CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten, charged with determining the fate of the effort to recall Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. and Commissioner Bill Davenport, heard preliminary arguments Monday from lawyers on both sides of the issue.
The recall effort began last year, largely as a reaction to the city's high property-tax rate, and on May 19 the recall committees submitted what they believed were more than enough signatures to warrant a recall election, but on June 3, City Clerk Christopher Wood, who also serves as the recall election official, found the petitions were void because they contained invalid signatures.
In addition, Wood had initially told the recall committees they needed 615 signatures to move ahead with a recall, but he later learned that the number was actually 697, or 25 percent of the 2,788 voters registered at the time of the November 2007 general election.
The recall committees, represented by attorney Daniel Gallagher, challenged his findings, and now the matter is in Batten's hands.
Batten is being asked to decide how many signatures the recall petitions required, 615 or 697, and whether Wood was correct in his decision to declare signatures invalid for a variety of reasons.
Batten could make a ruling on some or all of those issues Friday, when the hearing resumes.
On Monday, Gallagher argued that the recall committees had every reason to believe Wood was correct when he told them 615 signatures were needed. In a Dec. 10 letter to Gallagher, Wood said the figure was based on information taken from the Cape May County Board of Elections.
But attorney Colin Bell, representing Davenport, said Wood's unsolicited comment about how many signatures were required did not trump the state's constitution, which requires the recall petitioners to collect signatures equaling 25 percent of the city's registered voters during the last general election prior to the recall effort. In this case, that would mean 25 percent of 2,788.
Bell said it was up to the recall petitioners to investigate the number of signatures needed. "You can't change the rules of the game. The rules of the game require 697 signatures," Bell said.
The recall petitions contained 790 signatures for Davenport's recall and 792 signatures for Troiano's recall, easily exceeding both the 615 and 697 figures.
However, many of those signatures were declared invalid for several reasons, including petitions that contained multiple signatures from the same person, unchecked boxes indicating signers had not read the petition, signatures that failed to match the voter registration certificates and signatures collected by nonresidents.
The nonresident issue, in particular, revolves around the case of property owner Kathleen McCullough.
McCullough, who owns homes in Wildwood and Philadelphia, has voted in city elections but was charged recently with multiple counts of registering to vote in an election district in which she is not a resident. McCullough is charged with three counts of false registration and was issued a summons.
About 30 people also submitted certifications asking that their names be removed from the petitions because they said they were tricked into signing them.
Bell told the judge that state law permits the recall election official to not only count the number of signatures but also to make judgments on their validity.
He said many were collected under false pretenses, with some residents being told their homes in Sandman Towers were in danger of being demolished and replaced with condominiums or that by signing the petition they were opposing a tax increase.
Gallagher questioned the sudden appearance of people claiming they were tricked.
"Magically people come out of the woodwork and say, 'I didn't know what I was signing,'" Gallagher said.
He pointed to the top of the petitions marked "recall petition."
As for McCullough, Gallagher said she was a politically active resident who had taken steps to give up her voting rights in Pennsylvania, where she also works, to vote in Wildwood.
Batten said the hearing would reconvene at 12:30 p.m. Friday.
At that time, he could make a decision on some of the issues before him and set a trial date to resolve any outstanding issues.
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