UNION, NJ — Union residents are coming forward post-election and questioning an election-day petition that was circulated at polling locations in town, claiming that the current governing body in the township was engaging in what some are calling deceitful tactics.
According to some residents, a petition calling for the direct election of mayor, commonly known as the Faulkner Act form of government, was handed out on election day without prior notice or explanation. In addition, residents say, the fine print stated that a sixth committee person would be added, along with the mayor, for an expansion of the current five-person committee to a seven-person committee.
Union currently has a Township form of government, in which elections are partisan and committee members serve staggered three-year terms. The township committee elects the mayor for a one-year term. The mayor serves as chair of the township committee and has powers vested in the mayor’s office by general law.
The Faulkner Act form of government calls for a directly-elected mayor who holds significant administrative and budgetary authority, along with a five, seven, or nine-member council.
Although many Union residents support the direct election of a mayor, some are claiming that the township’s motivations behind the petition were not necessarily kosher, and that the way the township disseminated the petition was shady.
Residents point to lack of notice, little to no information, and lack of transparency on the part of the township. Some residents also take issue with the fact that the petition was circulated by college students who were not Union residents, and the fact that they were paid. In addition, those circulating the position were allegedly unable to answer any of the residents’ questions about the petition.
Concern over the taxpayers’ burden, should two additional council members be added, was voiced by residents, while others claim that the last-minute petition to add committee members was put forth to dilute the power of independent candidate Jason Krychiw in case he won a seat on the council.
Democratic incumbents Suzanne Cavadas and Clifton People, Jr., handily won back their seats, overtaking two other candidates that vied for the positions.
The petition asked the residents if they would approve a new form of government. “Shall the Mayor Council Administrator Plan of the Optional Municipal charter Law, providing for six council members to be elected at large for staggered terms at elections held in November with the mayor elected directly by the voters be adopted by the Township of Union?” read the petition.
The petition, which included five signatories, including Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo, James Lewis, former Union Councilman Anthony Terrezza, Director of Community Development in Union Bertha Matthews, and former Union BOE candidate Maria Sanagustin.
A letter, written by Figueiredo, was sent out to residents on the morning of election day, urging residents to sign the direct-elect petition. “As the current mayor, I encourage you to sign this petition because Union Township residents deserve a discussion on whether or not to directly elect their mayor,” wrote Figueiredo in his letter.
The name on the petition people were directed to call, should they have any questions, was Justin Shoham, chief of staff to state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji. Shoham did not return LocalSource’s request for comment.
Longtime Union resident Susan Lipstein, in a letter to the mayor the day after the election, told Figueiredo that there had been no information or discussion within the community about the proposed changes. “Some very limited info was posted the night before the election and an email was sent out the night before,” wrote Lipstein. “No real information was provided in this email. The township committee has an obligation to inform its citizens about proposed changes. They have an obligation to explain to the public what the change from a township committee to town council means. At the very least, public information sessions should have been held prior to the petitions being circulated.”
In addition, Lipstein told Figueiredo that “incorrect and misleading” information had been provided to the public by those circulating the petition, something that Lipstein claimed she witnessed at two polling locations in town.
“Upon being questioned, the ‘circulators’ were people unfamiliar with the town, with its government; were not residents of the town; could not give correct information to the public; and would not identify themselves,” Lipstein told the mayor. “A quick look at facebook will show you that other residents felt the same. The ‘circulators’ could, and would not, give a copy of the wording of the petition to at least two people who asked. Residents had to take a picture of the wording on their phones.”
Lipstein also noted in her letter to Figueredo that the circulators has asked for signatures “even after dark, when the petitions could not even be read. The township committee needs to be aware of how this petitioning was conducted,” said Lipstein in her letter. “I question the legality of the signatures which were obtained with misleading information. I also question why the township committee would feel the need to try to push through a petition without completely explaining the ramifications of these changes to the citizens.”
Austin Thekkumthala, a Union resident, said in a Facebook post that he spoke with several of those handing out the petitions at the polls. “The direct-elect members I talked to said that they were each told to collect 100 signatures,” Thekkumthala wrote. “They were able to do various combinations of four hours of calling voters to come vote, as well as directly getting signatures at polling locations.”
Rumors have also spread regarding whether some of the signatories whose names were on the petition knew that their names had been included.
Bertha Mathews, who spoke to LocalSource as a private citizen, told LocalSource that she was fully aware of the inclusion of her name on the petition. “I was aware of the petition,” Mathews said in an email. “I am quite confident everyone else was also. I was told the petition would engage a conversation with voters about a directly elected mayor, and it did.”
Some are also questioning the entire premise of the direct-elect ballot, stating that they have not heard the township discuss taking this measure recently, and wondering why the petition was suddenly put forth on election day.
