Friday, July 14, 2006

Group Seeks Ouster Of Mayor

A group of residents is seeking removal of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and a special election to name a successor.

The group claims that Robinson-Briggs did not meet the qualification of having been a “legal voter” in the city for at least four years prior to election, as required by the city’s special charter.

The matter was to have been heard today (Friday, July 14, 2006) before Judge Thomas Lyons in the Chancery Division of the Superior Court in Elizabeth, but has been postponed to July 26, 2006 at 2 p.m.

Robinson-Briggs, the city’s first female mayor, won the November 7, 2005 general election and took office Jan.1, 2006, but only registered as a Plainfield voter in September 2002.

The issue echoes a 2003 challenge to Robinson-Briggs’ viability as a school board member. Former board member Veronica Taylor-Hill questioned her ability to serve as a school board member because she did not seem to meet the Plainfield school board’s requirement of one year’s residency in the city prior to the April 2003 election.

In that case, Robinson-Briggs prevailed and took the seat, only to have to relinquish it on Jan. 1, 2006 when she became mayor after a contentious battle among Democrats for the mayoral line.

In the present challenge, attorneys for Robinson-Briggs and the city say the time to raise objections has long since elapsed and that removing the mayor six months into her administration would throw the city into chaos. They also question the expense of a special election.

Robinson-Briggs, backed by Assemblyman Jerry Green and the Regular Democratic Organization, beat two-term incumbent Mayor Albert T. McWilliams in the June 2005 primary. Nobody objected to her qualifications either when she filed to run in April or within a four-day deadline after the primary. Robinson-Briggs went on to win the November 2005 general election.

But in January 2006, Republican Party Chairwoman Sandy Spector wrote to City Council President Ray Blanco, asking for the new mayor’s removal.

Blanco replied that Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi had certified the election results and the matter was settled.

Spector was among the eight residents who filed a lawsuit in May seeking the mayor’s removal.

In documents on file in the Chancery Division, attorneys for the mayor and the city question the concept of “legal voter” in the charter. They argue that a resident may be eligible to vote, but if he or she chooses not to register, “legal voter” status prevails anyway. They also argue that the mayor has more than four years‘ residency over time, though not consecutively, and point out that the charter does not say the four years must be consecutive and immediately prior to the election.

Another argument is that the city charter is “constitutionally suspect” and violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because state law requires only one year’s residency immediately prior to election.

At different times, Robinson-Briggs used addresses in Plainfield, North Plainfield and Piscataway before purchasing a home on Pemberton Avenue in 2002. She was registered to vote in Middlesex County and did not register in Union County until Sept. 30, 2002. She voted in Piscataway while living in North Plainfield and Plainfield, according to court records.

A counter-argument to the “legal voter” issue asks whether a non-resident voter, i.e. someone not living in Piscataway, can vote as a township resident, as Robinson-Briggs did.

Robinson-Briggs was able to take her school board seat in June 2003 after Superior Court Judge William L’E. Wertheimer lifted restraints imposed following Taylor-Hill’s challenge.

Objections to the new challenge include arguments that the city will be forced to operate without a mayor and that chaos will ensue. But the special charter calls for the City Council to appoint one of its members as acting mayor if the incumbent is disqualified, and for a new mayor to be elected at the next general election for the balance of the four-year term.

In February, the City Council approved payment of $7,500 to attorney Angelo Genova to research the city charter’s section on mayoral qualifications. In June, the council approved another $17,000 for Genova and $7,500 for attorney Stephen Edelstein, who defended the mayor during her school board challenge. Attorney Joseph Horn is representing the residents who are challenging the mayor’s qualifications.

--Bernice Paglia


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