By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A judge has granted yet another stay on Montclair’s rent-control ordinance.

On Jan. 25, the Montclair Property Owners Association — a group challenging the law — filed a motion asking the Essex County Superior Court to reevaluate its prior rejection of petitions to get the issue of rent control on the ballot. The association also filed a motion to stay the ordinance until the court could reconvene. A court date is set for Feb. 19.

On Jan. 15, a ruling by Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham upheld municipal clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves’ rejection of both a petition and a supplementary petition the association submitted last year.

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. State statute sets the 20-day buffer so that residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum, which the landlords group ultimately did. 

Citing signature-gathering difficulties during a pandemic when circulators could not go constrained from going door-to-door, a judge granted a stay on the ordinance following the filing of an injunction request by the petitioners in mid-April 2020. 

The petitioners were the first in the state to conduct an electronic signature-gathering petition, permitted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and on Sept. 23 submitted 1,530 signatures to the township electronically. The petition needed 1,020 validated signatures from Montclair voters. The first petition and a “cured” petition were rejected by the township clerk, with the petition ultimately being 18 signatures short. 

On Jan. 15, Beacham rejected the group’s request to compel the court to accept the petition, basing his decision 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 to “cure their signatures” as suggested by the petitioners because it was not an election.

On Jan. 19, Township Attorney Ira Karasick filed a motion memorializing the judge’s decision, to which the landlords group’s attorney objected, setting up an appeal. The township’s motion to date has not been signed by the judge.

Throughout the last hearing 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.” The landlords group also challenged the clerk’s comparison of e-signatures drawn with a mouse or finger to those in voting records. For the cured petition, the clerk rejected 27 petition forms based on comparisons of signatures of voters in the state’s voter registration system. 

In a brief filed by Gormally on Jan. 25 the group presented the motion to reconsider, not to take another “bite at the apple” but to highlight “controlling and precedential guidance from the Appellate Division that support its argument — not previously  considered by the court — and that should now be applied in order to avoid manifest injustice.”

Specifically, the brief points to the Signature Guide issued by the state, which Gormally said does instruct clerks to contact voters whose ballots contain signature the clerk feels do not match voter records. The guide requires a customized “cure letter” with a “cure form” must be sent to each voter within 24 hours of identifying a discrepant signature. Additionally, the guide requires a telephone call to the registered voter if a telephone number is  provided, Gormally wrote.  

The brief also cites two cases — Stone v. Wyckoff and Matthews v. Deane — pertaining to the rejection of petitions based on signature assessments. Gormally argues that the cases set precedents that there is “no legal authority supporting a clerk to allow her to reject a signer of the petition outright based solely on a claimed non-matching signature. In fact, there is appellate guidance that makes it clear that a clerk that does so is acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”  

In an announcement sent on Jan. 26 pertaining to the stay, township officials stated that in a call conference on Tuesday with both parties, Beacham said he would sign an order dismissing the lawsuit brought against the Township of Montclair by the Montclair Property Owners Association. But Beacham agreed to stay the order until Feb. 19, when the Montclair Property Owners Association will argue that the judge should reconsider his ruling.

In Karasick’s reply to the landlords’ motion, he states that the case was commenced not to challenge rent control on legal grounds, but to protect referendum rights that would be “forever lost if plaintiffs did not obtain judicial relief. The court did intervene to protect that right. Plaintiffs ended up having 10 times the number of days prescribed by statute to submit and to cure their petition. But the petition was unsuccessful.”

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. 

Due to Montclair’s rent freeze during the state of emergency, rents cannot currently be increased. However, rents can be increased if an apartment becomes vacant, at the discretion of the landlord.