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Rosemary and Mitchell Horn collect signatures. Courtesy Mitchell Horn

Efforts to repeal the county’s blue laws are gaining steam, said Rosemary Shashoua of Westwood, who launched a petition drive earlier this year to overturn these rules.

So far, she has collected some 1,500 signatures. That’s just 1,000 short of the number needed to place a referendum on the November ballot.

Shashoua, who calls herself a “civic activist,” turned her attention to the blue laws in November, after reading about stores that were allowed to open on Sundays for two weekends after Hurricane Sandy, despite opposition by Paramus’s Mayor Richard LaBarbiera. When store owners tried to win an extension, however, they were rebuffed.

In response, Shashoua – founder of the campaign “Modernize Bergen County” – wrote the Bergen Record a detailed letter outlining her opposition to the blue laws.

“The Paramus mayor called me ‘ridiculous,'” she said.

But with her views gaining traction through further articles and interviews, Shashoua won the support of several fellow Bergenites, including Mitchell Horn of Hackensack, who also is working to collect signatures.

Shashoua noted that she collected 400 names during a recent event in Teaneck; last Sunday’s street fair in Fair Lawn yielded another 200 or so.

“I want to make people aware that 30 percent of commerce is now over the Internet,” she said. “We’re losing a lot of revenue.” Malls in Passaic County, including the Willowbrook Mall; the Palisades Center in West Nyack; and other venues in Rockland County also compete with business in Bergen County.

Shashoua said she views the issue of blue laws in economic terms, not as a religious issue, though she has been made aware of the unique problems experienced by those who observe Shabbat.

“I see this economically,” she said. “All the downtown areas are desperate to stay open. Show me one store in this part of Bergen County where all the stores are filled. They’re constantly going out of business. In Fort Lee, a hardware store just closed that had been there for 65 years. Another one is closing in Teaneck.”

Trying to win repeal of the county’s blue laws is not a new effort, State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said.

“I’ve got more experience with this than I care to have,” joked Weinberg; in 2002, while she still was in the state assembly, she put forward a bill that would have allowed municipalities to pass ordinances opting out of the blue laws.

“It can only be done through a county referendum,” she said. “There’s no other mechanism in the current law to undo them. We’ve tried a couple of times and it has always gone down.”

Weinberg said she thought her proposed legislation “was a respectful way of doing this. So if Paramus wants to keep [stores] closed or Teaneck wants them open,” this could be accomplished after a vote by town residents.

“I might as well have suggested the end of the world,” she said, noting that she was “besieged and barraged with phone calls, letters, and emails. I received very little support from the towns I thought might be interested.”

“The real push against a referendum comes from the malls in Paramus, because they know that Paramus residents won’t let their stores be open on Sunday because of traffic,” she said. Pressure also comes from Maywood and Rochelle Park, which get the traffic – if not the tax revenue – from the malls.

“It’s a difficult problem with competing interests,” Weinberg said, suggesting a scenario whereby Riverside Square in Hackensack, for example, might choose to open while the Paramus malls remained closed.

Despite the failure of the most recent repeal effort, waged in 1993, Weinberg said she is “hopeful we can do this again in the future.” She noted, however, that she does not believe it is a good idea to put a referendum on the ballot in November.

“It’s not a good idea practically or politically,” she said. “There’s too much going on. And there’s already a [minimum wage] referendum on the ballot.”

Weinberg said that if people believe that towns should be able to opt out of the blue laws, they have to generate as much enthusiasm as those on the other side.”

Teaneck’s deputy mayor, Adam Gussen, echoes that sentiment. “Supporters of repeal need to avail themselves of every grassroots measure, from going to meetings, to talking at schools and sports groups,” he said. “Anything to raise public awareness.” Gussen agreed that while securing the repeal of the blue laws will be difficult in any case, it would be harder to accomplish this year.

“Given the governor’s recent decision to hold a primary in August, the senatorial election in October, and then the general election in November, it’s a particularly difficult time to achieve success,” he said.

“Over all, the blue laws, as we know them, are antiquated and anachronistic and do not reflect the economic or consumer needs of residents of much of Bergen County,” he said, adding that “very few people really understand what they are. We could change them at the state level and make a county referendum moot.” Despite attempts to accomplish this, however, “they can’t muster legislative support for changing the law,” he said.

“You can’t put it all on the county. It’s not fair or accurate. There’s a role the state legislature can play in this.”

Repealing the blue laws would do much to benefit the economy he said, citing “the economic reality of thousands of jobs increasing revenue for the state at a time when it needs all the help it can get to balance its own books.” He noted also “the increase of property values for more commercially valuable space that [could] help municipalities, the county, and the state,” while furthering employment in the area.

In addition, he said, the blue laws present a particular hardship for observant Jews, which is “almost uniquely felt in Bergen County, with large Orthodox Jewish populations” in Teaneck, Englewood, Bergenfield, and other towns.

“Families with two working parents who are trying to manage a household and make ends meet are trying to meet their needs from Monday to Friday, when they are working. It becomes a tremendous burden,” he said, adding that observant Jews who cannot shop or open their own businesses on Saturday are “doubly hit” by Sunday closings.

Teaneck Councilman Elie Katz recalls looking into the referendum question during his tenure as mayor.

In a statement he wrote on the issue, Katz addressed the fact that “we were not legally permitted to offer a referendum question on a law which the state controls,” suggesting that “it seems a little strange that in a country which strives for justice and prides itself on its successful separation of church and state, that government can prevent us from purchasing underwear and socks on Sunday.”

In his opinion, wrote Katz, “most proponents of blue laws today are not at all maintaining their position because of religious beliefs.” Rather, “there are two main focal points for blue law support. One is the town of Paramus. That town’s residents rightly feel they are harassed by traffic and visitors six days a week and deserve some peace and tranquility one day a week, Sunday…. A secondary opposition derives from mall operators outside Bergen County. They want Bergen County residents to spend their money with them.”

Katz noted, however, that neither group “shows concern that local downtown business districts in other communities suffer because they fail to attract both office and commercial businesses that want or need to be open seven days a week or that close some other day.”

For her part, while she hopes her efforts will bear fruit, Shashoua said that if the November initiative fails, she will work with Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, the chair of the commerce committee, to reintroduce Weinberg’s old bill.

And if the legislature does take action, Katz wrote, “they should allow each municipality to dictate their own situation and opt in or out on an individual basis.”