Linden mayor balks at schools’ elections proposal

LINDEN, NJ — Mayor Derek Armstead blasted school Superintendent Danny Robertozzi’s proposal to not use the schools for June primary elections, saying the move would inconvenience residents and calling the plan an attempt at voter suppression.
“The superintendent and the majority on the school board aren’t really concerned about who comes to vote; they just don’t like who the residents are voting for,” Armstead said in a press release dated Aug. 7. “This is about creating chaos and suppressing the turnout in the June, 2019 primary, pure and simple. They were openly opposed to my re-election, are furious at the results and want to create confusion and chaos.”

The mayor’s statement was a response to a letter drafted and signed by Robertozzi and addressed to John DeSimone, chairman of the Union County Board of Elections, and Joseph Bodek, the Linden municipal clerk.

According to a copy of the letter, which Armstead provided to LocalSource, the purpose for it was “to request the County Board of Elections and/or the municipal clerk remove all polling sites from the Linden Public Schools.”

In addition to demanding that the primary voting remain in city schools, Armstead criticized the superintendent and the school board for putting too much of their budget into administrators’ paychecks and not enough in the classrooms, saying the school district is “top-heavy.”

He said in an Aug. 8 telephone interview that the board has been resistant to his past calls for a one-day tax holiday and he was disappointed when the board decided to spend a recent $6 million windfall of surplus money and state grants instead of passing the savings on to taxpayers.

“Let’s give the taxpayers a break here,” Armstead said. “Poor people shouldn’t have to resort to cat food. Some seniors are just holding on. They didn’t sign up for this. They didn’t sign up to have their homes taken from them or not being able to pay their property taxes.”
According to Robertozzi, his letter was never sent to DeSimone or Bodek. He said a copy of it was emailed to school board members and some administrators, but he instructed his secretary to hold it when one of the board members expressed some concerns not holding the vote inside the schools.

He would not identify which board member objected to the plan.
Robertozzi said a copy of the letter somehow came to the mayor’s attention, and he found out about the mayor’s press release Aug. 7 when a reporter called him to comment on it.

The plan to remove voting from the public schools was an attempt to make them safer, Robertozzi said. The school board adopted new security measures aimed at reducing the number of people going in and out of the schools in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead in February and other recent school shootings across the country, he said.

Now, parents have to make appointments to meet with their children’s teachers and have to show identification before entering the school. Robertozzi said some parents complained to board members that they had to adhere to the new security measures although voters were allowed to enter the school in June without any vetting.

The parents’ concerns were discussed a public school board meeting in which Robertozzi told the board of his plan to move the voting out of the schools, he said.

“There are plenty of other places to have election,” Robertozzi said. “In fact, half of the polling places in Linden aren’t in schools. They’re in firehouses, they have them in Ferguson Towers across from School No. 4. I didn’t think it was going to be that big of thing. So, we talked in public, told the board exactly what I was going to do; it’s in the minutes, it’s on audio.”

School board President Raymond Topoleski wrote in a release distributed via email on Monday, Aug. 13, that the board had implemented a policy in April that halted the public’s “unchecked access to our schools” on primary election days. The policy came in reaction to several recent acts of violence at schools across the country.

Following June’s primary, “numerous parents expressed concern over the safety of their children during voting,” Topoleski wrote, and he criticized the mayor for going public with his concerns rather than first discussing them with the school board and administration. “I am disappointed not only that he chose to take that approach but based his arguments on inaccurate information and hyperbole,” he wrote.

According to Armstead’s press release, school board member Greg Martucci said, “There have been no complaints about the safety of our students and staff on primary election days. Safety on this day has never been an issue. As a duly elected guardian of our schools, I am appalled that a baseless allegation has been asserted.”

Schools 1, 2, 5, 6, 9 and 10; Myles J. McManus Middle School and Linden High School are used for voting, according to the Linden City Clerk’s Office.

The Ann Ferguson Towers, Firehouse No. 3, The John T. Gregorio Recreation Center, PAL Building, St. Theresa’s Church complex and the 7th Ward and 8th Ward recreation centers are also used for voting, according to the clerk’s office.

The November general elections are held during in-service days, when there are no students inside the school buildings.
Robertozzi said he wants to hear from board members concerning the topic at the public meeting Aug. 28. Until then, he will hold off from sending the letter to DeSimone and Bodek.

The mayor said he is “in a holding pattern” until the Aug. 28 meeting, but indicated he is wary of Robertozzi after what he said happened at the November elections.

“A number of parents have been approached by certain individuals with regards to the election,” Armstead said. “If any of you have felt threatened or inconvenienced, don’t hesitate to call the police. The sister of the superintendent on Election Day was at School No. 5. That’s the main poll where I’m at. That’s where I’m housed at in the 4th ward. She’s at the polls. Why would you send her to my school to monitor the activities going on at School No. 5? What is the point?”