BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The township has lost its fight to stop a group that wants to repeal Montclair’s rent-control ordinance from getting residents’ cellphone numbers and emails.
Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham had given the township until Wednesday, Sept. 2, to hand over the lists of emails and phone numbers to a committee of petitioners seeking to put a question on the ballot on whether to repeal the ordinance.
Beacham 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, the petitioners’ attorney said.
Township attorney Ira Karasick filed for a stay of Beacham’s ruling and then filed an appeal, arguing that it would lead to an invasion of the privacy of those residents who had given the information for township notifications only.
On Sept. 3, the judge denied the stay and ordered the town to turn over the lists by Sept. 4. The appeal was also denied, according to township officials.
In response, the Mayor and Township Council sent out a notice saying they are “outraged” by the judge’s decision, but have since handed over the lists to the group.
“The township’s intense efforts to protect you from a blatant invasion of your privacy from this group, called the Montclair Property Owners Association, were summarily rejected by the judge. You may be contacted by someone asking you to sign a petition concerning rent control. Please be aware that the petition seeks to repeal Montclair’s reasonable rent protections and put our tenants at risk. While the petition is not unlawful, it is not authorized or supported in any way by the township,” the notice read.
Now the petitioners say they plan to bring a claim against the township for the email of what they called “abusive actions” and “political gaslighting” by the mayor and council “to engage in a campaign to discourage participation in the referendum process and to promote its own self-serving agenda.”
In a statement issued on Sept. 4 by the petitioners’ attorney he said: “We will assert a claim for punitive damages and interference with the plaintiffs’ rights along with a claim of libel and slander for the outright lies in this piece [the email sent to residents by the town] including an accusation that our clients are invading residents’ privacy,”
“The township is clearly trying to poison the well in advance of any communication from the committee of petitioners who are exercising their substantive rights of referendum. It is an embarrassment for anyone who took an oath to uphold the constitution and the laws of this state to behave in this manner.”
The ordinance was approved in April but was never put into effect. The petitioners, who include Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, soon after 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 prohibited the town from enforcing the ordinance’s provisions.
The group needs 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.
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 has said.
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.
“The governor allowed a mechanism for the petitioners to gather the signatures,” Karasick said.
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 petitioners’ attorney, said Beacham’s Aug. 28 ruling was the first time in New Jersey that a town has been ordered to hand over its email and cellphone lists as a way to reach voters for a referendum. The state’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.
Karasick said that the petitioners could have easily obtained a public mailing list of registered voters 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.
AhavaFelicidad of the Tenants Organization said: “The [group against rent control] has demonstrated that it not only disrespects tenants’ rights, but every resident’s right to privacy concerning their personal information.”
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.
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.
Township officials suggested that residents can contact the township attorney if “contacted more than twice or are harassed in any way” by the petitioners group.