Township Throws Out Vote Montclair Petition To Move May Elections

Vote Montclair made a final push in July, wrapping up its official petition for a referendum on moving Montclair’s municipal elections from May to November, but on Friday, the local civic group was surprised to learn the Township had rejected their petition.

According to Vote Montclair, the group received a letter Friday via email from Township Attorney Ira Karasick that Township Clerk Angelese Bermúdez-Nieves must reject Vote Montclair’s petition. Karasick’s letter detailed five deficiencies in the petition, with the most “fatal flaw” being moving up the date of the next election to November 2023 from May 2024 — something that could not be done because it would shorten the term of the current council.

Vote Montclair maintains that before the petition was circulated, Karasick had reviewed it and made suggestions to the group’s own attorney who incorporated the suggestions into the version ultimately circulated and signed by almost 1,000 Montclair voters.

Vote Montclair shared the news in an online statement and has its own theory about the voided petition.

“That the powers-that-be in the Township have so cynically worked to derail a citizen initiative to increase voter participation during a national awakening about voting rights says everything one needs to know about their contempt for voters,” says Vote Montclair’s Erik D’Amato

“The Township Attorney isn’t the root of the problem. He obviously came under pressure to make sure the question never made it in front of voters, just as some notable local political figures also urged me to desist in ways that were clearly designed to be menacing,” D’Amato adds.

Vote Montclair had submitted its petition, with 989 signatures, because “changing the election from May to November will significantly increase voter participation, while saving the Township roughly $100,000 per election cycle,” according to the group.

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  1. I am distressed by VoteMontclair’s defense of a flaw petition and shifting all the blame on our Township Attorney and unnamed members of the Council.

    I wonder what are the limitations on a Township employee to ensure a properly executed petition, especially one requested to act in an pro bono advisory role to the committee of petitioners?

    Furthermore, VoteMontclair failed to acknowledge any performance issue on the part of their attorney. What they seem to be saying is that neither attorney was the root cause of the legal shortcomings. This is even more interesting in that one of the fatal flaws was identical to a recent one in Orange (or East Orange) on the referendum for an elected school board. VoteMontclair had to know of that case as they also authored our elected school board petition. Even I knew about that case.

    We not only need to meet all legal bars, but work to raise our standards if we want to be an example of good governance. Ignorance of the law here is unfortunate and a lesson in checking your work and basic accountability. Resorting to the blame game and character assaults falls short of our community standards.

  2. The above commenter is making the assumption the township attorney is actually correct in his legal determination here, rather than simply succumbing to political pressures — as is being alleged by Mr. D’Amato.

    However, if you look at his legal track record — Mr. Karasick has actually been proven wrong and has lost in court over most important political issues here. He lost the Sean Spiller case with the ruling being not to allow Spiller to sit on the Board of School Estimate. The town defended that position. Karasick was wrong and also made obvious fatal decision-making errors in failing to advise Mayor Fried and a Town Councilor then not to vote for an Assisted Living facility zoning change because it created a personal conflict of interest for them — thereby costing the township years of lost tax revenue and substantial legal time and money in the litigation. Which we lost. But before that, the Town Attorney also lost on the group home land use litigation in the 4th ward, an obvious wasted political effort since state law clearly mandates townships must allow group homes and can bypass zoning — but taking that fight on only to appease local community advocates certainly knowing we would clearly lose.

    Whether Mr. Karasick will again be proven wrong again in trying to stop the democratic process sought by landlords to hold a referendum on rent control and can successfully inhibit that vote — remains to be seen. However, he’s already lost in his initial legal pleading with that judge, who then mandated a special election referendum vote on rent control — ruling against the township. And this was over the same kinds of petition submission shenanigans and petition review and denial that may indeed be operative here.

    Unfortunately for us all, it appears Montclair’s liberal government today has no qualms about trying to stop the open democratic voting process when they see fit, using the exact kinds of legal tactics no differently than right-wing governments around the country — when they don’t agree with what those who have a different political POV promote and want make law using their legally granted democratic rights.

