A Passaic County judge on Friday ruled in favor of the City Clerk, allowing councilman Alex Mendez, whose petitions were being challenged, to remain on the mayoral ballot.
Judge Thomas Brogan upheld the City Clerk’s certification of Mendez as a candidate for mayor.
Mendez beat back what he believes was a challenge by incumbent mayor Andre Sayegh to eliminate him from the race. Sayegh had one of his supporters, Vincent Iannaccone, challenge more than 150 of Mendez’s nominating petitions, according to the councilman.
“After two days of sitting in court, the judge ruled in our favor,” said Mendez. “It was very frustrating, but the mayor lost, and he will lose again on May 10.”
Missing from the courtroom was the ostensible challenger Iannaccone. Iannaccone is a longtime supporter of Sayegh’s and both men worked together at the 6th Ward Neighborhood Association, according to sources.
Sayegh has refused to answer the question whether he is funding and using Iannaccone to challenge Mendez’s petitions. Instead, the incumbent often replied by issuing attacks against Mendez.
The judge heard from City Clerk Sonia Gordon on Friday morning. Gordon testified about her process and procedures in accepting and validating petitions before certifying candidates.
Gordon said documents her office gives to all candidates clearly states petitions are counted in the order in which they are submitted. In other words, if a voter signs petitions for two candidates, only the candidate that turns in the petition first gets it counted. She said that has been the “custom” for decades.
“What policy or procedure is that based on?” asked Raj Parikh, attorney for Sayegh supporter Iannaccone.
There’s nothing in the statute that states the clerk should count one of the petitions of a voter that signed for multiple candidates.
Gordon’s attorney Christopher Harriott said the City Clerk has discretion when the statute is silent on a matter. Neither the Passaic County clerk nor the New Jersey secretary of state has told her there’s anything wrong with the Paterson system, he said.
Parikh described the clerk’s process as an “extrajudicial practice.” He said her process has a “lot of faults.”
“Why is this not an abuse of discretion?” asked Brogan to Harriott.
Harriott responded it’s not an abuse of discretion because there’s no remedy for people who sign multiple petitions in law.
“The clerk is left to fill in the blank,” said Harriott.
Harriott also suggested it would be fundamentally unfair for the court to penalize Mendez when the same issue likely impacts the petitions of other candidates.
“The clerk believes all of the candidates need to play by the same rules,” said Harriott. Other candidates get to keep their supporters’ petitions, even if they signed for multiple candidates, just because no one has filed a challenge against them, he said.
Mendez’s attorney Matthew Moench said without a remedy in law the clerk is left with two options: invalidate all petitions signed by that voter or count one.
“There’s nothing that prohibits this at all,” said Moench speaking of the current Paterson process.
“The remedy is there. It’s a challenge,” said Parikh. “There is no discretion here.”
The judge suggested invalidating all petitions because someone signed for multiple candidate could disenfranchise voters. He said Gordon acted within her discretionary authority.
“I don’t find this to be unreasonable,” said the judge.
The judge rejected most of Parikh’s challenges. Parikh suggested he might file an appeal to overturn the judge’s decision.
At the start of the hearing, the judge appeared to reprimand Mendez for taking an unauthorized photograph in the courtroom the day before. He told the councilman he could not record or take a picture in the courthouse and the courtroom without authorization.
Mendez said Sayegh is trying to keep him in court and monetarily bleed him. He did not have a figure as to the amount he spent in the case. He slammed Sayegh for wasting taxpayer money in the case.
Sayegh’s supporter Iannaccone was a no-show in court both Thursday and Friday.
“He never showed up. It’s Andre behind all of this,” said Mendez. He has described Sayegh as a coward using another man to do his dirty work. “He [Sayegh] should be a man and go upfront and challenge the petitions.”
Mario Rondon contributed reporting