MONTCLAIR, NJ - For more than six months, Montclair Township leaders and landlords have been locked into a public battle over rent control in Montclair.
The Montclair Property Owners' Association (MPOA) had filed a suit against the Township after the Council voted for a rent control ordinance to take effect. However, the MPOA challenged this decision in court. A decision had ultimately been made to place the choice up to Montclair voters to decide by placing a question on the ballot.
Just last week, a decision was made and Township officials announced that 600 of the 1500 ballots submitted, were thrown out. The landlords have since expressed that they feel Township officials have been seeking to sabotage their efforts, all along.
The owners of nearly 800 apartments in Montclair had stated that they had committed to a voluntary rent freeze for 90 days and requested that the Township Council postpone the vote on introducing rent control so that the public can participate in a review of the Ordinance. The proposed rent control ordinance was on the agenda for the April 7th Council meeting, which was held virtually as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. The Council pushed forward and passed the ordinance, thus sparking a series of legal filings from the landlords, in response.
Through its attorney Charles Gormally of Brach Eichler, MPOA had submitted a legal opinion that voting on the ordinance was in violation of Executive Orders 107 and 108, which are designed to prevent such abuses during the COVID-19 crisis, but they add that it deprives the voters of their right to collect petition signatures that would force a Referendum.
Due to the pandemic, petitioners would not be able to go door-to-door to have petitions signed to get the referendum on the ballot. Therefore, the landlords sought the release of residents' personal email addresses and phone numbers in an effort to gain support for placing the referendum on the ballot. Despite the Township fighting back, the landlords won and they then sought out to obtain the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot.
For nearly three weeks, newly appointed Township Clerk, Angelese Bermudez Nieves reviewed petition signatures and determined that only 914 were acceptable out of the 1,528 signatures submitted. In order for an issue to be placed on the ballot, a minimum of 1,020 signatures from Montclair's registered voters is necessary. That number is equal to 15% of the ballots cast in Montclair in the 2019 General Election.
Ron Simoncini, MPOA Executive Director has said, “This rejection is an attempt to frustrate the petitioners for political purposes during a tie when the burden of signature collection is unthinkable and the processes around review are being made up as they go along."
Simoncini expressed that they disagree with the Township's decision to toss the 600 petitions.
"The preponderance of our signatories were reached email or text message with a link to our online petition. They then signed with their mouse, mostly, or a stylus or a fingertip. When people go to the grocery store and they sign a screen pad with their finger or the stylus, that signature bears scant resemblance to the signature they would use on a check. The Municipality knows that, and to apply a stickler standard to their signature or insignificant absences or portions of their addresses ignores that the intent of the voter was to sign the petition and the signature should therefore be honored."
"The fact that we now have to disrupt 168 signatories because the clerk didn’t like their signature and an additional 55 people whose addresses were incomplete despite that they were all verified as registered voters in order to ask them to reverify their signature – or worse yet, mount another email and text message campaign to augment the signature count – is an intentional nuisance. But this action, like others related to this rent control ordinance, is going to backfire on the Council politically: no person sincerely interested in good government and the specific policies at issue here is going to like the idea that Petitioners were treated shabbily. This is Montclair’s version of the Hanging Chad, and it is an embarrassing episode to be sure.”
Not only are the MPOA at odds with the Township, but tenant's rights groups have pushed back, as well. They accused the MPOA of having non-residents to sign the petitions.
““The Montclair Property Owners Association conducted a disinformation campaign online and in print since last April, and even went so far as to get the courts to force the township to deliver residents’ personal email addresses and text numbers six weeks ago,” said Ahava Felicidad and Toni Martin of the Tenants Organization of Montclair in a joint statement with the coalition.
“They sent out excessive blasts that were reported to the township as harassment by many residents. It is unconscionable that residents have had to be subject to their campaign against rent control,” tenant advocates continued.
“We note that 200 signatures were rejected because the signers were not registered in New Jersey. Another 139 signers were not residents of Montclair. And the signatures of 168 more voters did not match the signatures on record in the state registration system.
The MPOA has 10 days to “cure” their petition.