    It’s sad…

  3. MKF sued Councilor Spiller, not the Township or the BoE, and Spiller had his own attorneys.
    Genova Burns defended Montclair v. Grabowsky which went up to the Supreme Court.
    The MHAEC lawsuit was because the Zoning Board denied the variance. It had to resolved by the courts.
    Yes, Rent Control was pure Council shenanigans and I think Ira was an active party.
    Yes, Mr Karasick has been on the wrong side of issues. But, I also assume his “clients” dictated several of his other positions.

    Regardless, Vote Montclair screwed up. They need to own that. If those behind Vote Montclair want to make this a personal character issue, they have already lost the high ground. Character is not an organization attribute, it is personal. So, their board members need to step out from behind the curtains and into the daylight. Maybe write a Letter to The Editor.

  4. We are already voting on whether or not to directly elect the BOE and have the taxpayers vote on the budget. Big issue and worth voting on (again)

    Let’s deal with that and THEN talk about switching when we vote. Another big vote with lots of implications.

    Take your time and get it right. Our local democracy will not collapse if we handle this with two discussions and two votes. The last time folks tried to ram this through if failed – not because it was a bad idea but because it was so nakedly political.

    And take some time to talk to some of the town elders who have done a lot of work on this. People like Bill Harrison

    Ed Remsen

  5. Former Mayor Ed Remsen is correct. This issue should be handled thoughtfully and carefully. Because in addition to benefits, there are some possible downsides to changing the voting date that do need full consideration and debate.

    Regardless, naked political suppression by our local government — with “chad” like petition games or midirection advice/failure to properly advise — when trying to stop a resident democratic process — is just not acceptable. If you don’t like the effort, win it on the merits. Do not shut down citizen initiatives with smoke-filled-room games. Whether it’s from the left or from the right.

    The “People” do have the right to engage in checks and balances of their elected officials — using referendums and petitions. That’s why they are there.

    Our elected officials — or the top staff that work for them — do not have the right to stop that — to prevent or inhibit the democratic process. As this local government has now clearly tried to do — at least twice. It’s shameful.

  6. My personal opinion is that we should keep the Council elections separate from the national elections. I don’t doubt that turnout would be higher if we combined them, but at what cost? Has anyone considered what the ballot would look like if we had the partisan national candidates and the non-partisan Montclair council slates on the same piece of paper? Can we really expect folks to focus on local issues, and which candidates are the best people to address them, in the din of a presidential campaign? Plus, we shouldn’t be making any assumptions about future turnout based on the last two municipal elections. The candidates ran unopposed in 2016, and we certainly can’t judge anything based on the remote campaign conducted in 2020.

    I agree with Mayor Remsen, too, that we should deal with the question of an elected BOE first before deciding when municipal elections should occur.

  7. Frank Rubacky May 25, 2021 At 11:13 am
    A typical Essex County Presidential election ballot has 4 Elected Offices and 2 Public Questions. We’re a Red town, so, considering the choices, its goes pretty quickly.

    The proposal is to add Mayor, At-Large, Ward Councilor. A minimum of 3 School Board members (and a likely 4th for unexpired term). A likely referendum question on multiple School Bond Issues and/or one for Exceeding the School Cap. There will have to be room for write-ins on all of these.

    And we are transitioning from 100% Mail-In to majority In-Person and new voting machines. Navigation will require multiple screens to scroll with multiple blocks separating the State/National representatives, Council, School Board, State Questions, and Local Questions. I’ll read the questions again even though I received a sample ballot..because I’m an engaged voter. Then I have to review and confirm all my choices…because the is what seniors do. I also suck at typing. I’ll be in the voting booth for a good ten minutes.

    I think we will need a lot more voting machines.

  8. This is Montclair. I think we can all agree to give Vote Montclair their gold star.
    We are recognizing their creativity, not their lack of effort or failure to achieve their assignment. They opportunistically seized on a special law created by State of Emergency Declaration. Good for them. Then they double-dribbled their way to the basket and got rejected. C’mon, it’s good enough for the gold star.

    Just wait until everyone understands the transition process and see the impacts when we move to an elected school board. I could run you through the timelines, milestone dates, options, and top-down, cascading impacts. It would be easy for me.
    However, Vote Montclair has already explain to everyone what they need to know, e.g. that the vast bulk of COVID improvements are put on hold until next year?

