With Third Ward Councilor Nick Lewis calling it “a fait accompli” despite his opposition, the Montclair Township Council passed a resolution this morning authorizing a contract for an attorney to advise the council in the matter of the petition for referendum on whether municipal elections should be changed from May to November.
Mayor Jerry Fried, who handed over moderation of the session to Councilor-at-Large Roger Terry, joined Lewis in voting against it, with the rest of the council voting for it. Deputy Mayor Kathryn Weller-Demming, having cited in advance a previous engagement, was absent.
Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville spoke for the majority, which wants a commission to study moving the election date rather than bringing the issue to the ballot earlier via petitions. She expressed the need for the council, which is on record as opposing the petition, to have its own attorney in light of what she called a conflict of interest involving Township Attorney Ira Karasick.
With the petitioners — led by the mayor, the deputy mayor, and Councilor Lewis in their capacity as private citizens — having their own attorney, and with Karasick advising Township Clerk Linda Wanat on the legality of the petitions, Baskerville said it was imperative for the council to retain its own legal representation.
“Today, we’re being forced to come here, and we’re being forced to spend tax dollars for something that none of us want to do,” she said. “But when you look around the table and realize that people have taken action that seemed to be moving toward legal activity, then for us not to hire someone to at least help us to learn what the laws are so that we’ll better understand them . . . the problem is, we’re treading waters that have not been clearly defined by the law. ”
Councilor Lewis said that the majority could hire lawyers but opposed spending township money on it, saying it did not constitute a municipal purpose and that such a lawyer would represent not the council but the concerns of four individual councilors.
“The lawyer has to be representing the entire council. You have four members of the council [who] have decided they want to hire a lawyer to represent them, and they want the town to pay for it,” Lewis said. “The other thing is that the role of the council in one of these initiative petitions or procedures is pretty limited. You get your … signatures, the proposed ordinance is submitted to the council, the council votes it up or down, and that’s it.”
Baskerville responded by saying that the three council members involved with the petition were coming forward as citizens, not as elected officials, and that was why legal counsel was needed for the legislative body. “This gets to be very confusing,” she added.
Mayor Fried complained in an opening statement that the session was not about law or government but politics, and he announced that he would release to the press on Monday a strategic plan, developed with Lewis and Weller-Demming, to tackle the township’s ongoing problems.
The only public comment on the election issue came from two Montclair residents. David Herron challenged the petition as invalid and demanded it be withdrawn. Jed Posnick took the opposite view. As one of the official petitioners, he expressed disappointment with the council’s four-member majority for trying to block a public referendum on the matter. “Why would you oppose an open vote?” he asked. “Since when does the mayor forfeit his right to play a leading role in a political effort in his community?”