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Local Self Government In New Jersey


From Great Britain, American colonist inherited governmental forms and customs, and the tradition of limited local self-government. Among the British institutions transplanted to America are the county and the town, along with the principal local government officials such as the councilman, the constable, and the sheriff. At the time the American colonies were founded, Great Britain, more than any other European country, had established the custom that local affairs should be managed by local people and not by officials of the central government. As one of the original 13 English colonies, New Jersey's English settlers established the English local government system of counties as agencies of the sovereign and chartered municipalities once the colonial government was established. In towns and townships residents gathered at an annual town meeting, as in other New England states, to make appropriations to meet their needs.


Local self governance is the "exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a local government's affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which residents and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences. Local government public bodies are corporate and politic with perpetual succession comprised of municipal residents exercising public and essential local government functions. Local governments are necessarily continuing concerns. Local governments are creatures of the State with the power to enforce their own laws. In New Jersey local municipal governments are general purpose in character, are formed at their own request, and govern residents within incorporated areas.


New Jersey's Constitution, unlike most state constitutions, does not provide for the organization and powers of cities, counties, and other units of local government. However, the Legislature acted early to create a general system of government for local units. Under the provisions of an act of 1798, New Jersey Laws 1798, p.289, each township was constituted a "body politic and corporate in law" with specified powers. No uniform body of law, comparable to that applicable to other types, exists for cities. City legislation authenticating various city governments continued to be adopted for years through validating acts which resulted in a diverse set of statutes relating to city officers and functions. Prior to 1875, boroughs usually were created by special act of the Legislature and were governed by the provisions of individual charters. The constitutional prohibition against special or local legislation negated this approach and led to the enactment of a general borough law in 1878, New Jersey Laws 1878, p.403. Further, the classification of cities and boroughs was provided for by law, New Jersey Laws, 1882, p.47 and 1883, p.157. Legislation also was passed establishing a general pattern of county government throughout the State in the same act (see New Jersey Laws 1798, page 270). Finally, the Home Rule Act, P.L.1917, c.152, indicated that it is the intent of the Legislature to give all municipalities the fullest and most complete powers possible over internal affairs for local self-government. The act constituted a revision of many existing laws relating to municipalities; it was designed to confer broad general and regulatory powers. As a result of the 1917 law, with subsequent amendments, New Jersey municipalities may avail themselves of a common body of powers conferred for local purposes.


Article IV of the New Jersey Constitution contains many of the New Jersey Constitution's statements concerning municipal government. These statements have for the most part been implemented by specific grants of statutory authority.

Article IV, section VI, paragraph 2, of the New Jersey Constitution permits the Legislature to enact general laws under which municipalities, other than counties, may adopt zoning ordinances limiting and restricting to specified districts buildings and structures, according to their construction, and the nature and extent of their use, and the nature and extent of the uses of land, and the exercise of such authority is deemed to be within the police power of the State.

Article IV, section VI, paragraph 3, permits municipalities, to take or otherwise acquire an interest in private property for any public use, so long as the owner of the property involved in the taking receives just compensation.

The most important clause in Article IV for analyzing the powers of local government in New Jersey is section 7, paragraph 11. It reads as follows:

"The provisions of this Constitution and of any law concerning municipal corporations formed for local government, or concerning counties, shall be liberally construed in their favor. The powers of counties and such municipal corporations shall include not only those granted in express terms but also those of necessary or fair implication, or incident to the powers expressly conferred, or essential thereto, and not inconsistent with or prohibited by this Constitution or by law."

The protections afforded in the prohibition against the legislature's passage of any special act regulating the internal affairs of a municipality except as permitted by the Constitution in Article IV, section 7, paragraph 9 is not reflected in statutory law.

Section 9 states that "The Legislature shall not pass any private, special or local laws: ... (5) Creating, increasing or decreasing the emoluments, term or tenure rights of any public officers or employees. ... (12) Appointing local officers or commissions to regulate municipal affairs. (13) Regulating the internal affairs of municipalities formed for local government and counties, except as otherwise in this Constitution provided."

The following section, however, paragraph 10, which allows municipalities and counties to petition for special legislation, is implement by N.J.S.A.1:6-10 et seq..