Lynch, Milmed and Antell. The opinion of the court was delivered by Lynch, P.J.A.D.
Plaintiffs, proceeding under pertinent sections of the Optional County Charter Law, N.J.S.A. 40:41A-1 et seq. , filed petitions on September 4 and 5, 1975 to have placed on the ballot for submission to the voters of Essex County at the November 4, 1975 general election the following question:
Shall the County Executive Plan of the Optional County Charter Law be adopted for Essex County, with provisions for a Board of Freeholders of nine (9) members elected for concurrent terms and elected five (5) by district and four (4) at large?
After several legal challenges to plaintiffs' petitions, they instituted an action in lieu of prerogative writs to establish their sufficiency. Judgment was entered against them and
they appealed. The Appellate Division allowed plaintiffs until October 10, 1975 to file supplementary petitions and, if sufficient valid signatures then appeared, the question was to be placed on the ballot at the general election to be held on November 4, 1975. Citizens for Charter Change, Essex Cty. v. Caputo , 136 N.J. Super. 424 (App. Div. 1975), certif. den. 74 N.J. 268 (1975). On October 14, 1975, after remand pursuant to said decision, plaintiffs sought additional time from the trial judge to complete their recheck of signatures which had been found to be invalid by the Commissioner of Registration. The request for additional time was denied by the trial judge. On further appeal the Appellate Division, in an unreported opinion filed March 30, 1976, again remanded the matter to the trial court to afford plaintiffs an additional 30 days to recheck the signatures and, if dispute persisted as to whether plaintiffs had obtained a sufficient number of valid signatures, a trial was to be had on that issue. The trial was necessitated by continuing disagreement on the matter. After several days of hearings, the trial judge ultimately dismissed plaintiffs' complaint on the ground that the petitions did not satisfy the requirements of N.J.S.A. 40:41A-20 which provides that such petitions must be signed "by a number of registered voters not less than 15% of the number of persons registered to vote in the county as of 40 days before the primary or general election next preceding the date of filing of such petition." Plaintiffs appeal.
The judgment of the Law Division determined that:
1. The number of registered voters in the County of Essex 40 days before the primary election held on June 3, 1975 was 383,371.
2. The number of valid signatures needed to appear on the petitions submitted by plaintiffs in order to authorize a referendum on the question presented was 57,505 (15% of 383,371).
3. Plaintiffs have failed to prove that the petitions contain the number of valid signatures required to authorize a referendum on the question proposed.
The trial judge held that there were only 55,209 valid signatures, 2,296 short of the required number.
On appeal appellants contend that there was error in computing the required number of signatures and that, as to three separate groups of signatures, there was error in the failure on the part of the trial judge and/or the Commissioner of Registration to count them as valid. For ...