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BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Montclair plans to appeal a judge’s ruling that the township must turn over its lists of residents’ email addresses and cellphone numbers to a group opposed to the rent-control ordinance approved in April.

Township Attorney Ira Karasick said he would file the appeal of Judge Jeffrey Beacham’s ruling on Monday, Aug. 31. Karasick said he has already filed a motion to stay the ruling until an appellate court reviews the case.

On Friday, Aug. 28, Beacham gave the township until Wednesday, Sept. 2, to turn over the lists.

“We will do everything we can to get this order reversed, to not supply this politically motivated group with these emails and cellphones,” Karasick said. “It’s a complete disregard of privacy [of those] who gave us this information for township notifications only.”

Beacham gave the township five days to hand over the lists to a committee of petitioners seeking to put a question on the Nov. 3 ballot on whether to repeal the rent-control ordinance. He agreed with the petitioners’ assertion that due to social distancing restrictions during the pandemic it would be impossible to circulate a petition by going door to door to get signatures to put it on the ballot, the petitioners’ attorney said.

The lists would include 14,544 residents who receive Swift 911 alerts, 6,312 who receive emergency alert texts and 3,072 who receive newsletter alerts via email, Karasick said, adding he doubted five days would be enough to gather them. 

The petitioners, who include Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, 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.

After the Township Council passed the rent-control ordinance the petitioners filed for an injunction to put a stay on it, 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 ordinance’s provisions.

In April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing county and municipal clerks to accept initiative and referendum petitions electronically, and allowing signatures for these petitions to be collected electronically. Handwritten signatures obtained prior to the effective date of the executive order would also be accepted.

“We are all working under constraint of COVID-19. The governor allowed a mechanism for the petitioners to gather the signatures. But instead they whined to the courts even with the governor’s order relaxing the terms,” Karasick said of the petitioners.

Over a month ago, the petitioners said they had gathered enough signatures to put the question on the ballot, but still wanted access to the township email list to gather more to ensure that result.

Because all signatures must be verified by the township clerk, petitioners usually submit more than the required number in case some are 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.

Charles X. Gormally, the petitioner’s attorney, said Beacham’s ruling was the first time in New Jersey that a town has been ordered to hand over its email and cellphone circulation lists 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 kept confidential by government agencies.

“It is not uncommon to be turned down from a town when seeking emails,” Gormally said. The

petitioners’ argument, however, that during the pandemic email was the only way to gain signatures was accepted by the judge, he said.

Karasick disagreed with that argument, saying that the group could have obtained a public mailing list of registered voters easily from the Essex County clerk.

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 rent 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 law so residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum. If the town hands over the lists, the injunction on rent control is stopped and the petitioners then have 20 days to submit their signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

Karasick is concerned that if the town is made to hand over the lists it will discourage residents from signing up for alerts, and that some residents may opt out. 

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.