Undaunted by the narrow defeat at the polls last November, members of the Bayonne Tenants Organization are looking at the May 2014 municipal election as a target date to again try and get rent control restored in the City of Bayonne.
Bayonne advocates for restoring rent control got the question on the ballot in November 2012, but lost by 500 votes. About 2,500 units out of 15,000 apartments citywide are overseen by rent control.
Flavio L. Komuves, an attorney who worked to help retain rent control in Hoboken and helped draft the ordinance BTO got on the ballot in Bayonne, talked strategy with the members as to what they should do next at the Feb. 19 meeting.
The City Council voted in November 2011 to do away with rent control, allowing apartments currently under rent control guidelines to revert to market rate when the current residents move out.
A group of advocates tried to reverse this decision by seeking to put the matter on the ballot by referendum, which would have prohibited the change from taking place until voters decided on the matter. But paperwork problems and the death of one of the petition signature collectors caused these early efforts to fail by the time legal deadlines rolled around.
The Bayonne Tenants Association began in April 2012 in response to the City Council’s move to abolish rent control in the city, and managed to collect almost 49 percent of the total vote last November.
“You’re putting your name out against the political machine. That takes courage.” – Flavio Komuves
There are two methods available in Bayonne, Hoboken and some other communities for reversing a council’s decision: referendum and initiative.
There is no state wide initiative or referendum in New Jersey. In general, towns with a Faulkner Act form of government have these options. These are usually larger towns, Komuves said.
Citizens who get enough signatures, he said, can propose a wide range of ordinances.
“Almost anything the City Council can do, you can do, but there are some exceptions,” he said, noting that issues like solid waste or redevelopment, zoning or planning cannot be.
Bayonne advocates struggled to reverse the City Council’s move to abolish rent control by referendum.
Komuves said there are two ways to reverse a council decision referendum that requires people to obtain signatures of registered voters in a number that is 15 percent of the last general odd-year election.
The initiative, which was the method, used in Bayonne and in Hoboken in last November, requires only 10 percent of the vote, but he said getting as near to 15 percent – but not over – is a good option because some signatures will be discounted for various reasons.
Over 15 percent would likely result in a special election, which would reduce the chances of advocates getting the initiative passed.
“If you get more than 15 percent, don’t turn them in. Use them as an organizing list later,” he said.
By law, advocates have to turn in their signatures 113 days prior to the election. Since BTO members said they are looking towards the May 2014 election, when the mayor and all council seats will be up for reelection, Komuves suggested that they collect the signatures in September and turn them in at some point in early November.
“You don’t want to be trying to collect signatures over the holidays,” he said.
Delaying the election to May 2014 also poses an additional obstacle. The number of signatures the BTO will need will likely be higher because it will be based on this year’s turnout in November, which will have a higher turnout because of the gubernatorial election.
The referendum will likely be tied to a political campaign that will attempt to unseat the current mayor and council, who pushed to void the city’s rent control.
Former Councilman Gary LaPelusa gave a $100 donation to the group and encouraged its members to march behind his civic association in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. With two fundraisers coming up, LaPelusa said he would donate even more to the organization if he reaches his goals. But he stopped short of declaring his candidacy, saying he supports rent control but has not yet decided if he will run for office.
Also possibly on their agenda would be an initiative to change the change the way school board trustees are selected. The members of the school board in Bayonne are currently appointed by the mayor. This group would seek to put those seats up for election, something that existed in Bayonne up until the 1990s.
“Those who favor an appointed board say it keeps politics out of school elections,” Komuves said. “I don’t know if it’s any less political if you have a mayor appointing the members.”
Such a move would also allow the voting public to vote on the school budget, which the public does not do currently.
Komuves said signing these petitions and working on these drives is an act of political courage.
“You’re putting your name out against the political machine,” he said. “That takes courage.”