At a meeting of the council Nov. 9, residents voiced their anger regarding the petition. Union resident Gale Petrecca told the council that she was aware that the volunteers circulating the petitions — allegedly Kean University students — were paid, and she had the paperwork from Kean to prove it. “I don’t know whether to be insulted or angry at what to me seems like shenanigans,” Petrecca told the council. “There were these last-minute petitions being circulated to confuse everybody, and I watched people be approached, and they had two minutes to make a decision,” said Petrecca, who was volunteering at the polls on elections day.
Figueiredo told LocalSource in an email that the petition effort was not organized by the governmental body of the township committee. “My name was on the petition as a private resident,” said Figueiredo. “I personally sent out a mass email, advising residents that there would be people at the polls soliciting signatures for this petition — which many of the people in the Union Facebook forums have admitted to receiving.”
Figueiredo also questioned the motivations behind those who have accused the township. “As to any lack of transparency, I suggest you double back to your sources and verify their motives for making such claims,” said Figueiredo. “The petition was very clear in its language at the very top of the page, in bold-face type and its purpose was to gauge resident’s interest in a change in government that would involve a direct election of the mayor. This comes on the heels of accusations made by political groups that our residents are hungry for “change.”
Because I take these claims very seriously, when I was made aware of the petition I requested to be on the committee of the petitioners.”
Figueiredo said that as to the timing of the petition, the reason is clear. “The reason for the timing is simple,” said the mayor. “There was a desire to gauge our residents on a genuine and very organic level — devoid of the influence of politics. The organizers of the petition wanted people’s honest opinions without the interference of any groups whose tactics would be to sway our residents with unsubstantiated anti-government propaganda.What we learned is that in a township of 57,000 residents, people are fundamentally happy with the government that they have and don’t wish to see that government expand. This idea was simultaneously confirmed by the 3.5 to 1 re-election of my colleagues Suzette Cavadas and Cliff People Jr.”
A Union official who requested anonymity told LocalSource in a phone call that the college students circulating the petitions were not paid by the township, and that the township was never concerned that Krychiw would win the election. “We never remotely thought he would win, and he lost four to one” said the source. “When you lose that bad you really should shut up and go home. The real story is that they lost. Instead of losing gracefully, they blame the petition.”
The source also noted that residents were capable of understanding the petition and deciding whether to sign it or not. “Grown adults can’t look at a petition and decide whether to sign it?” he said. “These were college kids who were standing out with the petitions? Do you think they gave … about the petitions? These people lost. They got their asses handed to them.”
The source also pointed out that residents are happy with the current form of government.
Petrecca said that she felt insulted because residents were not given enough information ahead of time in order to make informed decisions. “I don’t believe this committee has an interest in forwarding it,” Petrecca said of the proposed change of government. “A process was interrupted last night by a personal agenda.”
At the same meeting, Figueredo voiced his satisfaction with the current form of government in the township. “Personally, I feel this form of government is very effective,” said Figueredo of Union’s current Township form of government. “In essence, you have five mayors up here.”
Union resident Laura Detjen also spoke up at the meeting, calling out Figueredo for endorsing the current form of government, yet putting out a petition for the direct election of the mayor. “You don’t have to answer right now,” Detjen said to the mayor. “You can think about it because I don’t know how you’re going to flip-flop this. Which one is it? Do you believe in this or not?”
Jason Krychiw, the independent candidate who ran against Cavadas and People, also questioned the motivations behind the petition, and voiced his concerns at the meeting.
Township of Union Attorney Dan Antonelli responded to Krychiw’s statements at the meeting. “The petition conformed with the law,” Antonelli told Krychiw. “What you’re saying is the electorate is not intelligent enough enough to read and sign the petition.”
Antonelli’s response was met with angry catcalls from residents in the audience.
According to Union Councilman Joseph Florio, Union had considered changing to a direct-elect from of government back in 1997, and it was voted down. The issue came up again approximately eight years ago, Florio said at the meeting, and a commission was formed to determine if a change of government would benefit the township. “The answer was no,” said Florio.
Petrecca said at the meeting that although she likes the direct-elect form of government, the actions of the town seem dishonest. “A township committee is employed by the citizens to do a job, and it just seems here to smack of personal interest,” she said.
Figueiredo reiterated that the circulators of the petitions did their job in a responsible manner. “I personally visited the polls on election day and I was proud of the young men and women that were out collecting signatures — they weren’t forceful or overbearing and gave each resident the time to read the document which they were signing,” said Figueiredo. “I know and have faith in the kind of people who live here, and have no doubt that they exercise due diligence before placing their signature on a piece of paper that could potentially change the way their government — a government that has served them well for more than 20 years — operates.”