BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The petition to put rent control up for a referendum vote has been deemed insufficient by the Montclair Township Clerk.
On Sept. 23, a group of petitioners associated with Montclair Property Owners Association (MPOA) submitted 1,530 signatures electronically, said MPOA spokesperson Ron Simoncini. The petition needed 1,020 signatures from Montclair voters, or 15 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality at the last election, in order to be placed on the ballot for a special election.
In a notice of insufficiency dated Oct. 14 Angelese Bermúdez Nieves, the new clerk, stated that although 914 signatures were acceptable: “The petition lacks a total of 106 signatures of legal voters of the Township of Montclair to be deemed sufficient.”
The group has 10 days to amend the petition by filing a supplementary petition upon additional papers signed.
The clerk cited the following problems with the petition:
- 200 petition forms are signed by individuals not registered in the State of New Jersey Voter Registration System;
- 139 petition forms are signed by voters not registered with a residence address in the Township of Montclair;
- 55 petition forms are incomplete (i.e. missing name, residence address, and/or signature);
- 19 petition forms are spurious;
- 15 petition forms are duplicative;
- 8 petition forms are signed by individuals with a pending registration status in the State of New Jersey Voter Registration System;
- 6 petition forms are signed by individuals with a deleted/inactive registration status in the State of New Jersey Voter Registration System; and
- 4 petition forms are signed by individuals with no signature on record in the State of New Jersey Voter Registration System; and
- 168 petition forms have signatures of voters that did not match those on record in the State of New Jersey Voter Registration System.
Simoncini said that he believes Montclair’s rent control petition is the first in the state to use electronic signature gathering.
In April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing county and municipal clerks to accept initiative and referendum petitions electronically due to the pandemic. 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 called the rejection of the petition “Montclair’s version of the Hanging Chad.”
“This rejection is an attempt to frustrate the petitioners for political purposes during a time when the burden of signature collection is unthinkable and the processes around review are being made up as they go along.
“The preponderance of our signatories were reached via email or text message with a link to our online petition. They then signed with their mouse, mostly, or a stylus or a fingertip. When people go to the grocery store and they sign a screen pad with their finger or the stylus, that signature bears scant resemblance to the signature they would use on a check. The municipality knows that, and to apply a stickler standard to their signature or insignificant absences or portions of their addresses ignores that the intent of the voter was to sign the petition, and the signature should therefore be honored. The fact that we now have to disrupt 168 signatories because the clerk didn’t like their signature and an additional 55 people whose addresses were incomplete despite that they were all verified as registered voters in order to ask them to reverify their signature — or worse yet, mount another email and text message campaign to augment the signature count — is an intentional nuisance,” Simoncini said.
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 will be held in 40 to 60 days, according to documents provided by the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
Simoncini has said in the past 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.
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.
“We are in new territory due to the pandemic,” Beacham 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 people 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 that new landlords were taking over their buildings and raising rents, in some cases by as much as 35 percent. They accused the group of petitioners of using “tricky and duplicitous wording” to gather signatures.
“The landlord effort in Montclair is being orchestrated by a public relations professional who represents real estate companies, and makes his living off efforts to prevent, block, and rescind rent control in towns across New Jersey,” said AhavaFelicidad and Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair in a joint statement with a coalition group. “Perhaps it is not surprising, given the MPOA campaign’s lack of Montclair roots that the MPOA had more than 600 petition signatures rejected due to lack of authenticity.”
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.