Officials Clash Over Voting Issues

Photo by Jason Allentoff

  HOWELL – Mayor Theresa Berger debated with members of council and administrative staff concerning the wording of a resolution about voting by mail.

  There was no audience at the session as meetings are still being held online through the Howell TV website exclusively due to the guidelines limiting only 25 people at public gatherings including meetings of municipal government.

  Township Attorney Joseph Clark recommended Berger shift her position to the podium once she said she wished to make a statement as a citizen and not as the mayor.

  Deputy Mayor Evelynn O’Donnell replaced her on the dais and asked if there was any citizen who wished to make a comment to the chamber.

  “Yes, I would,” Berger said. She then made her prepared statement after stating her name. “There is a resolution on the agenda this evening 9A.11 and I have some comments I’d like to make about that to support the traditional use of vote by mail procedures by residents in the general 2020 election. The state of New Jersey will be holding a general election on Nov. 3, 2020 when our citizens can cast their vote for national, state and local candidates.”

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  Berger added, “This vote is the most sacred right of our citizens in our great country including residents of Howell Township as enshrined by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution. The state of New Jersey a vote by mail system (since) 2009 that has proven to be safe, secure and sufficient which has allowed our citizens to exercise their Constitutional right to vote for more than 10 years from the safety of their own home without any significant electoral concern.”

  She further noted the ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19 and the death toll from it nationally as well as those who died as a result of it in New Jersey. “Our established vote by mail system is even more crucial than it was in past years.”

  Berger noted the vulnerability of seniors and those with pre-existing conditions to the coronavirus and said that such citizens need not potentially expose themselves to it at polling locations. “As mayor of Howell Township, I will honor our citizens sacred right to vote.”

  She rejected the idea of trying to “force residents to vote at public polling places during this pandemic.”

  O’Donnell noted a small change in wording was to be made in the first paragraph of the resolution.

  Clark said that it would be changed to express “the sentiment that all forms of voting and that what is being expressed is the use of mail-in ballots exclusively for the election so I think we can make that change relatively easily by amendment.”

  “An absentee ballot, a mail-in ballot and voting in person are really three different things,” O’Donnell said. “As always anyone can request an absentee ballot and are welcome to do for whatever reason they feel they need to. A massive mail-in ballot – as we had with the primary, as we know we had to bring in the National Guard just to count the ballots – so we certainly weren’t prepared for that as a community.”

  Councilman Thomas Russo made a motion to vote on the amended version of the resolution. He also asked Clark to read into the record what changes were made from the original to the amended version of it.

  “There is a change to the title. The title now reads in the amended version that the resolution opposes the sole use of mail-in ballots for the elections in New Jersey. There are no other changes until we reach paragraph one under ‘now therefore it has been resolved,’ at the end of that paragraph it was changed to read, governor, secretary of state, county clerks, here comes the change, to permit voters not only to use in person voting but also mail in ballots and absentee ballots; and there are no other changes,” Clark said.

  The resolution was amended. It was seconded by O’Donnell who said it was not limited to “mail-in only which is what we experienced in the primary.”

  Councilwoman Pamela Richmond voted in support of it noting that “there is a big difference between voting by mail and voting absentee. With vote by mail every registered voter, like it or not has to vote and absentee ballots are requested. So if you fear due to COVID and you don’t want to go to the polls, fine, request an absentee ballot from the Clerk’s website and you can mail in your ballot.”

  Richmond added, “those who would like to vote in person should have that right absolutely. I’m sure the Board of Elections will have safe guidelines in place when you go in there and pull your lever. Our resolution is just trying to be clear that voting by only mail ballots is not okay and should not be the only way to vote.”

  “I’m happy you changed the resolution. This resolution in my mind is extremely political and this is not a political issue whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent this is a pandemic issue and it should be reflected in the resolution,” Berger said.

  “I think this was terrible in the way it was written,” the mayor added.

  The deputy mayor disagreed. “I don’t see how giving people three options in how to vote is political.”

 Mayor Berger said, “that is not what I said was political, it is just bashing (Governor Phil) Murphy and who cares? At the end of the day this is a pandemic issue that is why they were looking at mail-in ballots.”

  She said she agreed with traditional casting of ballots in person. “I agree that people should be able to vote in any way they like but in my mind the way this was written was quite immature and unprofessional.”

  “All you changed was two lines. I felt this was unprofessional and I don’t appreciate it,” the mayor said.

  “This should be fitting because all three ways are available with this,” O’Donnell responded but the mayor said that was not what she was opposing.

  “What is in question Mayor?” O’Donnell said.

  “Do you want me to repeat it again?” Berger asked.

  “Yes, I’d like you to say it in English this time,” the deputy mayor said.

  Berger said, “I could do it in Spanish as well. I don’t appreciate the verbiage in the resolution. Would you like me to write it so you could read it?”

  “It couldn’t possibly be about the pandemic because on July 15 you wanted to have a big bash in Howell Township,” O’Donnell said noting that she had received an invitation to it and that Berger had not notified the township’s attorney or manager about the gathering.

  “I have no idea what you are talking about deputy mayor,” Berger said.

  “Mayor, be a mayor,” O’Donnell said.

  “Deputy Mayor I am done with your silly comments,” Berger responded.

  The argument persisted between both officials for several more minutes before the mayor used the gavel to bring the meeting back to order and the vote was taken on the resolution.

  The resolution was approved. Berger voted against it and fellow Democrat Councilman John Bonevich was not present to vote. The remaining members of council voted for it.