By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair will ask for a judge’s permission to appeal his decision that would force the township either to repeal its rent-control ordinance or put it before voters in a referendum, Township Attorney Ira Karasick said.
In a March 2 order, Judge Jeffrey B. Beacham vacated his previous ruling in which he backed the township clerk’s rejection of a landlord group’s petition to hold a referendum on the ordinance. With the judge ordering the clerk to instead certify the petition, Montclair had 20 days from March 2 either to repeal its ordinance or choose to hold a special election.
About 10 residents and representatives of the Tenants Organization of Montclair called in to a March 2 Township Council meeting, lobbying for an appeal of the judge’s most recent order.
While proponents of rent control have called on the town to keep up the fight, others say that the 11-month legal battle has proven costly to both parties.
Karasick, who has represented Montclair in the matter, said there has been no cost to the town for his representation.
But Charles Gormally, who represents the Montclair Property Owners Association, said the landlords group could be going after the town for its own legal fees. Ron Simoncini, the group’s executive director, could not give a figure on how much the landlords have spent on legal fees, but said that the amount is upward of “tens of thousands.”
“We will first move for a summary judgment based on our civil rights violation claim,” Gormally said. “If granted, and based upon the court’s finding that the clerk was arbitrary and capricious in rejecting 268 and then 27 signatures, it is established as a matter of law, we will then move for the award of counsel fees. It will be substantial given the fact that the township resisted this claim all along the way.”
Gormally, calling in to the council meeting, questioned why the subject of rent control was not on the agenda, given the 20-day requirement for repeal. He suggested a “reset in relationships” and that the council call for a public meeting to engage the community in a discussion.
The Montclair Property Owners Association has argued that Montclair violated its rights to be included in the creation of the ordinance, which it says was passed “on the eve of the pandemic,” and to petition for a referendum.
The ordinance, which limits annual rent increases to 4.25%, and to 2.5% for seniors, was to take effect 20 days after its approval on April 27, 2020. State statute sets the 20-day buffer so residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum, as the landlords group did.
The group’s members soon after filed a motion to stay the ordinance while they conducted their petition, which proved difficult during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. The judge granted the stay, while the group pushed forward with the first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state.
Last September, the group submitted 1,530 signatures to the township electronically — more than 500 above the threshold to get the measure on the ballot — but clerk Angelese Bermudez Nieves’ rejected several hundred signatures. When the landlords submitted a second, “cured” petition, Nieves rejected 27 signatures because she found they didn’t match the signatures in voting records. Ultimately, she found, the cured petition came up 18 signatures short.
Gormally has argued that the voters whose signatures were rejected — all of whom were registered voters with valid Montclair addresses — were not offered a mechanism to cure their signatures. Beacham — in the ruling he’s since vacated— said a clerk wasn’t required to reach out to signers to cure their signatures on a petition.
Gormally, in the past, has pointed to the Signature Guide issued by the state last summer, when New Jersey for the first time allowed voters to cure their signatures. That guide instructs clerks to contact voters whose ballots contain signatures the clerk feels do not match voter records. The guide requires that a customized “cure letter” with a “cure form” must be sent to each voter within 24 hours of identifying a discrepant signature.
Gormally also submitted a certification of evidence that he had been able to contact 20 of the 27 residents whose signatures were rejected from the cured petition, and they confirmed they had signed twice — once in the first round, and again in the attempt to cure the first petition. He said that demonstrated the signers wanted rent control on the ballot, and that the clerk could have easily allowed the signers to cure their signatures.
Karasick called that evidence “manufactured” and “late,” saying it easily could have been presented prior to the judge’s first ruling in January.
In the end, Beacham said election laws are “liberally constructed” to have the will of the people heard and allow for the greatest scope of participation.
The landlords group has maintained it is not against rent control, but mostly objects to a 10% rent increase limitation on vacancies.
While proponents of the rent control ordinance said that it would keep the diversity of Montclair by keeping rents affordable, Simoncini, of the Montclair Property Owners Association, said rent control does not create more affordable housing. He said, rent control is not a “racial issue” and does not discern between Black or white, but rather it’s an economic issue in which the tenant who gets the unit is the one who is ”best qualified to rent the apartment,” he said.
Resident Robert Squire told the council that the 10% vacancy increase limitation would result in fewer landlords upgrading apartments, and said increases due to vacancies should be decided by the market.
If the ordinance goes to referendum, a special election could take place as early as April. Past rent stabilization referendums in 1979 and 1986 both failed in Montclair. But according to Housing Commission Co-Chair William Scott, a survey conducted in 2017 revealed that 75% of residents backed some sort of rent stabilization.
Due to Montclair’s rent freeze during the state of emergency, rents for occupied units cannot currently be increased. However, rents can be increased if an apartment becomes vacant, at the discretion of the landlord.
As of Friday, March 5, the motion seeking leave to appeal had not been filed.