Judge’s ruling favors Washington First

Citizens group will get change-of-government question on November ballot.

By: Lauren Burgoon
TRENTON – Citizens group Washington First won the right to secure a November ballot question after a judge voided the Township Committee’s ordinance to put its own question on the ballot.
The judge’s decision allows Washington First’s question to appear on the November ballot instead.
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson issued her opinion on Washington First versus Washington Township Friday afternoon. In the 10-page opinion the judge ruled that the Township Committee was effectively barred from adopting its charter study
commission ordinance because Washington First had already initiated the process to get a change-of-government question on the ballot.
Judge Sapp-Peterson agreed with Washington First that the group had filed its petition even though the signatures were not verified before the committee’s vote on the ordinance.
"Thus, the Township Committee was prohibited from voting upon the proposed ordinance while proceedings were pending," the judge wrote in her opinion.
Judge Sapp-Peterson rejected the township’s position that Township Committee’s 1st and 14th amendment rights would be violated if the petition certification process prevented the committee from adopting the charter study commission ordinance. She noted that in the worst-case scenario the committee would have to put its vote on hold for only 35 days, the longest possible length of the petition verification process.
"Nowhere in any of the statutes does the Legislature prohibit assembly or debate with respect to the issue," the judge wrote in rejecting the township’s claims.
"We’re thrilled," Washington First member Cathy St. John said of her group’s court victory in a phone message Friday.
The judge’s decision came four days after Washington First’s petition finally was verified. The group had filed its petition July 8, the same day the Township Committee adopted the charter study
commission ordinance, but the petition was rejected because too many signatures were invalid to reach the 1,369 required. By law Washington First had 10 more days to collect signatures. On Monday the group handed in 496
additional names and learned on Wednesday that the petition was officially certified with 1,703 signatures.
Washington First filed the lawsuit to try to stop the committee from acting on its charter study ordinance, which would have asked voters to elect and approve a commission to study if the town should change its government. Instead, Washington First members argued that they were first in line to put their question on the ballot. That question will ask voters if Washington should switch to a mayor-council government.
An appeal by the township on Judge Sapp-Peterson’s decision is unlikely because Mayor Vince Calcagno and Committeeman David Fried have repeatedly stated their refusal to authorize money for more court battles. Such a vote would require a four-member majority.
For an update on this story read this Thursday’s issue of The Messenger-Press.