  9. To be clear — there are two issues here. One, openly debating the merits and possible deficits from moving the election date. These should be considered and reviewed fully. Same for the BOE shift from appointed to an elected board. What are the pluses and minuses without distortions? Already on that hype front, we are hearing political fear-mongering about the inability to pass bond issues here, which appears not to be correct. I expect the “stop the coming creationists and anti-abortionists” next. Or stopping the right-wing, fiscal hawks who will kill busing. Like they were played last time. But this is all still on substance.

    I do part ways with some here because I still felt these substance issues could have been openly reviewed, discussed and considered calmly by November of 2021. For both issues. Had our local government played it straight. And not tried to stop a petition vote.

    But they didn’t. Which is why I believe more short term serious IMO, are the political games being played now by our local officials. It’s almost political fascism. Seemingly coming from some on the Council but then played out by the Clerk and Town Attorney — as I have opined here and earlier before.

    First, the “chad-like” scrutiny of electronic signatures during the pandemic over the rent control petition and now, the games and machinations over this election date move. And rumors still abound that some are looking for ways to kill the BOE petition vote too in Nov.

    On the election date move, Ira Karasick is dead wrong. He IS supposed to help and give free legal advice to residents who want to put a citizen initiative on the ballot. What good is a township attorney if not to also aid our people in navigating political and election processes? Yes, even if he doesn’t agree with them on the issue. That’s what democracy and laws are about. Giving people the opportunity to participate, to have their voices heard and to sometimes even make laws and policy directly — by referendum.

    It was shameful that this Council tried to shut down the rent control petition and used our Clerk to stop those residents (yes even landlords) from putting this just passed law on the ballot for review. And I actually support some rent controls here at this time. But as I said, our political players need to win it at the ballot box on merits, not use their powers to close down political efforts they either don’t agree with, or want to appease another constituency over — to help them get re-elected.

    Really, the rent control law should have been passed well before, into the last Council’s term, if one was really providing pro-active leadership. When speculation was already distorting the housing market and prices escalating not just based on supply and demand. But instead, hold-over returning Councilors then rushed through a flawed law just before the 2020 May local Council election — and have then tried to to do everything possible to shut down those who opposed that law, to prevent them from using their legal democratic petition rights to put it on a ballot for referendum review.

    Add this to the games now over the election date change and it’s just naked politics by many of today’s elected Councilors here. Disgraceful. And they need to be reminded of it at the next election when many should be put right out.

  10. This argument is a beaut! Council is shameful in actions to blow up election date move, but we give the same people a pass on the shameful adoption of rent control? Applying two sets of standards in judging is not a compelling case, unless it it directed at a choir.

    Look, pummel Ira. He can defend himself. But, where were the 5 Planning Board and 2 Council attorney’s when it came to Lackawanna Plaza? For years, yes years, we had a truly unusual number of skilled attorneys (7!) representing us that should have – for free – raise the conflict of interest warning. Yes, Lackawanna. Yes, the application you also abstained on. I will always appreciate and never forget those how-low-can-we-go? standards by Montclair’s best.

    Montclair, in every ward, has a long tradition of setting down their beach chairs and umbrellas along the banks of the purified waters of ethics. We apply our “The Ends Justifies The Means” #45 to protect our delicate ethical epidermis. Then we get all puffy & indignant when someone kicks the sands of impropriety on us. We agitate and churn these waters. We splash at the offenders. We splash the sand from our epidermis. We are righteous.

    Anyway, silliness aside. Try and look at the big picture. We pursue our strategy of growth, using redevelopment steroids, for money. We never stopped to consider gentrification. We never stopped to consider climate. We didn’t even introduce climate until 2016. We never consider ourselves part of the region. The voters wanted money. Some didn’t get it and organized. They want their share. All this is…arises from that. It is really that simple.

  11. Sorry Frank. I really can not follow your thinking above in the last comment and I suspect others can not too. It’s not clear what you are really saying. You give the details without stating the direct point in places.

