Earlier today two important, and probably not unrelated, milestones occurred in the ongoing initiative to have Montclair join the 98% of other towns in New Jersey with local school boards elected by voters rather than selected by mayors. We received official word from the Township clerk’s office of their receipt of 2,004 signature sheets for our petition for a referendum on shifting to an elected model, and then word from Mayor Sean Spiller that he was “fully supportive” of the change, if the voters so desired.
Like all well-crafted political documents, Spiller’s statement can be read several ways. It seems to suggest that he is supporting the change, but actually doesn’t say that at all. In fact, all it says is that he would be willing to support a legal change once it has already been made by public referendum. Which, frankly, is saying nothing, since if the change is made it doesn’t matter in the least whether the mayor supports it or not.
What does matter is whether the mayor is willing to do two things.
One is to ensure that the type of voter suppression we like to think only takes place in other places in America is not about to take place here. The petition was cleared in advance by the Township clerk and attorney, and was signed by a number of local voters well in excess of the 1,020 required by law. The Township has the power to wholesale disqualify petition sheets for signatures that don’t neatly match those on the voter roll, as it did with the more controversial petition on rent control. And as one lifelong resident told me last week, “I first registered to vote 40 years ago, and I have no idea what my signature looked like.”
If the town were to take these or other aggressive measures to deny certification of the petition it would represent a grave breach of trust, especially for a mayor whose tenure in office continues to be clouded by his election opponent’s allegations of voter suppression.
Meanwhile, if the mayor is genuinely interested in “upholding the trust residents have placed in me” he will also vow to help ensure that this initiative, and future Township elections, are not subject to the same barrage of outside money that accompanied his campaigns for Township Council and mayor. Just as we like to think that voter suppression can’t happen in Montclair, the mayor and his allies like to pretend that outside money isn’t something that they are responsible for. But the simple fact is that in his new “day job” as president of the state teachers’ union the mayor is by far the largest single source of political cash in the state. He should not use it to influence elections in Montclair, full stop. This means not only eschewing campaign contributions or independent expenditures, but the financing of legal challenges, such as against the current elected BOE initiative.
We are grateful for the mayor’s acknowledgement, and for the Town clerk’s friendly acceptance of our thousands of pages of signatures. Now let’s see these words matched by deeds.