"Home rule"—the ability of local communities to govern themselves—is more illusory than real, given the edicts, mandates and orders flowing from entrenched and uncaring bureaucracies. Caught in the spiderweb of state regulations, the best that can be expected of local governments is to keep infringements on individual rights to a minimum. This has been done by few mayors as effectively as Victor R. Armellino, of Matawan, New Jersey.
An independent, Armellino became the first elected official in the country to endorse Libertarian Party presidential nominee Roger MacBride, on Feb. 14, 1976. He made it clear that his endorsement was on the basis of the 1976 LP Platform—on principles, not on style, personality, or "charisma." Armellino is now under serious consideration for the LP's gubernatorial nomination in 1977.
Born in Matawan in 1919 and a lifelong borough resident, Armellino was elected to the Borough Council in 1947. He served three terms until 1956, the last five years as council president. In 1969, he successfully challenged the GOP organization in that year's primary election, was elected mayor—and won reelection in 1971 by defeating his Democratic opponent by more than 3-to-1. Denied renomination by the Republicans because of philosophical differences, Armellino was reelected in 1975 as an Independent with 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Armellino's philosophy has undergone a dramatic change since 1969, when his platform promised borough voters the enactment of more ordinances. By contrast, he ran without a platform in 1975, responding to a League of Women Voters questionnaire that "that government is best which governs least." He has attempted to implement this libertarian principle, within the bounds imposed by the state capital of Trenton.
The Armellino administration has been good to the borough resident's pocketbook. The 1970 local tax rate was $1.40. In the face of massive inflation at the Federal level, it was reduced to 71 cents by 1975—a dramatic achievement, given also the restrictions and mandatory spending requirements imposed by the state.
Although the mayor votes only in case of a council tie, fiscal frugality can be traced directly to Armellino's influence. Close scrutiny reveals a direct relationship between the direction the tax rate took and the number of times the Armellino tie-breaking vote came into play the previous year. For example, on the 1974 council, three "progressive" Republicans frequently parted company on votes with an "Armellino Republican" and two Democrats. A year of this, combined with the mayor's insistence that each borough department cut its budget by at least 10 percent, resulted in the tax rate plunging 17 cents in 1975. The lack of his vote has resulted in less dramatic decreases, a stable tax rate or even minor increases.
As far as spending is concerned, Armellino regards the present all-Democratic council as "the worst I've ever worked with," and two Independents are seeking council seats this November with his support.
Next to low taxes, Armellino will be remembered most by borough residents for his uncompromising fight against the repressive Property Maintenance Code enacted by the 1973 council. Modeled after a similar measure in Plainfield, NJ, where many homes have been abandoned and taken over by the city, the code required an inspection each time ownership of residential property changed hands. Denial of entry to the inspector—without a search warrant—was punishable by a $200 fine. Between changes in ownership, inspections could be ordered on the basis of a petition signed by five neighbors. Here was a denial of property and privacy rights, with the prospect of neighbors spying against neighbors on behalf of the government. It was repealed on April 2, 1974 with the help of Armellino's tiebreaking vote.
State law requires communities to enact zoning codes. Under the circumstances, the only choices available at the local level are to follow natural developmental patterns or deliberately create non-conformities (called "upgrading" by its proponents). Matawan's Planning Board, appointed directly by the mayor without council confirmation, has favored the former approach. A plan by the 1973 council to increase residential lot-size requirements—in effect, confiscating buildable lots—was successfully exposed and defeated by Armellino and the board. The mayor suggested recently that a council-imposed prohibition of fast-food establishments be repealed to permit private development of corner properties now occupied by abandoned gas stations.
Armellino startled some residents in 1974 by cutting the ribbon marking the opening of a massage parlor on Main Street. He stated that he would vote against an ordinance offered by the 1975 council which would license and regulate massage parlors, but it was enacted by a vote of 4-to-1. Challenged in court and upheld, it has yet to be enforced.
The mayor has appointed women to every advisory board and committee in the borough. He has opposed the regimentation of teenagers through the freedom-stifling local mechanism of adult-supervised recreation, and fought proposals to replace private garbage collectors with municipal ones. In all, Armellino has made Matawan a much better place to live.