By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair has been ordered to turn over its list of residents’ email addresses and cellphone numbers to a committee of petitioners that is seeking to get a public question on the ballot to repeal the rent-control ordinance passed by the Township Council in April.
Judge Jeffrey Beacham agreed with the petitioners that due to social distancing restrictions during the pandemic it is impossible to circulate the petition by going door to door to get signatures to put it on the ballot. The municipality sought to block the use of its contact list, which it uses for similar public-purpose notifications.
A month ago, the group said it had gathered enough petition signatures to put the question on the ballot, but still wanted access to the township email list to gather more to ensure that result.
After the council passed the ordinance, a group of petitioners, which includes Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, filed for an injunction to put a stay on the ordinance, contending that gathering signatures during the pandemic would prove impossible. That injunction was approved and signed on April 17 by Beacham and temporarily prohibits the town from enforcing the provisions of the rent-control ordinance.
Petitioners need to obtain about 1,020 signatures, or 10 percent of the voter turnout in the last municipal election, to put the issue on the ballot. To be accepted, the signatures must be from registered voters only.
Because all signatures must be verified by the township clerk, petitioners usually submit more than the required number in case some will be rejected. With the difficulty of gathering signatures of registered voters due to COVID-19, the group wants even more signatures than would normally be submitted.
The petitioner’s attorney said Beacham’s order is the first time in New Jersey that a town has been ordered to hand over its email and circulation list as a way to reach voters for a referendum issue. New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act allows for personal information such as telephone numbers, home addresses and email addresses to be redacted.
“It is not uncommon to be turned down from a town when seeking emails,” said Charles X. Gormally, attorney for the committee of petitioners. Their argument, however, that during the pandemic email was the only way to gain the signatures was heard by the judge, he said.
The Tenants Organization of Montclair had lobbied for rent stabilization for over a year, contending new landlords were taking over their buildings and raising rents, in some cases by as much as 35 percent.
The ordinance, which limits annual increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors, was to take effect 20 days after its approval on April 27. The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum.
In May, with no rent stabilization law and in response to the pandemic, Montclair instituted a rent freeze, effective from May 1 to July 31. At the July 21 council meeting, the council introduced an amendment to extend the freeze until Dec. 31.