Montclair attorney: No politics when we shot down petition on moving elections
Montclair's township attorney rejects the claim that politics were in play when he told the group hoping to move Montclair's elections to the fall that a petition they'd submitted is fatally flawed.
“It’s a bit of an insult,” Township Attorney Ira Karasick said Tuesday. “However, I can let it go by because of, apparently, the level of suspicion and cynicism that seems to accompany anything dealing with local government, or any government.”
The petition, submitted by a committee of five petitioners and supported by the organization Vote Montclair, would have asked residents in a ballot question this November if Montclair's municipal elections should be moved from May to November. Proponents say the move would bolster turnout, since most other elections are held in the fall and people are more accustomed to voting them.
More than 300 people electronically signed the petition the first day it was circulated in late June, Vote Montclair has said. The petitioners ultimately submitted a version with 989 electronically gathered signatures — more than 300 over the needed threshold, if the township clerk accepted all the signatures as valid.
But Friday, Karasick sent the petitioners a memo saying the petition had several problems. The petition cited the wrong process for changing the election date and didn't include the full text of a proposed ordinance to make the change, he said. It also didn't include an affidavit from the petitioners that Karasick said he understands to be necessary after updates to executive orders Gov. Phil Murphy had issued making electronic signature-gathering permissible during the state's public health emergency.
Such an affidavit would normally attest to signatures being collected legitimately by whoever was canvasing. Karasick said the "law is very confusing" when it comes to how those procedures are meant to work in electronic signature-gathering, but that he ultimately didn't need to explore that issue — because the petition had a more significant flaw.
"Given the confusion and everything around that, I wasn't too concerned about that," he said.
The biggest problem, Karasick told Montclair Local, is that the petition described Montclair's next municipal election as taking place in 2023 if voters were to approve the change. That would cut current officials' terms short by half a year. Karasick said instead, the terms would have to be extended, and the next election would be held in the fall of 2024, instead of the currently set spring of 2024.
Most of the rest, he said, could have been corrected or "cured," had it not been for that issue. Supporters of a fall election will need to submit a wholly new petition if they want to move forward, he said.
"It's sufficiently substantive enough that the petition is defective," he said ."You can't fix it."
Vote Montclair, in a post to its website Monday, had said Karasick was shown a version of the petition before it was circulated, and sent the group's attorney feedback that was incorporated into the final version.
"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.
But Karasick told Montclair Local the version of the petition he saw was "totally different" than the one eventually submitted. He said he'd given Vote Montclair guidance on what section of the law it should try to advance the change, to avoid a steeper signature requirement. And he said the version he saw didn't have the 2023 date in place. Vote Montclair founder Erik D’Amato, however, provided Montclair Local Tuesday with a copy of the draft petition he said Karasick was sent, showing the 2023 date.
But even if that hadn't been the case, Karasick said, it's ultimately up to the petitioners, not him, to make sure everything is in order.
Vote Montclair founder Eric D’Amato, in an email to Montclair Local Monday, said the upshot of Karasick's memo on the opinion is "they aren’t going to let this happen without us spending [a lot of money] litigating."
Karasick said with Montclair's next municipal election years away, there's still plenty of time for Vote Montclair to submit a new petition, even if it doesn't manage to get on the ballot for 2021.
In the system as envisioned in Vote Montclair's petition, 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 once, on a four-year-cycle.
D’Amato said the group chose 2023 as a first date for fall municipal elections to avoid coinciding with gubernatorial or presidential elections. They would still have coincided with some state legislative races.
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.
A 2011 petition drive also sought to prompt a referendum on moving Montclair's election. It was defeated when the township clerk deemed too many signatures invalid.
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.
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.
Editor’s note: The committee of petitioners includes Amber Reed, who is married to Justin Jamail, a member of Montclair Local’s governing board.