A push over the summer to return to nonpartisan elections in Camden by next year's mayoral and council elections fell flat because of timing and local officials' interpretation of the law.

A petition was turned in Aug. 31 for a November ballot question that would have allowed voters to decide whether they preferred municipal elections in which candidates did not indicate their party affiliation. City Council acted on the petition Sept. 28, two days too late to get the question on Tuesday's ballot.

Frank Fulbrook and four other Camden activists circulated the petition in hope of having a nonpartisan election when Mayor Dana L. Redd and three at-large Council members could run for reelection.

The goal is to give anyone a chance to hold office, not just those with party backing, Fulbrook said.

In nonpartisan elections, most often held in May, all candidates' names appear on the ballot in the same column, which is fairer, he said. In partisan elections, the names are grouped in columns, each for a different party. The names of independent candidates can be in a fifth or sixth column.

The majority of Camden voters are Democrats who vote the party line. Most candidates are Democrats, too.

But "we have 'machine' Democrats and independent Democrats," Fulbrook said in May. The latter have been known to switch their affiliation to Republican to gain a more prominent berth on the ballot.

The city had nonpartisan elections from 1960 to 1992 and 1996 to 2007. The most recent return to partisan elections came after City Council argued that by taking advantage of the November general election, the city would shift most of the cost to the county.

The window to get a referendum question on the general-election ballot is small: Approval must be granted no more than 90 days and not less than 40 days before the election. A coordinated effort is required by petitioners.

"A lot of activists get politically engaged close to the election but . . . it takes time to get these things on the ballot," said Matthew C. Weng, an attorney for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

Fulbrook said the timing would have been suitable had Camden Municipal Clerk Luis Pastoriza and City Attorney Marc Riondino not insisted that the petition alone was not enough. The next step, Riondino said, was Council approval.

"If someone files a petition [for a ballot question], it goes through the ordinance process," Riondino said.

According to Weng's reading of state law, a direct petition seeking a ballot question to change the form of local government would not require Council approval.

But Camden's interpretation "seems permissible," he said Monday.

City Council approved the referendum but too late.

"They stalled and created this totally illegal step," Fulbrook said Monday.

If the petitioners "had an issue with it, they could have appealed it in a court of law," Pastoriza said.

Fulbrook, who has sued the city over actions about which he disagreed, said he lacked the energy to fight the way he used to. The week of Aug. 6, when he had planned to file the petition, he was hospitalized with a lung infection that required surgery. The other petitioners did not file the paperwork until Aug. 31.

"I'm lying here with a splint in my arm, a leaky drain hole in my chest, and I lost 20 pounds," he said. He said he had spoken with a lawyer and other activists to file an appeal.

Whether that will happen "comes down to funding," he said, adding that few lawyers were interested in municipal pro bono cases.

Fellow petitioner Ali Sloan El said he had spoken to a lawyer in Philadelphia who might be willing to appeal the city's decision, which could put the question on a special election ballot before next November. Sloan El said he hoped that might allow for a change to nonpartisan in time for next year's municipal elections.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on www.philly.com/camden_flow