Superior Court Judge Robert C. Wilson ruled today in favor of petitioners with Teaneck’s One Town One Vote initiative, and against Acting Teaneck Town Clerk Doug Ruccione, allowing a ballot referendum moving local elections from May to November to be placed on this year’s general election ballot.
John Shahdanian, representing Ruccione, immediately indicated he would appeal the ruling and asked for a stay, but was denied by both Wilson and the appellate court. Bergen County will soon be able to print out ballots with the petition question included, alleviating worries that the legal dispute would delay the administration of elections in the township.
Wilson’s decision marks an end – at least for now – of a long and complicated process that unfolded this summer.
The initiative’s first petition attempt was rejected on July 29, with Ruccione citing an insufficient number of signatures. After petitioners collected more than 2,000 additional signatures in the following two weeks, Ruccione rejected them once again, this time saying that the petition illegally relied on an inapplicable statute. The petitioners filed suit soon afterwards.
In his ruling today, Wilson said that Ruccione had been inconsistent in his various reasons for rejecting the petition, and that the success of similar ballot questions in other municipalities provided legal precedent for the petitioners’ argument.
“The court is constrained to follow the will of the electorate, and not to disenfranchise the electorate in making a decision,” Wilson said. “[Ruccione] putting the belated claims that the ordinance was somehow defective is not appropriate.”
Although one of the leaders of the One Town One Vote initiative is influential Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), petitioners have charged that the Teaneck Town Council, which appoints Ruccione, has been behind the attempt to quash the referendum – charges that Shahdanian did little to dispel in his statements.
“We shouldn’t [conduct the referendum] on this election, because the council is being deprived of their right, at a meeting, to weigh in on this, to consider this appropriately as they’re supposed to be able to under the statute,” Shahdanian said. “They are the legal representatives – not the people that signed the petitions – they’re the legal representatives of the majority of people of Teaneck.”
Now, provided that Wilson’s ruling stands, Teaneck voters will decide this November whether to move their local elections as several other state municipalities have done. If they vote to do so, the incumbent members of the Teaneck Town Council will be faced with an electorate far larger than the ones they’ve relied on in typically low-turnout May elections.
“The committee of petitioners for One Town One Vote wants to thank everyone who worked on this initiative to bring voter choice to the ballot,” said Reshma Khan, one of the leaders of the initiative, in a statement. “This is true democracy.”
The case was the first of two court losses for Ruccione on the same day; in the afternoon, Wilson ruled against Shahdanian and Ruccione once again and ordered a separate renewable energy-related referendum onto the November ballot.
This story was updated at 4:36 p.m. with the verdict of the renewable energy case, and again at 4:46 p.m. with the appellate court’s denial of a stay.