By DON STINE
Allegations of fraud were raised this week over a petition seeking to overturn Neptune’s recent decision to establish rent control on buildings with more than four units.
A 1,408-signature petition seeking to place a new rent control ordinance on a public ballot has been found to have many invalid and forged signatures, said residents who never signed the petition.
The Neptune Committee to Repeal Rent Control recently submitted the petition requesting that the rent control issue be offered to voters in a referendum. However, after investigation, the petition was found to contain many forged signatures and the matter is be forwarded to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for further investigation.
“I am appalled that someone would try to subvert the democratic processes to further their own agenda. I believe all voices need to be heard but it needs to be their voice and not someone falsely misrepresenting them,” Committeeman Randy Bishop said.
Bishop said he urges the Prosecutor’s Office to look into the matter.
“Just to restore everyone’s faith in our process,” he said.
Issues about the validity of the petition came to light when Pastor Paul Brown, of the First Pentecostal Church, said his name appeared on the petition although he had no knowledge of it. He also said that the name of a neighbor’s son, who had moved to California three years ago, also appeared.
Other residents also said they did not sign the petition even though their names appear.
“This petition is an insult and disrespectful of this township and its residents. This action makes a mockery of the processes of democracy as well as being illegal,” Mayor Eric J. Houghtaling said.
Houghtaling said he reviewed the petition and personally contacted approximately 100 households whose names, addresses and signatures were on the notarized sheets. Of these 100 inquiries, only one person had actually signed the petition.
Also, in a subsequent addendum to the original petition, 88 more signatures were presented but many were duplicate names with forged signatures.
The petition also contained signatures of residents who had died, individuals who had moved, a vacant house, as well as the alleged signature of Committeeman Kevin McMillan, who seconded the ordinance for rent stabilization and who did not sign the petition.
“I went to different areas in the township to sample the signers and talk to people. Nobody even knew about it,” Houghtaling said.
He said he hopes the prosecutor’s office moves forward on the matter.
“The resident’s rights have been trampled by this group,” he said.
Ron Simoncini, who is president the Neptune Property Owners PAC and also represents some local property owners, presented the petition. He said he too is appalled by the errors and agrees it should be investigated.
“This is completely disheartening and I totally understand the position of the committee. I’ve been conned far more than they have and I am committed to an investigation to find the guilty person. This is a real problem and they have the right to be angry and suspicious,” he said. “There were forgeries on the petition and to say that really hurts.”
Simoncini said he hired a private company, K Hart Consulting, based in Hamburg, to circulate the petition
K Hart Consulting has been providing full-service campaign strategies to Republican candidates throughout New Jersey.
“This is a very reputable and established firm and they came highly recommended. I think they got a bad apple and I feel duped and wronged. I was assured the petition would meet a certain standard and that standard was clearly not met,” Simoncini said.
He said he hopes the person creating the forgeries can be found and penalized.
As for the future, Simoncini said he will wait until the investigation is over and then try to figure out how to make the rent control ordinance more equitable.
“Just because we were all cheated does not mean we can’t have a credible dialogue on the issue,” he said.
Simioncini said he has sent a letter of apology to the township and has withdrawn the petition.
Neptune’s new ordinance creates a five-member rent control, protective tenancy, and a rent-leveling board appointed by the governing body.