By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Who saw what when? Who was responsible for what? Who’s at fault for which thing?
The answer to those sorts of questions often depend on whom you ask. In the case of Vote Montclair’s rejected petition, looking to prompt a ballot question on whether Montclair should move its municipal elections from May to November, the answers might even get a little profane.
“Since the people responsible for the election date change petition are lying about the communication between them and me …” begins an email from Township Attorney Ira Karasick to Montclair Local Wednesday.
And then, in a brief conversation between Montclair Local and Vote Montclair’s founder, Erik D’Amato: “If [Karasick] going to persist, I’m going to call him a f—ing liar.”
Let’s back up a few stages, and do some recap:
Vote Montclair and a five-person committee of petitioners submitted their petition to the township clerk, with 989 electronically gathered signatures, on July 6. That would have been more than 300 signatures over the amount required to prompt the ballot question, if all the signatures were accepted and no other problems were flagged.
But Karasick flagged multiple issues in a notice to the five-person committee of petitioners. The most significant, he both told the committee and later Montclair Local: The petition describes holding Montclair’s first November election in 2023, which would cut short by six months the terms of the current mayor and Township Council, all of which are currently slated to end in 2024. Karasick said that’s a fatal flaw, and that the first election couldn’t be held until November of 2024 — extending the terms instead of shortening them.
Vote Montclair accused Karasick in a post to its site of either only seeing the “allegedly incurable flaw” when it was brought to his attention by opponents of the effort, “which raises questions of both competence and fairness,” or of playing a game of “gotcha.” Vote Montclair had sent the township a draft of its petition before circulating it, on June 15, and Karasick provided some feedback at the time, the group said. Karasick told Montclair Local he hadn’t seen dates on drafts that came to his attention; Vote Montclair in turn provided a copy of that June 15 draft, with the dates.
So Vote Montclair is right, And Karasick is wrong?
The township attorney says there’s more to it. He provided Montclair Local with more correspondence.
On June 15, D’Amato sent Karasick and the township clerk a notification of the petition, asking them to confirm the number of signatures needed would be the same as for a previous petition by the group submitted, a successful effort to prompt a ballot question on whether Montclair should have an elected school board, instead of a mayor-appointed one (that process is governed by a different area of New Jersey law, so ultimately, a slightly lower signature threshold was determined).
That notification did indeed reference holding an election “on Nov. 7, 2023, instead of the previously scheduled May 14, 2024” — just as the final petition Karasick rejected did.
Karasick told Montclair Local he never noticed that because the petition notification had another major issue — it described changing the township’s charter. The township attorney said that requires far more signatures than effecting the change under a different provision of New Jersey law regarding non-partisan elections, and that he told Vote Montclair attorney Scott Salmon.
“I don’t want to give them legal advice, on the other hand, I didn’t want them to go through the whole process, only to do it wrong,” Karasick said.
D’Amato on Wednesday rejected that explanation, and angrily: “He saw it from the beginning and he knew it from the beginning. He’s a liar.”
The correspondence, as provided by Karasick, continued. Salmon sent Karasick an updated version June 17, taking his advice about which legal process to cite for the election change, and asking in an email to confirm a revised figure for how many signatures were needed.
That version of the petition notification, as provided by Karasick, didn’t make any statements about what years elections would be held at all. But Karasick told Montclair he didn’t see that as a serious problem — as long as the wrong dates weren’t listed.
It did include a sample ordinance to effect the date change — saying that council members’ terms that “will otherwise expire by July 2022” would be extended until January 2023. Those dates stick out as a seeming mistake — no council terms are up until 2024, under the current election cycle. And even ending them in January 2023 would leave the seats open until after the November 2023 elections Vote Montclair has been trying to set.
Karasick said he saw that, but thought it was just a sloppy error: “I figured someone would notice the date was wrong.” He said he didn’t send Vote Montclair any further feedback.
In any case, the township attorney argues, it’s not his job to notice or fix mistakes on a submitted petition — he described the feedback he’d sent about which section of New Jersey law to cite as a courtesy.
And the version ultimately submitted, he said, was “substantially different” than the version Salmon sent on June 17. Karasick told Vote Montclair in his letter last week the final petition also had other problems, because it didn’t include the text of an ordinance to make the date change (which the version Salmon sent on June 17 had), or an affidavit from the petitioners the township attorney said he believes is necessary. And it cited the charter change process, as the first June 15 draft had, before Karasick and Vote Montclair’s attorney had been in touch.
The petition was “different, and incurably flawed,” Karasick wrote to Montclair Local. “If it makes the petition masters feel better to lie, so be it, but it doesn’t conceal their incompetence.”
The version ultimately submitted does, however, seem largely similar to the June 15 notification that started off all the correspondence. They both cite the same dates for elections, and both reference changing the township charter.
In the post to its site, Vote Montclair wrote it undertook the petition drive because the organization believes fall elections will increase voter turnout — and save the township $100,000 per election, because Essex County would run fall elections, not the municipality.
“We cannot help but believe that ‘politics,’ as opposed to actual and ethically determined legal problems, are the real story here,” the group wrote.