Dan Dennis via Unsplash

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

The group hoping to shift Montclair’s municipal elections to the fall has collected enough signatures to force a ballot referendum on the matter, organizers say.

A committee of five petitioners and advocacy group Vote Montclair plan to present the Montclair Township Clerk with the signatures Tuesday. If the clerk certifies their petition, voters will be asked in the November general election whether Montclair should continue holding its municipal elections in the spring, or move them to the fall, when most other elections are held.

Montclair elections would remain non-partisan — which is to say there would be no primary races or party nominations.

To date, all of the petition’s signatures have been gathered electronically — with more than 300 people signing in the first day, Vote Montclair Founder Erik D’Amato said. The petition needs to reflect at least 10% of the Montclair turnout from the last General Assembly election — or 680 signatures — to prompt a referendum. D’Amato had previously said Vote Montclair had set a goal to pass that threshold by July 4, when pandemic-era executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy authorizing electronic signature-gathering expires.

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As of Monday afternoon, organizers had collected 900 signatures, but they’ve set 920 as their goal. D’Amato said. Update, Tuesday, July 6: Organizers say they ultimately submitted their petition with 989 signatures. 

Vote Montclair previously successfully petitioned to prompt another ballot referendum — one that will ask voters this November if Montclair should continue to have a mayor-appointed school board, or an elected one. The clerk reviewed 1,396 signatures to certify the 1,020 required. D’Amato said presenting at least 920 signatures to the clerk will give similar headroom — to help ensure the petition still passes if some signatures are rejected. 

But D’Amato said if ultimately the petition needs more backers, he isn’t concerned about physical signature collection. 

“If we need to collect more, we’ll set up tables and do some door-to-door,” D’Amato said. “It’s a good thing to do face-to-face canvassing.”

An email blast sent to community members from former Mayor Jerry Fried on July 2 argued for the election date change, saying it would “dramatically increase turnout and make our electorate more representative.” May elections decrease participation of moderate-income residents including those who rent, Fried’s email said. 

While mayor, Fried was part of a 2011 petition drive to allow residents to vote on moving the election to November; the petition was ultimately rejected after the township clerk deemed too many signatures invalid. He served as mayor from 2008 to 2012. 

In 2012, a Township Council-appointed Municipal Election Review Commission argued against moving to fall elections. The commission said the cost savings wouldn’t be worth it (the county pays for fall elections; the municipality for others), and there wasn’t enough evidence it would result in more voter turnout. It also said a fall election, held at the same time as other partisan races, could mean more influence from political parties and could shift focus away from local issues — potentially costing candidates more to run campaigns and discouraging them from doing so in the first place.

That year, the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area also opposed moving Montclair’s elections, similarly worried local candidates addressing local issues would be drowned out by larger races, and worried about a potential shift toward partisanship, Communications Director Carmel Loughman said. But Loughman, who had also been a 2020 candidate for Township Council, said the League hasn’t formally discussed the current push for a November election. The group also opposes having an elected school board in Montclair, saying it could lead to more electioneering and a higher barrier to entry for people interested in serving. 

If the petition were to gain enough signatures and be certified, and voters then agreed to move the elections to the fall, Montclair would have its first fall municipal election for mayor and all Township Council seats in 2023. That would cut short by six months the terms of the officials serving in those roles now, all elected in 2020. Municipal elections would still be every four years, and so they wouldn’t line up with gubernatorial or presidential races. They would, however, line up with some state legislative races.

The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and submitted by landlords seeking to force a rent control ordinance to a ballot vote last year, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures. Vote Montclair’s earlier petition on the school board, though, saw no such challenge. 

Editor’s note: The committee of petitioners includes Amber Reed, who is married to Justin Jamail, a member of Montclair Local’s governing board.