Bill would block new referendum votes for a decade

Reformists are crying foul over a bill that they say is aimed at stopping a group of New Brunswick activists from changing the way the city elects its council members. 

The bill, which has passed the senate and is set for an assembly vote on Monday, would force groups to wait a decade between tries to change the way municipal governments are elected. 

“That’s an abuse of the Legislature,” said the New Jersey Appleseed attorney Diana Jeffrey, who represents the New Brunswick Group, Empower Our Neighborhoods.  “This is trying to make them stop two years from now, and make them wait ten years.”

After months of wrangling, Empower Our Neighborhoods managed to get a question on the ballot in November that would expand the city council from five at-large members to nine members, of whom three would be at-large and six from wards.  The question was defeated by just over 100 votes. 

The group plans to try again in two years.  But if the bill is passed and signed into law, they will not be able to. 

Current law allows petitions to change the form of municipal governments to be brought every two, three or four years, depending on the type of government.  The new law, sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), would only allow those petitions to be brought once every 10 years. 

An identical version of the bill sponsored by state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) passed the senate yesterday 21-15 in a vote that was largely along party lines.   

Among the yes votes was Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), who has built a reformist reputation by Bergen County’s entrenched Democratic Party machinery.  Weinberg said she intended to vote no but hit the wrong button because she w as distracted by a phone call.

“I just looked up and pushed the yes button, and I didn’t realize it was that bill, which I had marked down on my list to vote no on.  I made a mistake and didn’t know it until the board was closed,” said Weinberg, adding that she was lobbying her assembly colleagues to vote no on the bill on Monday. 

Jeffrey made the case in a letter to Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), writing that the bill would “take away citizens’ rights of self governance and self determination.”

“This is the first step the legislature has taken, since broadening citizens’ rights to self govern in 1982, to curtail those rights,” she wrote.  

Quijano could not be reached for comment.

The Latino Leadership Alliance (LLANJ) and League of Municipalities have also recommended that legislators vote against the bill.

In a letter to legislators, LLANJ President Martin Perez said the legislation was “anti-democratic and contrary to the traditional values of the democratic party and the interests of  its traditional constituents.” adding that it “aims to protect governing bodies from challenge by organized dissatisfied constituents by limiting the voters’ access to  participatory democratic processes for change and reform.”

Bill would block new referendum votes for a decade