Yesterday, attorneys for an assemblage of community groups together with Ward F Councilman Frank Gilmore squared off in court against the the Jersey City Ward Commission. At issue was Jersey City’s new ward map which, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, constituted illegal gerrymandering aimed at diluting the power of Gilmore and his Bergen-Lafayette supporters.
The map, adopted by the Commission in January despite an outpouring of public opposition, removed from Ward F a large portion of the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, all of Liberty State Park, and several high-profile developments and placed them in Ward A, which is represented by Councilwoman Denise Ridley, a close ally of Mayor Fulop. Bergen-Lafayette, a historically Black neighborhood, is also known by its historic name of just “Lafayette.”
Every ten years, using new census data wards must be adjusted — and if necessary redrawn — so that they are contiguous, compact and, to the extent possible include “communities of interest.”
At yesterday’s hearing, called to consider the Commission’s motion to dismiss the case, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Turula peppered Commission lawyer Jason Orlando and plaintiffs’ attorney Brett M. Pugach with questions.
For the plaintiffs, Pugach was joined by Renee Steinhagen of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, Yael Bromberg of Bromberg Law, and Bill Matsikoudis of Matsikoudis and Fanciullo.
Had the Commission really violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), which requires that the public be given the right to participate in meetings, asked Turula? Weren’t several of the meetings informal, with less than a quorum, obviating the need to bring in the public?
No, said Pugach. Notice to the public had been required. By meeting in small groups without the public’s being present, the commission had deliberately circumvented OPMA. “The public was left in the dark” when the Commission chose the map to present to the public, said Pugach.
But, according to Pugach, the new ward map was flawed for more than procedural reasons. In creating wards, the Commission had obliterated a community of interest in Bergen-Lafayette, taking half of Gilmore’s supporters and placing them in Ward A.
What, asked Turula, was a community of interest? Was it racial or something else? A community of interest, said Pugach was more than demographic and could be comprised of voters with similar concerns about housing, environmental, or development issues, for instance. Ward F had been “fragmented and torn apart.”
The new map, which put half of the affluent, high-rise, downtown neighborhood of Paulus Hook into Gilmore’s less wealthy Ward F, had done the opposite of grouping a community of interest, said Pugach.
When creating wards, the commission was also required, said Pugach, to strive for “compactness.” But by one computerized measure of compactness, said Pugach, the new Ward F scored fifty percent lower than its previous configuration.
Pointing to a rendering of Ward F on the new map, said Pugach, looks “almost identical to the Massachusetts district from which the term Gerrymander got its name two hundred years ago.”
“If it quacks like a duck, it is a duck,” Bromberg later told the judge.
Steinhagen argued that the new ward map had been motivated by a desire to retaliate against Gilmore and his supporters. Gilmore, she pointed out, had not only defeated Mayor Fulop’s “team” member Jermaine Robinson, he had pushed back on administration policies regarding affordable housing and the environment.
For his part, former Jersey City Corporation Counsel, Bill Matsikoudis scoffed at the idea that the Commissioners hadn’t tried to circumvent OPMA. “During my time, we never had multiple meetings with three council people at a time in order not to have a quorum because we knew it would violate the anti-circumvention provision of OPMA.” And, as to retaliation, he said, “your Honor, there’s smoke there.”
Orlando called the retaliation charge “absurd.”
As to the other claims, Orlando was having none of it. If the commissioners met without giving notice to the public, such “chance encounters are allowed,” he argued.
Orlando said there “is no recourse” for the plaintiffs on the gerrymandering claims. The acts of the Commission were entitled to the “presumption of legality.”
“What rights have been violated,” he asked.
Turula said he would issue a ruling within two weeks.
The hearing left Gilmore feeling hopeful. “I think our team did a great job articulating our argument. We were prepared, concise, and coherent. I think the ward commission representative was ill prepared and all over the place. I am extremely optimistic about the decision the judge will render in the coming weeks. Just so the record is clear, it’s not about Councilman Gilmore. This is about the process being fair and transparent.”