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Howell GOP council candidate Fred Gasior. (Photo: Howell Township Republicans).

Judge takes Howell ballot challenge down to the wire

Hearing on Thursday to decide if two GOP candidates qualify; ballots set to be mailed on Saturday

By David Wildstein, April 20 2022 9:54 pm

Military and overseas vote-by-mail ballots for the June 7 primary election are due to be mailed out on Saturday, but that hasn’t created any sense of urgency for a Superior Court Judge hearing a petition challenge in Monmouth County.

The judge, Kathleen A. Sheedy, scheduled a hearing for Thursday afternoon to decide if two Republican council candidates in Howell will make the ballot.

That leaves the narrowest of runways for election officials to print ballots and prepare them for mailing and still comply with a federal law that requires military ballots to go out 45 days before an election.

If one of the parties appeals her ruling, there’s no reasonable chance for the ballots to go out on time.

A spokesperson for  the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts blamed the delay on holiday court closures on the law firm representing the Democrats, Rainone Coughlin Minchello.

“The matter was filed at 10:20 PM on Thursday, April 14.  Courts were not open Friday for Good Friday.  The matter was not marked emergent and the filing party did not notify any court personnel about its filing,” said MaryAnn Spoto, the judiciary spokesperson  “Judge Sheedy was assigned the matter Monday and was prepared to hear it that day but postponed the proceeding when she learned all parties had not been noticed of the filing.”

The delay illustrates a growing problem with New Jersey election matters: the legislature has never acted to move up the filing deadline to meet new laws that require little turnaround time to prepare ballots before early voting starts.

Administrative law judges hear challenges to petitions filed with the Secretary of State and they move fast.  Six challenges filed on before the Friday, April 8 deadline for congressional candidates were heard on Monday, April 11 and Tuesday, April 12.  One administrative law judge held an evening court hearing to accommodate an attorney with a time conflict, and another reviewed petitions for 16 hours over a two-day period.

But the Superior Court, which has jurisdiction over nominating petitions for county and municipal office, moves more slowly in some cases.  One exception was a challenge this week to embattled Middlesex County Clerk Nancy Pinkin’s decision to abruptly cancel the ballot draw; a challenge was filed last Thursday and Assignment Judge Michael Toto held a hearing on Monday.

There are still outstanding legal challenges to petitions in Union and Morris counties, as well as a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court where a Republican candidate for Passaic County Sheriff is challenging the constitutionality of a three-year residency requirement.

The lawsuit filed by a Howell Democrat, John Hughes, alleges that two Republicans,  Fred Gasior and Susan Fischer, failed to garner enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The issue is whether Gasior and Fischer, along with another candidate, Ian Nadel, can consider their petitions to have been filed jointly.  Democrats say they cannot since the petitions were not circulated with each name.  The acting municipal clerk, Allison Ciranni, approved the petitions.

Gasior originally submitted 50 signatures and Fischer 52; in each case, enough were determined to be invalid to push them below the required 50 signatures.  Nadel, turned in 80 and had enough to make the ballot.

Gasior and Fischer can still mount a write-in campaigns for the nomination, where they’d need to receive a minimum of 50 votes –the same number as the signatures required for ballot access –to win the primary.  But complicating matters is the presence of a fourth off-the-line Republican candidate, Michael Bernstein.

Of the three at-large seats up this year, two are held by retiring Republican incumbents, Councilwoman Pamela Raymond and appointed Councilwoman Suzanne Brennan, while Democratic Councilman John Bonevich is running for re-election to the third seat.

Gasior and Fisher will be represented by Michael Collins of King, Moench, Hirniak and Collins.  Christopher Dasti is representing Ciranni.

The Monmouth County Clerk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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