    What Lackawanna conflict of interest warning on Lackawanna? For who? Did you mean Assisted Living? Because there, Ira Karasick was the one who clearly should have raised that warning for then Mayor Jerry Fried not to vote. Because everyone in town knew of Jerry’s official connection to the next door church. Which created a conflict of interest. Except for the Planning Board attorney then, Art Neiss, who advises he did not know of it and would have advised the then Mayor not to vote because of it. But Ira himself was conflicted after, because he did work for Dick Grawbowsky, who then sued the township over that vote. The vote to change the zoning uses there to allow for an assisted living facility — which was originally not allowed under the redevelopment plan whose goal was to maximize commercial ancillary downtown economic activity from that property to be built.

    And FYI — PS…I actually offered a motion to reject Pinnacle’s last planning Lackawanna application which was then voted down. But there were only 2 yes votes to reject. Mine and Carmel Loughman. I only abstained afterward on the counter vote next to support it — and not reject everything outright — because I didn’t reject everything — just the modifications to the stanchions if my memory is correct — which could have been preserved and incorporated into a supermarket in within that space preserving the interior fully — had the developer been willing to change the front parking lot configuration there to something like you had proposed at the time.

  12. Martin,
    Try and follow along…all the lawyers I was speaking about were involved with the infamous Lackawanna Plaza hearings. Both Council Schlager and yourself should have recused yourselves once the Council allowed Councilor Baskerville to move that ridiculous and ignorant Council resolution. This had been a Council serving for 6 years. 6 years since they infamous first ordinance vote – on ethics reform. Not for them. For everyone else.

    Moving along, some Montclair Kids Matter-type grassroots group with nameless members say they got screwed because they screwed up. Remember how other grassroots groups and community leaders stepped up to say, whoa, you guys made the fundamental mistake. Don’t blame teachers because they got sloppy with login credentials. Or, all the amazing surprise school surplus? Heady days! Did anyone say let’s spend it on the school building infrastructure? Nope. It was all about me, me and now, now. Pay me.

    Yup, the whole Montclair ethics shape-shifting.

    Someone should compare the 2016 & 2020 muni voting record for the 3rd Ward’s, District 6. Voter Suppression? Yeah, and there is a tooth fairy. Everyone wants to get paid. Pay the people and Montclarions will vote anytime you want them to vote. Don’t pay them? People stay home. It is that simple.

  13. I have already shared with you and Mayor Jackson my first reason you should have recused yourself. My justification behind my second reason you should have recused yourself also would apply to our current Mayor and the BoSE conflict thing.

    Any appointments by the Mayor, of undefined terms and performance standards, creates the appearance of a conflict. You served subject to his whims. Deputy Mayor Hurlock, as I understand, was the Mayor’s appointment to head the BoSE. Again, no defined term, no performance standards. I didn’t persist because the easy solution was for him to ask the full Council to vote on it. I imagine Councilor Hurlock would get the job anyway, for other reasons.
    Believe it or not, gadflies have capacity issues.

    I don’t really mind all this stone-throwing. However, my point being it always leads to examination of the possible motivations of those throwing stones. That part fascinates me.

  14. You are entitled to your opinion, of course, Frank. However, you really don’t understand “conflict of interest” as it relates to land use.

    Being the Mayor’s personal appointee and voting, or Councilor Schlager voting, is not a conflict of interest on Lackawanna. The statute specifically designates the Mayor or his assignee then (me in this case) to have a voting position on the Planning Board. The Council is also given a Planning Board seat and they, as a body, designate who they want to then serve. That’s the legal and political structure.

    So however the Mayor, or I vote, unless there was a personal or business connection to the Lackawanna or principals — is fine. The fact that I voted first to reject the project and then abstain, was my call. They Mayor didn’t advise me in the slightest. Similarly, Councilor Schlager had free reign to vote as she saw fit after a good faith review of the evidence and testimony presented.

    Her error, again tied back to Ira Karasick not giving proper advice, was that she also voted on a Council resolution first, telling the planning board to hurry up and essentially pass the developer’s then Plan. Because the Council was coming under pressure from the community now to bring back a supermarket — having jerked around for 2 years with the attempt to bring the municipal government down there. Which faded into the ether.

