Montclair, NJ– The Township of Montclair is being sued by a committee of petitioners to repeal a recently adopted rent control ordinance, organizers announced Thursday.

A Committee of Petitioners has been formed pursuant to state statute in Montclair to repeal a recently adopted rent control ordinance. The committee has filed petition against the Township of Montclair in a 5-count complaint filed Thursday in the Law Division of Essex County Superior Court.

According to organizers, the complaint seeks to protect their right to engage in referendum activity and to enjoin the Township from implementing the law until the state of emergency has eased so that Petition Signatures can be collected for Referendum. 

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The Committee includes residents Steven Plofker, David Genova, Suzanne Miller, Paul Weinstein and Brandon McEwen, all Montclair residents. Plofker is owner of multiple property developments throughout the Montclair community. 

“In addition to being long term residents in Montclair, each of our Petitioners has been involved in its business community and public affairs environment,” says Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler LLC attorney for the Committee.

“Our shock over lack of transparency by not soliciting input from homeowners and property owners is only exceeded by our dismay over adopting this election-driven ordinance during a global pandemic. This lawsuit has been filed to protect the peoples’ right to protest government action through the referendum process. Government should not adopt legislation knowing that the peoples’ rights to engage in referendum has been functionally eliminated due to the state of emergency.”

The ordinance would generally take up to 20 days to take effect. During this 20-day period, citizens have the right to collect signatures for a referendum on the ordinance. Since the referendum process requires the committee to circulate a petition and obtain signatures in support within 20 days and the lockdown orders prohibit such action, then the committee has expressed that they feel passing the ordinance during the pandemic is not an opportune time to do so.

“The lawsuit will vindicate the substantive right of protest that Montclair residents have and provide a reasonable opportunity for the residents to exercise these rights when the public emergency has ended,” noted Gormally. 

The court materials, which were submitted in advance to the municipality in an effort to persuade the Council to stay the Ordinance voluntarily, reads in part: “While the Plaintiffs are reluctant to engage in litigation during a state of emergency, they must promptly act to vindicate the public interest and its statutory power to petition the government to redress governmental action through referendum.”

Gormally added, “We have tried on three occasions, the most recent just before filing this lawsuit, to engage the Township in a candid discussion about making the ordinance workable and reasonable in order to avoid court involvement in the midst of a state of emergency, and have not received any response. We will continue with these efforts but local politics seems to be a dominant factor.”            

The lawsuit is supported by the Montclair Property Owners Association, which was formed in response to the sudden adoption of the rent control ordinance and includes the owners of more than 900 rental unites that would be subject to the Ordinance. 

“When we learned of the Ordinance, we proposed not increasing rents as a good faith gesture until the Council could open a genuine dialogue about rent control in Montclair from which all property owners, including homeowners, were excluded,” says Ron Simoncini, executive director of the Association.

“Instead of entertaining the offer, The Council enacted a patently unenforceable and inequitable ordinance without even considering a single amendment, revealing their bias against property owners of all types. From recent discussion with several owners, each had indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90-days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the entire membership is determined to fight back on this until property owners are treated equally under the law.”

Opposers of the ordinance contested the technology glitches associated with the remote April 7 meeting and desperately tried to ask the council not to pass the ordinance during the COVID-19 restrictions. 

Despite protests, the hearing proceeded for three hours. The ordinance sets rent increase caps at 4.25 percent for tenants under 65 and 2.5 percent for seniors.

The council passed the ordinance 5-0, with Mayor Jackson and Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon abstaining. 

“Instead of entertaining the offer, The Council enacted a patently unenforceable and inequitable ordinance without even considering a single amendment, revealing their bias against property owners of all types. From recent discussion with several owners, each had indicated that they do not plan on any rent increases for the next 90-days purely based on the sensitivity to the uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the entire membership is determined to fight back on this until property owners are treated equally under the law.”

Jackson stated that he abstained because he felt it was inappropriate for him to vote on it when his term ends on July 1, and Deputy Mayor McMahon said he was neutral on rent control but was unhappy with how the ordinance was written.  

Local tenant organization members have been lobbying for more than a year to pass the ordinance and balked at the landlord's actions, stating that they had more than a year to get it together.

“The Tenants Organization of Montclair Advocacy Group will not back down from doing what is right, especially during these unprecedented times. They, the uncaring and unconscionable, can’t take away what tenants vitally need,” said Ahava Felicidad, Tenant's Organization of Montclair president.