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BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.com

A New Jersey Superior Court has extended rent-control petitioners’ 10-day period to “cure” the signatures on their petition to force Montclair to put rent control to a public vote.

On Sept. 23, a group of petitioners associated with the Montclair Property Owners Association submitted 1,530 signatures electronically to get rent control on the ballot. The petition needed 1,020 validated signatures from Montclair voters, or 15 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality at the last election, to have the question placed on the ballot in a special election. 

In a notice of insufficiency dated Oct. 14, township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves stated that although 914 signatures were acceptable, the petition was short 106 signatures. She rejected 616 signatures based on signatures, addresses, registration status or incompleteness. The group had 10 days to amend the petition by filing  a supplementary petition. 

But on Oct. 19 the petitioners filed for injunctive relief. The judge called a hearing for the next day when he placed a stay on the 10-day period giving the group more time to cure the rejected petition. 

In April, after Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing county and municipal clerks to accept referendum petitions electronically and to allow the signatures to be collected electronically, the signatories were reached via email or text message with a link to an online petition. They then signed with their mouse, a stylus or a fingertip. The group argued that those signatures rarely look similar to a pen-and-paper signature. 

“The committee asserted in a preliminary hearing with Judge Jeffrey Beacham that the signature review process was arbitrary and capricious and did not consider the variances introduced by electronic, rather than conventional, petition collection,” said Ron Simoncini, executive director of MPOA.

Township Attorney Ira Karasick argued that the defects the clerk based her rejections on went beyond signatures and included addresses outside of Montclair and from people not registered to vote. 

“The clerk acknowledges that because a signature signed on a screen or with a mouse or a finger would likely differ from one signed with a pen in a book, she gave broad latitude to the appearance of the signature when comparing it to the book. Nevertheless, she notes that it is both feasible and possible to provide an acceptable signature as demonstrated by the 914 she found valid,” Krasick wrote to the court. 

The clerk rejected 168 petition forms based on signatures of voters that did not match those on record in the state’s voter registration system.

Simoncini said he believes Montclair’s rent-control petition is the first in the state to use electronic signature-gathering.  

Freezing the commencement of the 10-day cure period for the petition sets the stage for a hearing and potential precedent on referendum standards during the pandemic, he said.  

In the interim, the committee of petitioners continues to collect signatures to gain certification of the petition for the ballot.  The MPOA will also contact those signers whose signatures were rejected.

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. Beacham approved the injunction on April 17, thereby prohibiting Montclair from enforcing the ordinance’s provisions. The group has asserted that a thorough examination of the economic impact of rent control is needed, and that it mistrusts the council for passing the law the week of the statewide shutdown. 

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 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.

Both parties are expected back in court on Nov. 16.