibly, be considered a central area in the Garden State. (Maybe.)
The existence of Central Jersey gained backing from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — a resident of Middletown in Monmouth County, which is pretty much as middle of the state as you can be — who declared in 2019 that the region does, in fact, exist.
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NJAC naming Central Jersey might have been a nothingburger — until it went ahead and defined its territory as including Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset and Union counties.
And Twitter went wild.
Some on social media said it would have been more accurate to include Ocean County, or at least the northern swath of it, in Central Jersey. (For those keeping track, however, Ocean County has been in the association’s southern New Jersey counties for two decades.)
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And a sizable contingent of Union County residents balked at the idea that they would be considered anything but North Jersey.
The purpose of the county groups, however, is much less controversial. The groups allow officials in neighboring counties to network, share innovative ideas and advocate for or against legislation that will impact them.
NJAC, which lobbies on behalf of counties, has the ear of lawmakers, but having that local support helps, Donnadio said.
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“They really listen when their local officials weigh in. That’s the underlying goal for me. It enhances our grassroots advocacy,” he said.
But how in the world did Union County — home of Elizabeth and Plainfield and Linden, as well as a portion of Newark Liberty International Airport — end up in Central Jersey?
No, Union County was not kidnapped by its Central Jersey brethren, Donnadio said. So, no, North Jersey counties didn’t reject Union County from its club.
Rather the decision came down to Donnadio, who himself was born just to the north in Essex County and grew up in Union County. Donnadio always thought he was in North Jersey while growing up in Union County, but when looking at the map anew, he saw something different.
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“When I sat down to look at the maps, it looked like it fit perfectly to me,” he said. “I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. Union County looks like it belongs in the central part.”
Donnadio did concede a bigger part of the decision placing Union County in Central Jersey was its political makeup.
Part of the effectiveness of the Southern New Jersey County Commissioners Association is that the county commissioners are pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, Donnadio said. That allows members to set aside politics and focus solely on what is best for their region and counties to operate effectively overall.
Placing Democratic-heavy Union County in North Jersey alongside fellow blue counties like Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties would upset the bipartisan balance of both groups.
Like it or not, that’s how Union County became part of Central Jersey, at least when it comes to NJAC.
And maybe don’t ask Donnadio about pork roll. Your blood pressure might not be able to take it.
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Susanne Cervenka covers Monmouth County government and property tax issues, winning several state and regional awards for her work. She’s covered local government for 18 years, with stops in Ohio and Florida before arriving in New Jersey in 2013. Contact her at @scervenka; 732-643-4229; [email protected]