Clerk rejects second rent control petition – Referendum off the table for now
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The amended referendum petition filed by opponents of Montclair’s rent-control ordinance has been rejected by the township clerk once again.
After the first petition was rejected by Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez Nieves in October, having been deemed short by 106 signatures, the amended petition was forwarded to her on Dec. 7, with 164 “cured” and new e-signatures.
Bermúdez Nieves had five days to certify or reject the cured petition. On Dec. 14, she rejected it, on the basis of 77 being defective. According to her certification of insufficiency, 10 signees were not registered to vote in New Jersey, one was not a resident of Montclair, one had an incomplete form, nine were accepted in the first submission, 24 were “spurious,” five were duplicates, and 27 signatures did not match records on file with the state.
Bermúdez Nieves and Township Attorney Ira Karasick did not respond to an email asking whether the 92 other signatures were accepted, and the insufficiency notice did not mention them.
If the amended petition was certified, Montclair’s rent-control ordinance, passed in April, could have been put before the voters in a special election. At this point, the referendum petition may not be reviewed or amended further. But a new petition could be filed in the future.
The petitioners, who are associated with the Montclair Property Owners Association, a landlords group, were the first in the state to conduct an electronic signature-gathering, permitted due to the pandemic, and on Sept. 23 submitted 1,530 signatures to the township electronically. The petition needed 1,020 validated signatures from Montclair voters, or 15 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality at the last election in order to have the question placed on the ballot in a special election.
Bermúdez Nieves stated that although 914 signatures were acceptable, the petition was short 106 signatures. She rejected 616 signatures based on the signatures themselves, addresses, voter registration status or incompleteness.
The group had 10 days to amend the petition by filing a supplement, but on Oct. 19 they asked for injunctive relief from that time period. The judge agreed and gave the group more time, with the parties expected to have responses back to the court by Nov. 9 and 13.
But on Nov. 11 the petitioners’ attorney, Charles Gormally, wrote to the judge asking for an extension until after Nov. 23, contending “the parties are joining in a request for an adjournment of the return date to a later date to give the parties an opportunity to explore a non-litigated resolution of the matter.”
Gormally said township officials have not responded to requests to “sit down and discuss” the amendments the landlords would like to see. According to Karasick, the council discussed the proposed settlement terms in executive session and rejected them as a basis for further negotiations.
On Dec. 4, the group also filed a brief asking an Essex County Superior Court judge to compel the clerk to certify the first petition and submit it to the Township Council for further proceedings.
“If the clerk again applies her flawed ‘methodology’ for examining e-signatures to these new e-signatures, the plaintiffs’ statutory right of referendum will be irreparably destroyed with no further amendments permitted by the referendum statute. Therefore, the risk of irreparable harm is not eliminated by the filing of an amended petition,” Gormally wrote to the court on Dec. 4.
The ordinance, which limits annual rent increases to 4.25 percent, and to 2.5 percent for seniors, was to take effect 20 days after its approval on April 27. The 20 days is set by state statute so that residents can gather signatures to petition for a referendum.
The ordinance never went into effect after a judge granted a stay following the filing of an injunction request by the petitioners, stating their intention of petitioning for a referendum but citing signature-gathering as difficult during a pandemic.
“The response to our curative submission — which I characterize as the Kangaroo Review – to no one’s surprise resulted in a rejection on the most specious of grounds. So we sue more,” said Ron Simoncini of the Montclair Property Owners Association.
The group maintains it is not against rent control, but seeks changes to three parts of the ordinance that the group opposes: the 10-percent limit on a vacancy increase, the requirement that the unit be free of any housing-code violations before an increase can be made, and the $250 fee for vacancy rent increases.
Past rent stabilization referendums in 1979 and 1986 both proved unsuccessful in Montclair.
The legality of Montclair’s newly passed rent control ordinance — how it was passed and whether it is enforceable — is still in the courts.
According to the ordinance, it will be reviewed after 10 years.