    But Schlager only had a conflict, because someone could now argue later, if she had voted on the development in the end at the Planning Board , that she was not unbiased in her review, and didn’t continue with the hearings with an open mind, which is a quick summary of land use case law over on a member’s conflict of interest and requirements — for considering an application fairly. Since Robin Schlager had already tipped her voting hand somewhat by the Council vote, some later litigant (and there was a lawsuit in the end) could have argued that she was biased in her final vote. As it is, the litigants argued here that just her presence there continuing with the hearings, encouraged a bias for the whole Board. But the Lackawanna judge didn’t buy that POV apparently. Regardless, IMO she made the right call not to vote in the end. And Ira K. made the wrong call to allow her to vote on the Council resolution, or to then continue with her PB participation in the hearings. The same kind of non-advice with Fried and Assisted Living.

    However, again as to the more symbiotic relationships of a Mayor or their assignee and a Council member voting on PB projects which you opine about above — that’s just politics. That’s the structure in place. And I have no issue with it. The Council should have a minority place on the PB IMO, but members need to have backbone with that to not follow them when warranted. As the Planning Board did at that time by rejecting the Council’s “hurry up and vote” resolution and kicking back the Plan with 19 problematic issues instead (which I supported) and essentially telling the Council then to “forgetaboutit”.

    That I (the Mayor’s appointee) put forth a vote to reject the final Lackawanna Plan in the end — which lost — but other members then, believing they had a good compromise Plan — voted yes — although I completely disagree, it does show the checks and balance system there worked pretty well.

    So I have to disagree with your general take here.

  15. “So however the Mayor, or I vote, unless there was a personal or business connection to the Lackawanna or principals — is fine.

    Ding, ding, ding!

    Councilor Schlager was not guided by anything the Township Attorney says. The conflict arose SOLELY because the Council moved their godawful resolution that the MHS CGI would have flagged as a conflict.

    That Lackawanna resolution was the definition of stupid. In their defense, it was only put on the agenda 24 hours beforehand, so intelligence or common sense had no chance to intervene. It would take at least a weekend to summon those qualities.

    Councilor Hurlock decided to focus on one part of the law that night for reasons that I can only guess why. I would guess he doesn’t fully know the law.

    Any, Mr Karasick has no standing. Councilor Schlager is guided by what the Planning Board Attorney says is the law…and we were going with the B team here. The regular, A-Team, standing Planing Board attorney trained them on conflicts. She chose to ignore that training.

    Whomever is advising you on LGEL needs some remedial certification. It has little to do with the vote…and I think you are smart enough you should know this. Did you ever ask yourself why recused members have to exit the room once the conflict arises, and not when it cumulates in a vote? Councilor Schlager told me directly, in writing, 4+ months prior to her recusal she would check the conflict laws. And as Councilor Schlager correctly said 4+months later, it is the perception of a conflict that is the language and hence she belatedly stepped aside…for her own political benefit. OK, so she went with the ends justifies the means over ethics. That’s the rule in the 2nd ward so they resoundingly reelected her.

    That is my specific take.

  16. Seriously? Look up the parliamentary meaning of an abstention vote.

    Let’s be clear, the Planning Board lied through their teeth. That “forgetaboutit” resolution is proof. Did you actually read it?

    Martin you do love – and impressively adept at – massaging history. It is a good thing Montclairions just want the Twitter version.

  17. Sorry Frank. No sale. You just don’t know the conflict of interst case law for Planning Board members. For a quick review, read Dick Grabowsky’s brief on the Assisted Living facility or the Judge’s ruling on that development. Which lists the impacted cases and you can then read the salient other decisions.

    Again, you can have opinions on what you feel is inappropriate or creates an appearance of conflict. Fine. But you really should stop acting like a legal expert when you haven’t looked at the law carefully. And just don’t know.

    A Board member is allowed to have opinions on issues (overdevelopment, HP, parking etc.) just like everyone else in town, except that they are required to hear the evidence from an application impacting or raising those issues, and keep an open mind about it all until they vote. Robin Schlager voting on that council resolution before the PB vote — effectively telling the Planning Board how to vote, or to hurry up and vote and pass the developer’s plan then, created a conflict for her from that “keep an open required mind” case law decision.

