NEWTON, NJ — Newton residents will be going to the polls on July 31, according to a superior court ruling on Wednesday. Members of the petition committee seeking to have a vote to move town council elections brought the suit, in an effort to stave off a special election caused by their petition.
Hon. Stuart A Minkowitz denied the petitioners complaint after a two-hour hearing in Morristown.
In his decision Tuesday, Minkowitz said the “Newton Town Council’s hands were forced by state law, which contains the word ‘Shall’ and does not give town officials any option about scheduling the election.”
Dr. Ludmilla Mecaj, took the lead during the petition arguments both in the courtroom and in front of the town council. Mecaj was accompanied by petition committee members Suzanne and William Kimble, Barbara Morris.
The committee members argued they had waived the requirement to have a special election.
The issue had been discussed at several Newton Town Council meetings both before and after the most recent election. Each time the council explained their hands were tied because the election to determine whether or not to move the election was mandated within the Faulkner Act.
Because the petition committee collected signatures of more than 15 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous election, the law specifies a special election must be scheduled. Had they stopped at 10 percent the question would have been placed on the November general election ballot, according to the Faulkner Act.
Since the petition was submitted more than 90-days before a general election, a special election is required, according to the judge. The special elections expected to cost approximately $20,000. Funds to cover the cost will be taken from the 2019 budget according to town officials.
Richard Cushing, of the law firm Gebhardt & Kiefer, represented the town, the council, the municipal clerk and other defendants at Wednesday’s hearing. Cushing said the election cycle has already begun and requests for absentee ballots have already been submitted.
Mayor Helen LeFois, Councilwoman Sandra Diglio, and newly elected Councilman Matthew Dickson attended the hearing.
“No one wanted a special election, but the Town needed to follow the law when the petitioners filed their petition,” Councilman Daniel Flynn said in an interview. “We took the right course of action, not the easiest course and the town has been vindicated by the court.”
“Today’s ruling validated the direction the town took after be advised by Newton’s attorney and clerk on the state statute, which sets forth specific limitations for municipal government,” Dickson said. “Jason and I publicly said from the moment the petition was circulated that it would result in a special election if the statute was not adhered to, and we were discredited. It is unfortunate this had to go before a judge, wasting more taxpayer money, when the petitioners had numerous opportunities to correct their mistake and have it be on the November ballot. I am looking forward to the voters deciding on July 31 and moving forward.”
“I attended the hearing and was satisfied with the decision of the Judge. Now the residents of Newton can decide whether or not to move the election to November,” Diglio said.
Diglio also posted on Facebook after the hearing explaining she had changed her mind about moving the election. She said, “Originally I was in favor to save money.” Now, however, “after several discussions,” she will be voting no, according to her post.
Her concern, according to her posts is that the elections would become partisan, despite Faulkner Act towns being nonpartisan.
Newton is the only Faulkner town in Sussex County that still holds their council elections in May.
Mecaj said she was not unavailable for comment because was trying to file with the Appellate court. The arguments made in the petitioners’ reply brief needed to be known by the community, despite the judge’s decision she said.
To prove her point, Mecaj sent an email letter to the petition supporters. She also sent a copy to TAPinto Newton. In her email she asks supporters to vote yes to support moving town council elections to November.
She pointed to the “Vote No” campaign as an effort to keep voter participation low. “Low (21%) voter turnout is not democracy,” Mecaj wrote. “Thank you for your support. Forward this email to friends and families! Let’s win this referendum for our community!”
The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and polling places will be as follows:
- Firehouse 1 on Mill Street for voters from Districts 1 and 2
- Municipal Building on Trinity Street for Districts 3 and 5
- District 4 will vote at the Newton First Aid Squad building on Sussex Street.
- District 6 voters can cast their ballots at the First United Methodist Church on Ryerson Avenue