The group hoping to move Montclair's municipal elections to the fall suffered a key defeat Friday: It was told a petition to put the matter on the November ballot would be rejected.

"The key is that they aren't going to let this happen without us spending [a lot of money] litigating," Vote Montclair founder Erik D'Amato told Montclair Local by email late Monday afternoon.

More than 300 people electronically signed the petition the first day it was circulated in late June, Vote Montclair has said. The group and a five-person committee of petitioners ultimately submitted a version with 989 signatures — more than 300 over the needed threshold, if the township clerk accepted all the signatures as valid.

If the matter were to go to voters, they'd be asked if Montclair municipal elections should still be held in the spring or moved to the fall, when most other elections take place. If the voters OK'd the change, Montclair's elections would continue to remain formally non-partisan — which is to say there would be no party primaries or nominations.

All township council seats and the mayor's seat would continue to be up for election at the same time. Those elections would still also be held every four years, though the next election would have been in 2023, instead of the currently scheduled spring of 2024 — cutting current officials' terms short by half a year.

But in a letter to the committee of petitioners Friday and posted on Vote Montclair's website Monday, Township Attorney Ira Karasick said Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez-Nieves must reject the petition because of a series of problems.

The petition needed to include the full text of the ordinance authorizing the change, Karasick wrote. The ballot question says the November elections would start in 2023, but "actually, such an election cannot be held before November 2024," he wrote. The current mayor and council members terms don't expire until June of 2024, and those terms would have to be extended to December of the same year, he said.

Karasick also wrote that a reference in the petition to amending the township's election timing cited the wrong process under New Jersey law. That wasn't a "fatal flaw in this submission, but should be corrected if there is a future submission," he wrote.

And the township attorney told Vote Montclair it needed to provide an "affidavit of the circulator" for the petition to be ballot. He said the township "would work with you" on that requirement, but the other issues make the petition "not remediable without initiating a new petition."

Karasick hasn't yet returned a phone message to the township or an email to his municipal address sent late Monday, after Montclair Local first became aware of his letter.

In a post Monday on the Vote Montclair website, the committee of petitioners said Karasick had been shown the petition before it was circulated, and that he'd made suggestions to the group's attorney, but didn't raise any objections at the time.

"Given this, one of two things happened," the post says. "The first is that Karasick didn’t know about this allegedly incurable flaw until it was brought to his attention, likely by individuals who wished to halt the effort, which raises questions of both competence and fairness. The second is that he did know, and by withholding information was from the start playing 'gotcha,' in a cynical effort to derail a grass roots initiative aimed at improving voter turnout. We see no third explanation."

It also says Vote Montclair learned of Karasick’s decision first from a Montclair resident who wasn't a township employee or elected official, as well as from a member of the press who contacted the group before the letter was sent.

"We cannot help but believe that 'politics,' as opposed to actual and ethically determined legal problems, are the real story here," the post states.

Vote Montclair conducted its petition entirely electronically, with a self-imposed July 4 deadline before an executive order allowing for electronic signature-gathering would expire. It had previously successfully petitioned to prompt another voter referendum; voters will be asked this November if Montclair mayors should continue appointing board of education members, or if the members should be elected, as they are in most New Jersey communities.

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, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures since they were first submitted in October 2020.

Vote Montclair and its supporters argue more residents will turn out for November elections, held at the same time as other elections — though the group chose the 2023 start date to avoid municipal elections that coincide with gubernatorial or presidential races. They would still coincide with some municipal races.

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, has said the League hasn’t formally discussed the current push for a November election.

The issue has seen a mixed response from those currently in elected municipal offices.

Councilman Bob Russo told Montclair last month that when the issue has been discussed before, the question was raised as to whether terms would have to be shortened or lengthened to make the change to the calendar work — and “I’m opposed to extending,” he said.

“And I oppose partisan elections at this point, which are held in November,” Russo said in a message sent to Montclair Local at the time. “Greater turnout is the goal, but I am concerned that local issues may get lost in more partisan county, state and national voting in the same election.”

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, elected in 2020, said last month he favors the fall elections — even if the change would cut his first term short, as Vote Montclair envisions. He said that “given the voter suppression efforts around the country since the 2020 election, my inclination is to support whatever we can to be a counterweight to those efforts.”

Turnout in 2020 — in an all-mail-in election during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — was unusually high, with 36% of registered voters participating. But that also came in the same season New Jersey saw its second-highest-ever turnout for primary elections, also held entirely by mail.

Four years earlier, only 7.9% of voters turned out for the municipal election. In the 2019 November election, when all Assembly seats were up, turnout in Montclair was 21%.

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