    It could be argued after that she was not listening to the evidence and arguments unbiased, before deciding at the PB and Ira K. should have thus told her not to vote on that Council resolution, or she would create an issue putting her PB participation afterward at risk.

    He has been a previous Planning Board attorney and this one issue — on conflicts of interest — is one of the few constants that land use cases are overturned over — either for bias or for a personal connection to the applicant, or something directly impacted by the application. Ergo the Assisted Living vote but Fried and Lewis next door church elders.

    The Planning Board attorney here doesn’t follow what our Council does generally and in this case, at the time the PB attorney was a conflict attorney and lived out of town. The regular board attorney had a conflict of interest himself with some tie to the applicant. So it was on Ira (and Robin) to know the laws about bias and conflict impacting her board service while also acting as a Councilor.

    The flip side of this is a case ruiling for example that even though a Mayor ran for office opposing a supermarket in some location in another town, he was not ruled as biased in hearing the application at their PB because he was just like many other residents in town, in opposing a supermarket in that spot for various quality of life reasons. In that case, the court ruled the mayor came to the table with the same kinds of POV’s as others in town to start — therefore was not biased in his same and later decision when voting.

    Read the conflict of interest cases — you will get it.

  18. P.S. Abstentions are complicated and sometimes contradictory. However, by first putting forth a motion to reject the final Lackawanna plan which was defeated 5-2, and then abstaining on the “yes” vote — I felt I had made my “political” point that night — given I did not oppose most of the Plan — just the impacts on the stanchions and support structures.

    As to the actual legal-technical voting count impact of “abstaining”…it’s all over the place as POV’s within a public body. You err above by relating it to how it impacts a parliamentary vote. The Planning Board is not a European Parliament. It’s a local public body. And in this case was clearly going to pass the Plan 5-2. See:

  19. Martin,

    I hope to get my law degree one day soon. You should have read on thru to the 2nd appeal in citing Grabowsky v. Mtc.
    There is this itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie problem in your argument- Nick Lewis wasn’t on the Planning Board. Oops! No worries. We lost the readers 3 posts ago.

    It’s Montclair….ethics, smethics! It is only unethical if you get caught.

  20. PS: I giggle & think of apple pie every time I recall how Montclair prevailed over Mr Grabowsky citing the…wait for it…. the American Rule defense.

  21. Thank you for correcting me. I should have cited Robert’s Rules of Order:

    “ While it is the duty of every member who has an opinion on the question to express it by his vote, yet he cannot be compelled to do so. He may prefer to abstain from voting, though he knows the effect is the same as if he voted on the prevailing side.”

    The PB by-laws say:
    “ Abstentions are disfavored except for good cause. An abstention shall be deemed as an assent to the vote of the majority, but an abstaining member shall not vote on the memorialization of the Resolution.”

    FYI, the appropriate action, considering your position, should be to say Present. It is recorded as a No Vote.

  22. Martin,
    Just to fully address your 8/2 8:40pm and clarify my rebuttal…
    (The PB was subsequently included in the suit because of what the Master Plan said…and the Supreme Court basically said nah)
    The conflict was with the Council’s role. Under redevelopment law, the Governing Body (our Council) replaces the ZBA as the Zoning body. Fountain Square made a zoning application to the Council to allow ALFs. This application is where the conflict arose and they rightfully ruled, under the MLUL, the conflict of both Fried and Lewis. There PB attorney would have given advice to the members, using MLUL, on the PB’s role, which there wasn’t a conflict. The Council falls under LGEL, except in this case, acting as the Zoning authority, the Court defined MLUL personal interest standard to define the personal interest standard, in this specific case, under the LGEL.

    Mr Karasick should have advised the Fried & Lewis, if he knew of their imputed interests, of their potential conflict in participating in & vote to amend the zoning (in the redevelopment plan). Ultimately, LGEL and MLUL places the responsibility for avoiding conflicts on the individual. E.g. Fried, Lewis, Schlager, Spiller, and all of our future cases.

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