Jersey City Councilwoman Nidia Lopez will pay thousands of dollars the State of Florida claims she owes because she is, in fact, a Jersey City resident, her attorney argued in a brief submitted Friday.
The attorney, William Northgrave, says that Lopez mistakenly continued to claim a homestead exemption on her Orlando, Fla. house that was intended only for permanent Florida residents after she moved to Jersey City in 2000. She has “taken steps to correct that error” and will pay more than $30,000 the state says she owes in back taxes and penalties. Even the letter informing Lopez of her mistake “recognizes that taxpayers are often not aware of the legal requirements for the exemption,” Northgrave wrote.
Lopez, who overwhelmingly won the May election to represent Ward C on the Jersey City Council – becoming the city’s first Latina councilwoman – is fighting to hold on to her council seat over allegations that she is technically a Florida resident. In the brief, Northgrave seeks dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that Lopez has been a Jersey City resident since “at least” 2000 and that it was filed well past the 30 days statute of limitations for challenging election results.
The case is set to go to trial in Hudson County Superior Court on October 26.
The suit was originally filed in late June by Jimmy King, a civic activist who finished second behind in the May election. After King was arrested on corruption charges in July, good government reformer Norrice Raymaker – who also ran in May and finished third – picked up where he left off.
In the brief, Northgrave argues that Lopez, despite being registered to vote in both New Jersey and Florida, has not voted in Florida since 1997 “to the best of her recollection.”
“She believed, mistakenly, tahat her registration in New Jersey would have voided her registration in Florida,” wrote Northgrave.
Lopez has denied casting an absentee ballot in a 2003 election for mayor of Orlando, although Florida officials told the Jersey Journal that they have a record of the vote and that the ballot’s signature seems to match Lopez’s. She registered to vote in New Jersey in 2001 at the Corbin Avenue address she shares with her husband, Hudson County Director of Family Services Ben Lopez, and has voted from there 17 times.
Moreover, Northgrave argues, 24 of Lopez’s Corbin Avenue neighbors signed her nominating petitions for council.
Northgrave cited several precedents that showed candidates allowed to run despite more dramatic examples of residency issues, noting that courts generally interpret election law liberally to avoid voter disenfranchisement. In supporting that argument, he notes twice that Lopez, who ran on Mayor Jerramiah Healy's well-funded slate, got 100 votes more than her five opponents combined.
And although Raymaker knew that Lopez owned the Florida home as early as January, she did not challenge her until King was arrested, Northgrave argues.
Northgrave’s brief did not reference the fact that Lopez filed her income taxes in Florida – where there is no state income tax – despite testifying at a deposition that her business, Nidia Boehringer Consulting, operates exclusively in New Jersey.
“The discovery process has only raised more questions about Mrs. Lopez’s residency. It doesn’t answer them, and we believe the voters deserve a trial,” said Diana Jeffrey, who represents Raymaker.
Jeffrey, noted that Northgrave has used the statute of limitations argument before, when he tried to keep Raymaker from taking over the suit. Without any new information, she said, it would likely be rejected for a second time.
“It sounds to me like Northgrave is really just laying the foundation for an appeal,” she said. “The issue of whether or not we have the right to intervene has already been decided by the court.”