Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mayor Prevails in Residency Challenge

A move to disqualify Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs on a residency issue failed Wednesday (July 26, 2006) when Superior Court Judge Thomas Lyons ruled that the challenge was too late.

A group of city residents filed a complaint in May, seeking to have the mayor removed from office and for a special election to be held for a successor. Their reason was that Robinson-Briggs did not meet a provision in the city‘s special charter that a mayoral candidate had to be a “legal voter‘ in the city for four years prior to election.

“It’s all out of time,” Lyons said after going over several junctures at which a challenge could have been properly made, going back to April 2005, when Robinson-Briggs filed to run for mayor. Objectors had four days to challenge her qualifications.

Another opportunity was within 30 days after she took office on Jan. 1. Fifteen voters could have presented a petition and a bond to contest the election. A further challenge could have taken place as late as 45 days after the election. But none of that happened, Lyons said.

In January, Republican Party Chairwoman Sandy Spector wrote to City Council President Ray Blanco, asking for the mayor’s removal. Spector questioned why Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi did not check the mayor’s qualifications, but Rajoppi’s attorney, Robert Barry, said the filing took place in Plainfield and objections should have been made within four days to City Clerk Laddie Wyatt.

Spector was one of the plaintiffs in the May lawsuit, but did not attend the meeting Wednesday.

A large group of supporters hugged and kissed the mayor, then broke into applause and exclaimed “Yay!“ before exiting the judge’s chambers. Peter Briggs told Plaintalker his wife had no comment.

Attorney Angelo Genova, who represented the city, called the decision “an absolute vindication of the mayor and the city.“

Lyons said the residency issue came up after Robinson-Briggs won in the 2003 Board of Education election and was raised in the media early this year, so protesters should have been aware of it.

Lyons even agreed with Genova and the mayor’s attorney, Stephen Edelstein, that the charter did not specify four years’ residency immediately prior to the election, so Robinson-Briggs’ cumulative eight years in Plainfield with interim residency elsewhere met the charter. Lyons agreed with another defense argument that even though Robinson-Briggs did not register to vote in Plainfield until Sept. 30, 2002, she was a “legal voter” in that she could have registered earlier.

However, he did not accept an argument that because a state statute requires only one year of residency to run for office, the city’s charter was unconstitutional. Lyons noted the rule does not apply to special charters enacted by the State Legislature.

The legal response will cost the city at least $32,000.

The mayor’s supporters included her husband and mother, her confidential aide Barbara James, several other City Hall staffers and two police officers. City Clerk Laddie Wyatt was accompanied by a City Hall employee who drove her to the hearing.

The eight residents were represented by attorney Joseph Horn, but only one, Angela Perun, attended the hearing. Perun declined comment.

Supporters of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams talked about a recall after Robinson-Briggs defeated the two-term incumbent. But according to the special charter, a recall petition may not be filed until a year after an elected official takes office, and the petition must be signed by one third of all registered voters in the city. In November, the city had 19,288 registered voters, but only 8,823 cast votes.

--Bernice Paglia


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