A watchdog group that sought to enact a local pay-to-play ordinance in Gloucester Township learned Tuesday it has lost in its last-ditch effort to see the measure put to voters this November.
A three-judge New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division panel on Tuesday upheld a Superior Court judge's earlier decision to exclude hundreds of signatures collected by the group, denying the emergent appeal of petitioners Tom Crone, Joshua Berry, Beth Holzman, Robbie Traylor and Donald Choyce—all members of conservative watchdog group South Jersey Citizens.
"Very satisfied with the order that came out of the Appellate Division," Township Solicitor David Carlamere said on Wednesday.
The Appellate Division judges—Jack M. Sabatino, John C. Kennedy and Marianne Espinosa—affirmed Superior Court Judge Louis R. Meloni's decision that Township Clerk Rosemary DiJosie, the named defendant in the lawsuit, acted appropriately in rejecting 11 petition forms on technical grounds.
"We agree with the trial court that the attempted corrective action unilaterally selected by plaintiffs here to cure the defective circulator affidavits was inadequate under the relevant statutes and was reasonably rejected by the municipal clerk," the judges' decision reads.
(Editor's Note: The entire decision is available in PDF format to the right.)
The circulator affidavits in question initially were notarized by a Pennsylvania-licensed notary public—a violation of state law—when submitted to the clerk on Feb. 13, and were rejected by DiJosie. The petitioners had the affidavits re-notarized by a New Jersey notary public, but not in DiJosie's presence, as she had requested in a March 1 letter sent to Crone.
The affidavits, while numbered to connect them to numbered petition forms, were not attached to the forms when Crone and Berry submitted them to DiJosie on March 9, nor were the notary or circulators present. Those forms were again rejected.
Tuesday's decision means the SJC petition committee fell short of the required 1,047 signatures necessary for residents to advance proposed legislation to the Council and, if necessary, the ballot.
Reneé Steinhagen, of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, represented the petitioners in their legal battle. She issued the following statement late Tuesday:
"We are disappointed in the outcome, and feel that the court unfairly burdened the Committee of Petitioners (COP) with knowing the types of additional information that they should have provided to the Township Clerk in order to prove that they used an appropriate process when correcting their circulator affidavits. It is our position that the method employed by the Committee of Petitioners to correct the affidavits was proper, and if the Clerk had doubts that they had signed and notarized the affidavits in the presence of copies of the petitions, then she should have questioned the notary or the circulators or asked the Committee to produce the copies during the review period rather than rejecting otherwise valid signatures of voters.
"In this matter, the Township set up numerous hurdles for the COP to overcome, rather than processing their petition in a neutral manner. The Committee beat back in court allegations of fraud and the Clerk's rejection of 299 signatures because they were not circulated by the Committee of Petitioners themselves—a requirement that had no basis in law. Unfortunately, the Township and Court decided not to accept a correction method used by petitioners in other municipalities, and thus deprived the citizens of Gloucester Township of their opportunity to vote on pay-to-play reform in the upcoming general election."
With a mid-September deadline to have measures put on the Nov. 6 ballot, there is seemingly no way the SJC group will get the measure to the Township Council for its consideration at a public meeting. Council would have had to have refused to act on the proposed measure, or significantly altered the group's intent, in order for it to have been put to voters as a ballot question.
In publicly labeling Carlamere a pay-to-player on several occasions in recent months, SJC members and Republican operatives have questioned the solicitor's credibility on the proposed pay-to-play ordinance.
Tuesday's ruling served as vindication, of sorts, for the solicitor.
"The affidavit of the clerk, at the lower Superior Court level, as well as at the appellate level—because her affidavit was referred to in the Appellate Court's decision—clearly sets forth that the clerk sought my advice on issues that dealt with the legalities of the circulators and the affidavits and what have you," Carlamere said. "And the Court felt that she was proper to do that and, obviously, because of the end result, that my advice to her was correct advice because they upheld the clerk's actions as not being abusive, as being within the mandates and dictates of the statute. So, my advice to the clerk, and guidance to her, was appropriate."
At its July 9 meeting, the Township Council approved on first reading its own version of pay-to-play legislation, written and moved by Councilman Dan Hutchison and targeting Super PACs.
The governing body pulled the ordinance from consideration at its July 24 meeting, and the same ordinance has become the centerpiece of another petition drive—this time by Democrats.
Meloni, the Superior Court judge, sided with the SJC committee during a July 10 hearing regarding several residents who claimed their signatures were improperly collected or forged during the months-long petition drive.
Read more about Gloucester Township Patch’s coverage of the pay-to-play issue:
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