As expected, during a long meeting on Nov. 24, the City Council tabled an ordinance that would move municipal elections from May to November. The ordinance was due for a public hearing, but the council acted prior to the public comment period of the meeting, avoiding what was expected to be a cantankerous exchange.
Despite this, more than a dozen people at the meeting expressed their displeasure with the ordinance. Many complained that the narrow vote on the November referendum did not give the council the mandate to make the move, despite the predisposition of some council members.
According to the Hudson County Clerk’s website, 9,970 people voted on the question, which passed 5,223 to 4,747, a margin of slightly over 4 percent. By contrast, 24,771 total votes were cast in the city Board of Education race on the same ballot.
Mayor Steven Fulop and his slate of candidates ran on a platform in 2013 that included moving the elections. Moving mayor and council elections to November, when other elections are held, would likely increase turnout and save money.
Critics, however, said that outside Ward E, where Fulop was councilman and where Candice Osborne currently sits as councilperson, many of the wards showed only moderate approval. Wards A and F, which are the poorer sections of the city, defeated the referendum by wide margins.
With the exception of Council President Rolando Lavarro and Councilman Richard Boggiano, members of the council refrained from commenting on their votes.
Lavarro tried to dispel some of the arguments critics have brought up in previous meetings against the ordinance. Lavarro said there has been a lot of controversy involving the ordinance and the referendum that was narrowly passed on Nov. 3.
“Statistically, this is a split vote, not a mandate.” – Josephine Page
He said that seven of the members of the council ran on a platform that included moving the May election to November.
“It was in black and white from the start,” he said. “You can hold us accountable for keeping our word. We put the issue on the ballot in a non-binding referendum. Despite what people want to say about low turnout, it passed. We did not put a lot of effort to push it. The opposition put a great deal of effort to stop it and still it passed.”
He also discounted the argument that because voters in Ward F and Ward A voted to defeat the referendum that council members from those wards should vote against the ordinance.
“By that reasoning the council members in Ward C and Ward D should support it,” he said, referring to councilmen Boggiano and Michael Yun. Boggiano and Yun are outspoken critics of the change.
Boggiano responded saying that the two councilmen had not organized opposition to the move and if they had, those wards would have voted against the referendum as well.
Lavarro also dismissed a comparison between the May, 2013 municipal election and the November general elections, which critics claimed show the municipal elections sometimes brought out more votes than the general elections. Lavarro said it was an unfair comparison, since the May 2013 was a hotly contested race between significantly funded campaigns, as opposed to a general election in which Gov. Christopher Christie was seen as a winner well before the election took place.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” he said. “But if you look historically, May elections generally have lower turn out than in November.”
Opposing forces hope to get another election
Tabling the measure may give opponents more time to implement a new referendum if they act under a rarely-used state law that allows voters to appeal an ordinance. They will need slightly more than 2,000 signatures and will have 20 days after the ordinance is adopted to submit these. This would require the City Council to either repeal the ordinance or call for a special election to allow voters to decide once again if they want elections moved.
They have about 40 people out in the field gathering signatures, and expect to have the necessary number when needed.
Yvonne Balcer, who is one of the lead opponents of the move, said she gathered 14 signatures just prior to the City Council meeting.
“Most of the people had already signed,” she said.
It is unclear when the council will actually call for a new vote on the ordinance, which will require the council to reintroduce the ordinance, and hold a public hearing.
Public needs to be educated?
While council members for the most part refrained from comment at the public meeting, some did explain their logic at the Nov. 23 caucus meeting.
Councilwoman Diane Coleman asked for the final vote to be tabled in order to better inform the public on the benefits of the change. Coleman represents Ward F where voters rejected the change.
“I don’t want to vote on this until my constituents are satisfied,” she said. “I think we should do more research, advertise and market this. Some part of the community appears to not know how it will work and how it will benefit the city. I think it should be made clear. We need to show people.”
Councilwoman Joyce Watterman, however, asked what plan there was to educate the public.
“We should know that before we vote to table this,” she said.
Councilmen Yun and Boggiano voted to table. Lavarro, who eventually voted to table the ordinance, however, seemed to want to vote on the ordinance.
“The benefits are there,” he said.
Many residents got to speak anyway
Of the members of the public who spoke at the Nov. 24 meeting, none were in favor of the change.
Arnold Williams said the issue was less about the number of voters coming out for the election than a change of focus. He said municipal elections were too important to mingle them in with other elections.
“This is about focus,” he said, noting that people stayed away from elections because they were unhappy. “This is about indifference.”
Pat O’Melia echoed some of these sentiments, but said moving the elections to November would give the Hudson County Democratic Organization much more say in who gets elected, even though municipal elections are supposed to be non-partisan.
Historically, moving elections to May was part of election reforms in the 1940s to reduce the influence of party bosses such as then Mayor Frank Hague.
O’Melia also questioned some of the proposed savings to taxpayers, saying that the cost would simply be shifted from the municipal to the county government.
More importantly, he said, the May election gives the issues the attention that would be lost in the tangle of other elected offices being decided in May.
“The May elections are also a job generator,” he said, noting that printers, landlords, and local publications all make money as a result.
“Millions are brought into the community,” he said.
Balcer also claimed that in promoting the referendum, Mayor Fulop had issued emails with misleading information as to the actual savings.
Josephine Page said that 60 percent of the voters in Ward A and 67 percent of the voters in Ward F voted against the change, while Wards C and D only marginally passed the referendum. The referendum appeared to win because Ward E approved it by 75 percent of the vote.
“Statistically, this is a split vote, not a mandate,” she told the council. “I think you need to give this serious thought. You should take this back to the voters or when you bring this back on the agenda, vote against it.”
Lorenzo Richardson said he did not like missing non partisan and partisan elections.
Barbara Camacho also spoke out against the ordinance.
“I can think of more pressing issues [facing the council] than moving the election,” she said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.