Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hoboken election integrity withstands legal challenge on rent control vote

MILE SQUARE VIEW EXCLUSIVE




Legal election challenge withdrawn will not change narrow victory on rent control

After two consecutive years of legal challenges in Hudson County Superior Court, the rent control issue driving the most votes in two consecutive November elections with over twenty five thousand tabulated in 2012 and 2013 will see its victory at the polls upheld.

The end to the latest legal challenge on rent control, ballot question no. 1 in last November's Hoboken election came after the court ruled more than 180 Vote by Mail voters would be compelled to testify in person on their respective votes using the controversial Vote by Mail paper ballots.

Their ballots were thrown out of election tallies based on a Hudson County Board of Elections ruling they were improperly handled.

The majority of almost 290 ballots not making the final election certification were never mailed - instead the majority of those contested ballots were handled by "bearers" of the Let the People Decide political committee.

The end to the legal election challenge means there will be no undoing of the narrow 122 vote victory among almost 10,000 cast after the legal complaint was voluntarily dismissed by Charles Gormally, Director of Litigation for Brach Eichler.

That firm represented Hoboken petitioners in the legal complaint put before Judge Francis Schultz in Hudson County Superior Court. Among the group of petitioners, Frank "Pupie" Raia who also heads the Let the People Decide political committee.

Renee Steinhagen, Executive Director of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center,  intervening on behalf of the Hoboken Fair Housing Authority expressed satisfaction the integrity of the election was preserved with the majority respected but added strong reservations on what had transpired leading into the court case saying, "It became apparent inconsistencies with rejected Vote by Mail ballots by the Let the People Decide campaign were mounting where irregularities and unlawful conduct were evident."

Steinhagen pointed to two ballot bearers, those who collected and carried ballots to the Hudson County Board of Elections working for Raia: Dio Braxton and Lizaida Camis. Describing their roles as being both troubling and problematic, she added concern over the Beth Mason connected political firm Bluewater Operations saying, "(These) individual operators faced documentary subpoenas and the handwriting was on the wall if petitioners had chosen to continue their misguided crusade."

Bluewater Operations in NJ ELEC documents accepted more than $20,000 in funding from the Let the People Decide Committee and was subpoenaed for its records on the matter of how those monies were handled and ultimately their purpose.

Steinhagen described the testimony heard in court as an "unlawful vote by mail scheme... that we all know has been in effect for at least the past four years, primarily in the fourth ward."

Ron Simoncini of MSTA is unhappy with the outcome
on ballot question no. 1, re: rent control.
The contentiousness of the rent control issue and the extremely close outcome this year and last lent itself to a correspondingly polar opposite perspective. In a statement to MSV, Ron Simoncini, executive director of Mile Square Taxpayers Association (MSTA) and a regular speaker at City Council meeting on rent control differed sharply writing, "This is an incredible moment of bias. None of these voters was under trial - the decision by the County Board of Elections was."

Charles Gormally in a written statement echoed Simoncini, complaining about the number of Vote by Mail voters who would be placed under a court microscope writing, "This is an unprecedented and unexpected application of election law that results in freezing Hoboken's divisive and unrewarding rent control ordinance."

But the Hudson County Board of Elections maintained a decidedly more favorable view of the outcome. Michael Harper, Clerk for the Board was unequivocal with his pleasure with the withdrawal saying, "It was clear throughout these (court) proceedings that the Board made proper use of it's discretion to reject ballots that were improperly handled or displayed questionable chain-of-custody."

Harper said the court result means the county plans applying a standard where it will "do everything in our power to ensure that elections are administered in a fair and impartial manner," which can be expected in the future.

The close election outcome and running court battles means the rent control question resolved at the polls promises to continue in both rancor and a contention of unfairness. Simoncini sounded a sour note concluding, "Under the court's ruling, each of more than 180 voters would have had to appear in court, violating their right to anonymously vote while suffering inconvenience and loss of work time."

This MSV editor was called as a witness and testified for more than a day to the outlandish proportion of Vote by Mail numbers coming out of Hoboken in comparison to the rest of Hudson County, especially in the fourth ward going back to the 2010 special election where Timmy Occhipinti was declared the victor.

That testimony also spoke to what was described by one anonymous witness outside the Frank Raia Civic Association the day after the election as payment for votes.  SmartyJones' testimony was challenged before it began with Gormally trying to prevent it when called but the judge differed.

The issue of the Shield law or reporter's privilege during a day and a half of testifying came up dozens of times. Each time it was asserted, Judge Schultz upheld its application dismaying Gormally who aggressively cross-examined Da Horsey in an attempt to undermine the Hoboken war horse's credibility.

The political overtones in the case were not lost with additional testimony from Hoboken rent control advocate Dan Tumpson and Councilman Ravi Bhalla, who has been a staunch defender of a balanced view on rent control. Bhalla recently sponsored an ordinance just passed with City Council President Jen Giattino to allow decontrol of condominiums in Hoboken where owners have resided for two years. Tumpson offered comparative data analysis on the application of Vote by Mail in Hoboken over several recent elections.

Via email, Bhalla submitted, "Routine abuse of the Vote by Mail process is a cancer in Hoboken that impacts the integrity of elections in our city. Those who shined a ray of light upon these abuses by raising the issue in the context of this litigation should be commended for their efforts."

But Simoncini added another discordant note concluding, "We feel that this ruling is a complete miscarriage of justice, especially in that it was overtly won through uncorroborated testimony by politically-motivated witnesses."

In the end however, that complaint about testimony wasn't decisive in the case as the legal action was withdrawn and not due to witnesses, individual or collective. Contention over parts of testimony was never finalized by the judge and in the end, he was not called upon to decide the case.

The burden of prepping dozens of voters who submitted Vote by Mail and would need to withstand withering cross examination in the manner of how they voted may have been the final straw but it's not clear if additional subpoenas of VBM soldiers would have led to a bigger disaster with criminal referrals.

It's also uncertain what role if any the subpoena to Bluewater Operations may have played in seeing the plaintiffs pulling the plug on the case.

Rent control in Hoboken will continue to hold a residual taste dramatically different on both sides of the razor sharp divided question.  It won't however be decided in a courtroom near term but will continue to see additional modifications considered piecemeal in the City Council.



Talking Ed Note: Frank Raia was unavailable for comment due to what he described as a late evening meeting in New Brunswick.

Beth Mason did not respond to an inquiry on a subpoena being sent to the political consulting firm closely aligned with her -Bluewater Operations which managed her 2011 council campaign and distributed over $50,000 in "street money."

This story was updated with a requested comment from Councilman Ravi Bhalla.

For the record, MSV did not discuss testifying with any elected officials or similar nor receive any compensation for doing so.  We'll have more on that firsthand experience and wish to thank Judge Schultz for the gracious patience shown during the day and a half a horse sat in the witness box.

Hoboken owes much gratitude to Renee Steinhagen who took on this election case pro bono, especially since it looked like it would continue for more than a month.  How does one calculate value in defending the integrity of the vote?

This story was assisted with a tomahawk dunk from Jhnny Newman, cub reporter and ace photographer.