Of Recalls and Resignations: Election Challenges This Year

For Union County HAWK

COUNTY – With calls for resignations growing louder by the day in Clark, and a newly-vacated seat up for grabs on the Westfield council, this year’s voting season is already shaping up to be an interesting one for Union County residents.

Although more voices, including Governor Phil Murphy, continue to join the fray in asking Mayor Sal Bonaccorso to resign from his position (Mayor Bonaccorso and several members of the Clark Police Department currently are facing allegations of racism and other discriminatory practices), the six-term mayor has not yet made any mention of stepping down.

Two years ago, as part of a settlement agreement with then Clark Police Lieutenant Antonia Manata, a set of recordings were covered up in which the mayor and some of the municipality’s top police brass can be heard referring to Black residents as “spooks,” “shines,” and other offensive terms. Mr. Manata claims he made the tapes in secret in order to protect himself from discriminatory practices. Last month, Mr. Manata’s tapes were released by multiple media outlets. While Mayor Bonaccorso initially refused to confirm the tapes, he has since issued a public plea for forgiveness.

In the taped apology, released on April 7, Mayor Bonaccorso said that he was “embarrassed and ashamed” of the language that he used, but promised to do better if given the chance to do so.

On Monday, numerous local residents took to the podium during a regular meeting of the Clark mayor and council to ask Mr. Bonaccorso to step down in light of the pending allegations. Several of the speakers that evening, including Clark resident Michael Shulman, also demanded to know why the township’s seven council members have not spoken out about the situation.

“To be clear, the settlement [between Mr. Manata and the township] was effectuated under the advice of legal council,” Township Attorney Mark Dugan said Monday. “The township officials are not responding at my direction, because right now there are no fewer than two investigations — the Union County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating, and the state attorney general is investigating — and we do not want any township official jeopardizing or even undermining to a slight degree, those investigations. Let them conclude, and then maybe you’ll get your answers.” Mr. Dugan was not the Township attorney at the time of the settlement.

“This town needs to heal. We’ve got to come together as one. We’ll work out the differences and be there for each other,” Councilman Brian Toal said Monday, before adding, “We will talk further and the truth will come out on this issue, I promise you that.”

In the meantime, however, local residents who would seek to have Mr. Bonaccorso removed from office may have a long road ahead of them.

According to information provided by the New Jersey General Assembly, all Faulkner Act municipalities, including Clark, must give citizens the right of initiative and referendum, a legislative process which allows proposed ordinances to be introduced directly by the people without action by the local governing body. This right is exercised by preparing a conforming petition signed by 10 percent of the registered voters who turned out in the last general election in an odd-numbered year. Once the petition is submitted, the local governing body can vote to pass the requested ordinance, and if the body refuses, it is then submitted directly to the voters.

In the case of a recall, however, petitioners would need to gather signatures from at least 25 percent of Clark’s registered voters — or about 3,100 people — just to get the question on the ballot in November. The numbers are based on voter turnout in the last general election and all signatures will need to be confirmed before petitioners can proceed. In addition, those looking to institute a recall also would have to follow a fairly specific timeline as defined in detail by the state.

A recall committee of at least three registered voters is needed to initiate recall proceedings. This process may not begin until 50 days before the completion of the incumbent’s first year of the current term in office. The recall committee must notify the appropriate election official of the names and addresses of at least three members of the recall committee. The election official accepting the petition will then review the notice of intention for compliance with statutory provisions, calculate the cost of a special election, and notify committee members of the acceptance or rejection of the notice, within three business days. The election official also notifies the incumbent of the notice of intention of recall within five business days and publishes a notice of the recall effort. Organizers, if any emerge, will need to move swiftly if they hope to see results. According to New Jersey state law, the petitioners will only have 160 days to meet their goals.

A petition circulating on Change.org entitled “Remove Sal Bonaccorso as Mayor of Clark” has thus far gained 580 signatures in about two weeks.

“We as the residents of Clark do not support this type of hatred in our community and are seeking change,” the petition states. Though these types of unofficial petitions can help to establish a general sense of how the community is feeling about a particular subject, they would not be admissible in any kind of legal proceedings.

Four Clark council members (Republicans Frank Mazzarella, Patrick O’Connor, Steven Hund and Brian Toal) are up for re-election in November. Mr. Mazzarella, who represents the township’s first ward, will go up against Democratic challenger Dario Valdivia, who challenged Mayor Bonaccorso for his seat in 2016. The other three council members currently are running unopposed.

Westfield will be looking to fill the council seat recently vacated by Ward 1 representative James Boyes. Councilman Boyes tendered his resignation late last month when it was discovered that the proximity of his home to two of the town’s major redevelopment projects would make him ineligible to vote on either the Prospect and Ferris plan or the yet-to-be-determined future of the Lord & Taylor property.

“Late last year, I made the difficult decision to recuse from voting on the Prospect/Ferris Redevelopment Plan. This decision was guided by legal counsel, advice from various land use professionals and, most importantly, my commitment to ethical public service,” Mr. Boyes wrote in a recent statement regarding his decision. “To have acted otherwise would have created, in the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. I have now been advised that a second recusal is recommended for the Lord & Taylor site. That being the case, I feel duty-bound to vacate my seat in order to make way for someone who will not be so constrained in these important matters. I would have preferred to serve out my Council term but to do so would mean that Ward 1 voters are not being fully represented.”

Over the course of the next several weeks, Westfield Town Administrator Jim Gildea said, the predominate party (in this case, the Democrats) will submit the names of three Ward 1 residents for consideration to the council.

“At that point, that person will become a temporary council member who will remain in office until the end of this year,” Mr. Gildea said. “That person will need to run in November’s election if they would like to fill the remainder of the unexpired term [Mr. Boyes was elected to a four-year term in 2019 and was slated to hold that position until 2023], and would then need to run on their own ticket going forward.”

Mr. Gildea went on to explain that similar situations have arisen in the town in the past, so this year’s proceedings will not be entirely unfamiliar. “Hopefully, there won’t be too much of a disruption,” he said.

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