By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s township clerk certified a landlord group’s petition Tuesday, March 16, seeking to put rent control rules the Township Council adopted last year before voters. The township now has 20 days from Tuesday to either repeal last year’s ordinance, or schedule the special election.
The certification came the same day Judge Jeffery B. Beacham reissued a ruling he’d originally made March 2 on the matter, effectively restarting the 20-day clock. Beacham had vacated his own previous ruling from Jan. 29, when he had instead backed the clerk in rejecting the landlord group’s petition, after hearing further arguments.
Township attorney Ira Karasick did not comment on why the judge reissued the order with a later date, but said that he will have prepared a motion by the end of the week asking for the judge’s permission to appeal his decision. That step is required before an appeal can be made.
A special election would have to be held in 40 to 60 days from March 16 date, according to the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
“We should know in six to eight weeks if an election will be held,” Karasick said about the appeal process.
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 a 20-day buffer so residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum, as the landlords group did.
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 group’s members filed a motion last April to stay the ordinance while they conducted their petition, which proved difficult during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Judge Beacham 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.
At a March 2 hearing, plaintiff attorney Charles Gormally 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. New Jersey allowed for the first last May, the curing of signatures due to mail-in only elections.
Presenting new evidence on March 2, Gormally 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.
In the end, Beacham reversed his January decision saying election laws are “liberally constructed” to have the will of the people heard and allow for the greatest scope of participation.
Gormally said the landlords also withdrew legal challenges against the ordinance without prejudice, “meaning we can relitigate if the ordinance is ever enacted.”
“We are moving to find that the township violated the NJ Civil Rights Act in refusing to certify the petition, requiring us to get a court order. If we prevail we are entitled to an award of the legal fees incurred to force the clerk to certify,” he said.
Karasick, who has represented Montclair in the matter, said there has been no cost to the town for his representation.
Bechamn’s order also states: “Having found that the defendants’ actions in rejecting the petition and the amended petition were arbitrary or capricious,” the court retains jurisdiction to hear such a complaint.
The ordinance only applies to non-owner occupied rentals with four or more units.
At the March 16 council meeting, Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings said: “I want to make sure that renters particularly residents in in the Fourth Ward know that residents who live in non-owner occupied two-and-three family units should understand that the current ordinance does not apply to their landlords.”
He pointed to a recent analysis conducted by the township of the 1,473 two-to-four family rentals units in town. It shows the Fourth Ward houses 44% of the two-family units, and 41% of the three-family units. It would, however, apply to four-family units, 43% of which are in the Fourth Ward.
On March 16, the council also extended its rent freeze ordinance for the third time. The mechanism places a temporary moratorium on rent increases during the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency. The moratorium prevents any increase in the amount paid in rent or any additional charges by residential tenants in all residential rental units in the township.
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.