Batista contests Hillside runoff as Vertreese sworn-in as mayor

Photo by Rebecca Panico
Dahlia Vertreese took the oath of office to become the new mayor of Hillside at a Jan. 2 ceremony at Kean University despite an election challenge from Jorge Batista.

HILLSIDE, NJ — The losing mayoral candidate in Hillside has filed a lawsuit contesting the results of the town’s December runoff elections, claiming voter impersonation and miscounts by county officials.

Jorge Batista filed suit Dec. 27 in Union County Superior Court and called for an invalidation of the results of the Dec. 5 runoff for both mayor and town council, and for a new election. Mayor Dahlia Vertreese was sworn into office in a Jan. 2 ceremony after certified results showed she had won by 18 votes in the runoff, in which about 3,400 votes were cast.

“We believe that the true will of Hillside voters was thwarted,” Batista said in a statement, adding, “and even though voters may yearn for closure following an unusually competitive campaign, we felt this action was necessary after uncovering evidence suggesting that the election was not free or fair.

“We’re optimistic that, regardless of the outcome, bringing these irregularities and alleged fraud to light will lead to meaningful, lasting relief, ultimately protecting the Hillside community from future abuses of the election process.”

Joshua Greenblatt, Nagy Sileem and Joseph Brown, three council candidates who ran on Batista’s Putting Hillside First ticket, are also named as plaintiffs in the suit against a number of officials, including the Union County Board of Elections, town officials and Vertreese. The suit also names three council members who ran with Vertreese under her Many People/One Hillside banner — George Cook, Nancy Mondella and Craig Epps — as defendants.

“It seems really frivolous,” Vertreese told LocalSource Jan. 2, after being sworn in at Kean University. “The allegations are like the spaghetti approach: Just throw it against the wall and see what sticks.”

The suit calls into question about 100 votes in the runoff elections. Batista’s camp alleges that Vertreese’s supporters directed a third party to impersonate voters and cast machine ballots. The suit also claims that people stole at least 18 provisional ballots and destroyed them before they were counted.

According to the suit, the Union County Board of Elections’ tabulation of votes in the runoff elections was “inaccurate” since it improperly rejected and accepted certain ballots.

County Board of Elections Administrator Dennis Kobitz disputed such claims, saying, “The Board of Elections ran a fair and accurate election,” in a Jan. 2 phone interview. “We did everything prescribed by Title 19.”
Title 19 is the section of state law that regulates elections.

Batista’s suit also takes on the Hillside Democratic County Committee, claiming Vetreese’s campaign violated nonpartisan election laws by having HDCC Chairman Anthony Salters as its candidate committee chairman.
Batista said in a press release that he and his camp are registered Democrats.

Moreover, the suit claims that Vertreese’s camp used the HDCC to circumvent fundraising and campaign contribution limitations and did not report contributions or expenditures with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Salters denied those allegations.
ELEC records show that Batista spent more than $100,000 of his own money on his campaign. Salters questioned why Batista would spend so much of his own money for a job that pays just $10,000.

“(Batista’s) effort to win an election in a courtroom that he failed to win at the ballot box is sad,” Salters said in Jan. 2 email. “Batista listed a lot of people in his lawsuit that told us personally they voted for him. But to justify his lawsuit, he acts like they voted for the Vertreese team. Let’s see if those individuals cited by him commit perjury in court testifying on Batista’s behalf. ‘Street’ talking and ‘court’ talking have two different levels of standards and consequences regarding telling the truth.”

Salters also said that within about the past year Batista had quit the HDCC, which refused to support him for mayor in 2017. He was unsuccessful four years earlier when he had the support of the HDCC.

Batista originally earned the most votes in the tight four-way mayoral race in the Nov. 7 general election. However, no mayoral or council candidate earned a majority of votes at that time, forcing the vote to a runoff.

The top two mayoral candidates of the declared field of four and the top six council candidates of the declared field of 12 advanced to the runoffs. The certified count, including the provisional ballots, gave Vertreese 1,747 votes and Batista 1,729, according to the Hillside municipal clerk.

Cook, Mondella and Epps, on Vertreese’s ticket, all received more than 1,700 votes in the council runoff while Greenblatt, Sileem and Brown did not receive more than 1,600.

Vertreese said Batista’s lawsuit will not distract her from working as mayor in the township.

“I can’t focus on what people are trying to sabotage in the background,” she said. “I just think that that would be another reason for Hillside to be laughed at in the news. It’s negative press. The township is in a place where we really want to move forward and we really want to get beyond playing games.”

On Jan. 2, the council selected Andrea Hyatt as its president and Gerald Freedman as vice president. Cook, Mondella and Epps were also sworn in.