Election qualifications disputed in 31st District

Wilbeck files appeal on ruling allowing O’Donnell to remain on ballot

The difference between a “special election” and a “general election” is the basis for an appeal filed with the Appellate Court last week after Superior Court Judge Maurice J. Gallipoli ruled that incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell did not violate the state’s election laws by failing to file petition signatures.
Denis Wilbeck, who is challenging O’Donnell, filed suit last week contending that O’Donnell did not meet the state’s criteria for becoming a candidate and should be tossed off the ballot.
Wilbeck, O’Donnell, Independent Democrat Robert Mays, and Republican Joseph Turula were on the Nov. 2 ballot to fill the unexpired term of Anthony Chiappone, who resigned last August.


“I checked with our counselor, Bill Northgrave. He said I was not required to submit them and he quoted me the law.” – Jason O’Donnell

Gallipoli agreed to hear arguments as to whether or not O’Donnell met the state criteria for filing as a candidate, then ruled that O’Donnell met the requirements, and refused to remove O’Donnell from the ballot.
Wilbeck immediately filed an appeal, claiming that Gallipoli used the wrong criteria for making the ruling.
“The judge said this was a general election, when it is a special election,” Wilbeck said.
He contends that O’Donnell is required to submit petition signatures in order to qualify to run in the special election. O’Donnell, when reached for comment, said he had prepared the signatures, but was told by his legal counsel that they were not required. This was confirmed by the state elections office, which said Democratic committee members for the 31st District had selected O’Donnell as their candidate, exempting him from needing petition signatures. Republican Joseph Turula, who had gathered his signatures, was also exempted for the same reason.
“We had the signatures ready,” O’Donnell said. “I checked with our counselor, Bill Northgrave. He said I was not required to submit them and he quoted me the law. But just to make sure, we checked with the state, and the state told us the same thing.”
Wilbeck contends that the provision does not apply to a special election, and that O’Donnell should be dropped from the ballot.

Ongoing battle

This is the latest of several disputes between Wilbeck and O’Donnell.
In September, O’Donnell and the Hudson County Democratic Organization filed a challenge to Wilbeck’s petition signatures in an attempt to invalidate his candidacy, claiming that Wilbeck did not have enough valid signatures to meet the requirement.
An Administrative Law judge, however, ruled against O’Donnell’s case.
Although Wilbeck raised questions about O’Donnell’s lack of signatures in September, he did not file suit against O’Donnell until six days prior to the election.
“I was caught up in his challenge,” Wilbeck said in explaining the delay.
Wilbeck’s legal challenge claims that O’Donnell eventually did file petition signatures, despite the state’s claim he did not have to, but two weeks late. The state usually allows a few days latitude for such filings, but most experts agree two weeks is usually beyond it.
“They submitted their signatures late,” Wilbeck said.
Since the appeal was not able to remove O’Donnell’s name from the ballot, Wilbeck’s campaign staff members hope that a ruling in Wilbeck’s favor will have the votes voided and the seat awarded to the candidate with the next-highest vote total.
The election will decide which candidate will fill Chiappone’s unexpired term, which expires at the end of 2011. Chiappone resigned after pleading guilty to one count of election law violations earlier this year.
Wilbeck ran for council-at-large earlier this year on a ticket headed by Chiappone, who was then running against Mark Smith for mayor. Mayor Smith was supported by O’Donnell, who also serves as the public safety director for the City of Bayonne and is the chairman of the city’s Democratic Committee.

Judge said to have applied wrong rules

Wilbeck supporters believe that Gallipoli applied the rules for a general election to this case, rather than a special election.
“There was no primary for this seat this year,” said Wilbeck supporter Joseph Olewski, who also served as Chiappone’s campaign manager. “So the Democratic Committee was not replacing a candidate when they voted for O’Donnell to replace Chiappone as an assemblyman. What we’re saying is that everybody needed to file petition signatures – even O’Donnell, and he didn’t do it in time according to the law.”
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