Orange City Council majority shoots down referendum

ORANGE, NJ — The quality of the legal counsel provided by attorneys for the city of Orange Township, the Orange City Council and the Orange Board of Education came into question Thursday, July 6, during the council’s annual reorganization meeting in Council Chambers.

Shortly after the council majority voted East Ward Councilman and former Council Vice President Kerry Coley as the new council president, outgoing council President Donna K. Williams made a motion to ask Orange voters if they want to change from a Type 1 school district with an appointed board to a Type 2 district with an elected board. The resolution had been tabled by the council at a previous meeting and Williams wanted to take it off the table and put it back on the agenda, so council could vote on it.

The only obstacle was a recent legal opinion from the Orange Attorney’s Office, in which city attorney Eric Pennington sent a letter to council saying that, according to the legal interpretation of existing state law by his office, Orange residents must wait four years before making a change in the city’s district type since Superior Court Judge Tom Vena overturned the results of Public Question No. 1 on the November 2016 ballot.

The judge’s ruling voided the results of the Orange Board of Education’s special election on Tuesday, March 28, which sought to elect two new school board members, increasing the number of board members from seven to nine in compliance with the requirements of a Type 2 district.

Williams and at large Councilman Christopher Jackson disagreed with the city attorney’s legal opinion, saying they believe when Vena overturned the results of Public Question No. 1, his intention was for the city to create a new referendum that remedied the deficiencies of the original referendum.

But Pennington and North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason said that once Vena overturned the original Public Question No. 1, according to state law, the city must wait four years before trying to change the district type again. Joseph Edelstein, the special attorney for the Orange Board of Education, echoed this sentiment.

“You may recall that, in 2016 into 2017, the following took place — the City Council passed a resolution, which placed on the ballot a referendum, which is worded differently, but substantially similar to the referendum that’s before you tonight,” said Edelstein on Thursday, July 6. “There was an election in November, the referendum passed, because the referendum passed, there was a special election of the school district scheduled for March of 2017, that’s the equivalent to the election that’s now being described as taking place in January 2018, and that was to increase the size of the board from seven members to nine members, and that’s because that’s what’s required by the statute.

“Also, by statute, it’s the obligation of the school district to conduct that election and it did, at a cost of approximately $40,000. Now, at the end of all that, the outcome of that referendum was voided by a judge, because there were flaws in the process but, nevertheless, the process played out. The referendum was placed on the ballot, it was voted on, there was an outcome, there was another election, that election was paid for and it had a result. The statute that we’re talking about here couldn’t be any clearer. It says: ‘The clerk shall not cause the question to be submitted if a similar question was submitted in an election within the previous four years.’”

Edelstein said the four-year ban didn’t come from Vena’s ruling on Thursday, April 13, but is state law.

“It doesn’t matter that the outcome of the election was voided, because the fact of the matter is that the legislative history of this statute is that it is a financial statute,” said Edelstein. “It attacks the evil of having a repetitive cost for the same election. There is no question in my mind, none, and I gather, although it has never been shared with me, that it sounds like the corporation counsel comes out in the same place on this, that it would be flatly unlawful for this council to place this on the ballot a second time within four years. It would create an unnecessary cost to the school district of more than $40,000, because the cost of elections never go down; they only go up.

“And since there was a criticism by the court of the lack of public education about the referendum, I’m sure that there would be additional costs there as well. So I’m here to implore you, on behalf of the school district, not to turn this into ‘Groundhog Day.’ Let’s not do this again. There is a time and place that this referendum can be heard, but this is not the time. There is a time and place that this referendum can be heard, but this is not the time. Four years from November 2016 is the time.”

Williams, Jackson and members of the audience at the meeting, including Jeff Feld, Katalin Gordon, Derrick Henry and Tyrone Tarver, disagreed with Edelstein’s opinion and said it would be unfair to force voters that want to change from a Type 1 district to a Type 2 district to wait four years, until 2020 to start the process again. West Ward District Leader William Hathaway, who is a known ally of Mayor Dwayne Warren, sided with Edelstein, Pennington and Eason.

When the resolution to redo the referendum was put to a vote at the meeting on Thursday, July 6, the council majority voted against it, 4-2, with Eason, Coley, Summers-Johnson and West Ward Councilman Harold Johnson voting against the measure and Williams and Jackson voting for it. At large Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten left the meeting prior to the vote.