In Brief

Judge orders Piscataway council to drop competing ballot questions

By: - September 14, 2021 6:46 am

The Piscataway Township Council, led by its president, Kapil K. Shah, must drop two questions it wants on November’s ballot, a judge has ruled. (Courtesy of Piscataway)

A Superior Court judge has ruled Piscataway’s council “interfered with and subverted” state law governing local referendums when it approved two ballot questions for November that competed with public questions placed on the ballot by local petition drives.

The judge’s ruling paves the way for just two of the proposed four ballot questions to go before Piscataway voters and ends what one local progressive activist called a “shameful scheme” by the township to deceive voters.

“We are proud to have defended the rights of residents when the mayor and township council tried to violate the ‘crystal clear’ parameters of the law by trying to place unlawful ballot questions that intended to scare, intimidate, and confuse voters and claiming costs would raise taxes or reduce services,” said Staci Berger, president of the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization.

The local petition drives separately sought two binding public questions on November’s ballot, one asking voters whether the township council should livestream its meetings and the other seeking approval for Piscataway to create a division of emergency medical services.

After the petitions gained enough signatures to appear on the ballot, the council approved two additional questions, these nonbinding, that would have told voters livestreaming meetings would cost $575,100 and creating the new emergency medical services division would cost $643,683. These proposed public questions were derided by critics as bids to scare voters off both plans.

It is unclear how the township reached those figures. In the Piscataway council’s legal filings, the body claimed the livestreaming expenses were related to equipment and personnel costs but provided no explanation of how it determined the costs to create an emergency services division.

Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Thomas McCloskey’s Friday order requires the township pull its ballot questions and leave the two filed by petition.

“We’re just glad that the judge saw what was happening,” said Evan Shegoski, chief operating officer of the River Road Rescue Squad, a nonprofit providing emergency medical services to the Piscataway area.

McCloskey declined to order the township to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

The petitions filed by the plaintiffs — a group that includes, among others, the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization, former council candidates Laura Leibowitz and Kamuela Tillman, and Berger, who is a member of Piscataway’s Democratic Municipal Committee — were initially denied after the township clerk found they were filed with too few valid signatures.

Both petitions, each filed by a different committee, were initially declined after the township clerk eliminated signatures that dropped them beneath the 830-signature threshold needed to appear on the ballot.

It’s not unusual for some signatures to be removed during the process as officials find signers who were not registered to vote or are otherwise ineligible, and residents later filed additional signatures to clear the 830-name bar.

The case operated under a tight timeline. The deadline for clerks to begin sending out vote-by-mail ballots is Saturday. The deadline to transmit ballots to printers was Monday, Sept. 13.

Attorneys for Piscataway charged the plaintiffs’ bid for emergency restraints should be denied because a request to relax petition filing deadlines in their complaint was vague, threatened to expose the township’s election results to challenges, and could prevent the township clerk from meeting ballot deadlines.

“The mayor and council members should never have wasted taxpayer monies on this shameful scheme,” Berger said.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.