By Jaimie Julia Winters
The group of petitioners associated with the Montclair Property Owners Association [MPOA] has filed its petition with the Montclair Town Clerk to put the Rent Control Ordinance up for a referendum vote.
It will not make the November ballot, however, as mail-in ballots have already been printed and are due to go out the first week in October.
The group gathered 1,530 signatures electronically, said MPOA spokesperson Ron Simoncini. The petition needed 1,020 signatures from Montclair voters — equal in number to at least 15 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality at the last election at which members of the General Assembly were elected — in order to be placed on the ballot for a special election.
The petition was sent to the township yesterday, Sept. 23, and again this morning.
Montclair Township Attorney Ira Karasick confirmed that the town had received the petition, but had not yet reviewed it.
“I don’t know how many signatures the petitions purports to have, nor how many valid petitions have been received,” he said.
The clerk has 20 days from the day of submission to certify the petition. If the petition is rejected due to signatures, the petitioners have 10 days to cure it. Once the petition is resubmitted, the clerk has five days to review it. From there, if the petition is certified, the clerk passes it to the council. If the council does not rework the ordinance or if the petitioners reject it, a special election would be held in 40 to 60 days, according to documents provided by the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
Simoncini said that the group’s intention is to spare the township the expense of a special election, and instead hopes that the council will work with the group to amend the ordinance.
“We asked each member of the council, including the mayor, to engage in a dialogue with us about rent control. They refused, saying it was too late, when in actuality it was before the second reading when amendments are heard under Montclair’s form of government. At every step in the process we have attempted to obtain amendments to the ordinance that might have been sufficient to avoid litigation and referendum,” said Simoncini.
Montclair’s township council approved the rent control ordinance in April, but the ordinance never went into effect. The group of petitioners, which includes Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, soon after filed for an injunction to put a stay on the ordinance. The petitioners contended that it would be impossible to gather signatures during the pandemic. Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham approved the injunction on April 17, thereby prohibiting Montclair 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. The order also allowed signatures for these petitions to be collected electronically. Handwritten signatures obtained prior to the effective date of the executive order would also be accepted.
Simoncini believes the rent control petition is the first in the state to use the electronic signature gathering.
“We are in new territory due to the pandemic,” he said, referring to both the gathering of signatures electronically and mostly mail-in elections.
In August, the group had argued that going door-to-door to solicit signatures was impossible during the pandemic and filed a motion in Superior Court to compel the township to hand over the lists of emails and phone numbers of about 23,000 used for emergency alerts to the committee. The judge ordered the township to do so on Sept. 2.
Residents have been receiving text messages and emails with a link to the petition. The judge limited the texts and emails from the group to two per an address from that list. The group also purchased lists of emails and cell phone numbers, which could overlap. Simoncini said the group will continue to solicit signatures for the next 30 days.
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.
Past rent stabilization referendums have proved unsuccessful in Montclair. In 1979, a rent control plan was voted down by residents, by 62 percent. After the Bay Street Station was built in 1981, a housing survey conducted concluded that rent stabilization be investigated. A special referendum failed again in 1986. In 2004, a recommendation for rent stabilization was pulled from the Montclair Affordable Housing Strategy Plan.
The legality of Montclair’s newly passed rent control ordinance — how it was passed and whether it is enforceable — is still in the courts. And if it goes to referendum, it could also be rejected by the voters, said Simoncini. In that case, it would be another three years before the council could revisit another rent control ordinance.
“We acknowledge that there were unconscionable rent increases for some tenants and expressed our commitment to work to prevent that in the future. We don’t think rent control is the best solution, but most property owners live with rent control in other towns and it could work in Montclair, as well. But this ordinance is an inexcusably poorly conceived and crafted document that the tenants themselves should object to. Our intent is to create a rational approach to unconscionable rent increases,” said Simoncini.