By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Rent control can go into effect in Montclair without first going to voters, an Essex County judge decided Friday, Jan. 15.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham upholds Municipal Clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves’ rejection of both a petition and a supplementary petition by the Montclair Property Owners Association landlord group, which hoped to put the matter on the ballot. It will allow the township to implement a rent control ordinance first passed in April of last year.
But the landlord group plans to appeal, and to seek a stay that would keep the ordinance from going into effect while it does.
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, 2020. The 20-day buffer is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum, which the landlord group ultimately did.
However citing signature-gathering difficulties during a pandemic when circulators could not go door-to-door, a judge granted a stay following the filing of an injunction request by the petitioners.
The petitioners were the first in the state to conduct an electronic signature-gathering, permitted due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, and on Sept. 23 submitted 1,530 signatures to the township electronically. 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 in order to have the question placed on the ballot in a special election. Bermúdez Nieves validated 914 signatures on the first submission in October.
Short by 106 signatures, an amended petition was forwarded to her on Dec. 7, with 164 “cured” and new e-signatures.
After spending 20 hours with an assistant going over the signatures, on Dec. 14, Bermúdez Nieves rejected the petition, on the basis of 77 signatures being defective. According to her certification of insufficiency, 10 signees were not registered to vote in New Jersey, one was not a resident of Montclair, one had an incomplete form, nine were accepted in the first submission, 24 were “spurious,” five were duplicates, and 27 signatures did not match records on file with the state.
Ron Simoncini of the Montclair Property Owners Association said he was able to certify 20 of the 27 signatures rejected, and provided the court with an affidavit.
On Dec. 4, the group filed a brief asking an Essex County Superior Court judge to compel the clerk to certify the first petition and submit it to the Township Council for further proceedings, saying the clerk’s ‘methodology’ for examining e-signatures done with a finger or a mouse by comparing them to signatures in voters books was flawed.
The group’s attorney, Charles Gormally, argued that since the township has possession of phone numbers and emails of petition signers, the clerk should have reached out to the residents whose signatures were rejected, to allow them to be “cured.”
Beacham rejected the group’s request based on the “large number” of signatures the clerk did accept, the fact that she dedicated 20 hours and retained an assistant to aid in the process, and that she exercised her judgment to the best of her ability. Beecham said the clerk was not required to reach out to signers because it was not an election.
Simoncini said the landlords’ group will appeal Beacham’s ruling.
“Based on the clerk’s actions and lack of action, any cynical governmental body can reject any petition on the basis that they don’t like the way an online signature looks,” Simoncini said. “The petitioners met and exceeded any reasonable burden by documenting its collection process and even having voters certify their intent. As a result of the clerk’s refusal to confirm their intent in signing the petition, The petitioners offered the court the option of calling the signatories as witnesses. We definitely were deprived of the right of petition, and whether that was a result of the incompleteness of the executive order or simply a rigging of the review, this decision is going to be appealed.”
The Montclair Property Owners Association maintains it is not against rent control, but seeks changes to three parts of the ordinance that the group opposes: a 10% limit on a vacancy increase, a requirement that a unit be free of any housing-code violations before an increase can be made, and a $250 fee for vacancy rent increases.
According to the ordinance, it will be reviewed after 10 years.
Past rent stabilization referendums in 1979 and 1986 both failed in Montclair.
Counting the 224 days since officials created rent control in Montclair, Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair said: “We are jubilant.”