NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Even as the city’s school board added its first-ever elected members Tuesday night, serious questions remained regarding the legality of the very election that sent them into public office.
Political newcomers Ronald Hush and Diana Fajardo surprised everyone, but especially their opponents, when their petitions to run for school board were submitted on Christmas Eve, three days after the advertised deadline.
The two newcomers were supported by a political establishment that has dominated both city and county politics for decades, and their campaigns were funded by a political organization that was created to prevent school board elections from happening in the first place.
Hush and Fajardo’s campaign operation, dubbed “New Beginnings for New Brunswick Schools,” has only reported one financial contribution so far: $5,830.68 from the “Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools.”
According to campaign finance records, Mayor James Cahill gave a combined $20,772.46 to directly to that committee from his campaign funds, “Friends of Mayor Cahill” and “Cahill Egan Escobar 2010.”
Those two contributions make up 36% of the Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools’ total receipts. Other reported donors were local unions and a powerful developer connected to Cahill:
|Friends of Mayor Cahill/Cahill Egan Escobar 2010||$20,772||36.0%|
|IBEW LU COPE Fund||$2,000||3.4%|
|Construction Management Associates, Inc.||$1,800||3.1%|
|Operating Engineers Local||$1,800||3.1%|
|Middlesex County Building & Trades Council||$1,800||3.1%|
|Middlesex County Labor Council COPE Committee||$500||0.9%|
|District Council 711 PAC Fund||$500||0.9%|
|Donations Smaller than $300 (reporting not required by law)||$28,550||49.5%|
The Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools failed to defeat a November ballot question that instituted school board elections for the first time in city history.
In turn, the committee passed along all of its remaining funds to “New Beginnings for New Brunswick Schools,” a similar political committee that cropped up shortly after voters approved the change to an elected board.
The only two expenses reported thus far by “New Beginnings for New Brunswick Schools” were both for flyers to support Hush’s and Fajardo’s candidacies.
Hush’s and Fajardo’s entry into the race was controversial from the very beginning, after their petitions were quietly submitted after the advertised deadline.
The move allowed them to benefit from an element of surprise during an unlawfully short campaign season, leaving their opponents blindsided by their very candidacy.
County Clerk Elaine Flynn, acting on the advice of the county’s official attorney, who also happens to be a party official that helped elect her to office, accepted Hush’s and Fajardo’s candidate petitions at 9:02 am on Christmas Eve.
The deadline advertised by Flynn’s office to submit petitions was December 21.
Flynn’s office never notified the four candidates who turned in their peitions on the 21st that they would have additional competition in the election.
As we reported on January 17, the failure to notify the candidates of their surprise opponents deprived the original four candidates of an opportunity to challenge the late petitions, or to withdraw from the race and perhaps team up against the establishment-supported duo.
As it worked out, one candidate did drop out to support another but was forced to keep his name on the ballot. He earned 28 votes, good for 3.6% of those cast.
Flynn’s failure to notify the original candidates also enabled the establishment candidates to select their opponents in the unique election where two distinctly different offices were on the ballot: a one-year term and a two-year term.
All candidates had to choose which seat they were running for. Fajardo and Hush had three additional days to think it over.
Hush and Fajardo went on to win in a low-turnout landslide that took place on a 24-degree Tuesday last month.
But, if state laws pertaining to the election had been followed, that election would have likely had to wait until the springtime, when days are longer and the weather is warmer.
Plus, candidates and the public would have had the legally required fifty days between the petition deadline and the election, instead of just 30.
Rutgers University, and its thousands of registered city voters, would also be a bigger factor in a March election, as opposed to the January 22 election, which was the students first day of classes for the new semester.
Further, in any other month, early in-person voting at the County Clerk’s office would have been open on the day preceding the election, which fell on a holiday last month..
In the end, only 776 voters turned out to vote on January 22, just 3.28% of registered voters.
The cold weather, combined with holiday breaks, and the rushed nature of the election resulted in severely limited campaigns. There were no organized debates, forums, fundraisers, press conferences, or campaign websites.
Of the five candidates that remained, each had only one flyer (some had a Spanish translation as well) and were, on the whole, light on substantive policy proclamations.
The NJ Division of Election’s website states that the board of education must notify both the city clerk and county board of election “no less than 60 days before the election.”
However, New Brunswick’s historic first-ever election came and went in just 41 days from the date that an incorrectly-titled notice was published in the Home News Tribune, the first clue that the election was scheduled.
Nevertheless, the school board’s attorney, George Hendricks, wasn’t fazed when presented with the information on the divisions website at the January 15 board meeting, seven days before the premature election.
Hendricks said with confidence that the document cited a statute that did not apply to this extra-special election.
“[That law] doesn’t deal with special school board elections… Those are not the ones dealing with changing from an appointed to elected board,” he said.
But, two days later, another powerful government attorney publicly spoke to the contrary.
Read Part 2 to find out which attorney expressed an opinion that would mean New Brunswick’s election was held in violation of state law.
Watch The Video: “Episode 1: Meet New Brunswick’s First-Ever Elected School Board Members”
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series that explores New Brunswick’s historic yet illegal school board election held on January 22, 2013.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.