LINDEN, NJ – The school board is seeking to have June primary voting removed from the district’s schools, despite having already been met with sharp criticism and accusations of voter suppression by Mayor Derek Armstead.
The board, at its Aug. 28 meeting, voted to authorize President Raymond Topoleski to send a letter to the city clerk and the Union County Board of Elections, asking for other sites to be used for polling.
Emotions ran high at the meeting where board members tried to figure out how a copy of a letter drafted and signed by superintendent Danny Robertozzi ended up in Armstead’s hands before it could be sent to the city clerk and the elections board six weeks ago.
Another point of contention at the meeting was the fact that board members Gregory Martucci and Katarzyna Kozak were quoted in Armstead’s Aug. 7 press release that condemned the removal of voting from the schools. Vice president Theresa Villani said that ethics charges will be filed with the New Jersey School Board Association against two board members stemming from, amongst other things, the fact that the original letter was “leaked” to Armstead.
Villani declined to reveal which members would be accused with the charges.
“There is one person that is going to file it and then we’ll see what happens at our September meeting,” she said. “I can’t see the future, but what could happen is the board could vote to enjoin that grievance, meaning the majority of the board supports the ethics grievance and that we stand behind it.”
The idea of moving primary voting out of the schools goes back to June, when some board members said they heard from several parents who complained they had to adhere to stricter school security measures adopted by the board in April.
The parents were upset they had to produce identification, but voters were allowed to enter the school without any
Board members, conjuring images of mass school shootings such as the ones at Columbine and Sandy Hook, said allowing people into the schools during primary voting creates a safety concern.
“It is the responsibility of every commissioner in this room to ensure that our children are returned to their parents the way they are dropped off each and every day to our buildings,” said board member Tracey Birch. “I will do that every day. Election days are no different. When I took this oath, it was to ensure their safety for 180 days, not just 179 days. While we don’t allow the general public to enter our buildings unescorted any other time, and by allowing the general public access to our buildings, it goes against our safety policy.”
Armstead scoffed at the idea that there is a safety issue at the schools. In a statement dated Aug. 7, he said there has never been an incident during a primary.
He characterized the school board’s call to remove voting out of concern for students a “smokescreen.”
“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 the press release. “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.”
Armstead, who backed Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr for the Union County Democratic chair earlier against Linden Democratic chairman and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari earlier this year, ran unendorsed for the Democratic nomination for Linden mayor in June and won.
His 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.”
Robertozzi said he had every board member’s permission in June to draft the letter. However, Armstead said in his release that Martucci and Kozak told him “there was a no vote” in regards to drafting the letter.
Martucci was quoted in the Armstead’s release as saying, “To my knowledge there have been no complaints about the safety of our students and staff on primary election days. Safety on this day has NEVER (sic) been an issue.
“As a duly elected guardian of our schools, I am appalled that a baseless allegation has been asserted.”
Kozak was quoted in the release as saying that her “concern lies when correspondences are sent without any formal action by the board of education and notified of it after it was released. This request was not approved by the board and misleadingly indicates the board’s consent.”
Martucci was not at the meeting, but Kozak was asked about quotes that appeared in newspaper reports last month. Board president Raymond Topoleski said that, according to board policy, he is the only member allowed to speak to reporters.
Villani asked Kozak: “Did you also go for training stating that you as a board member have no right to talk to any of the press.”
“But I didn’t,” Kozak said.
“You’re recorded in newspapers and press releases,” Villani continued. “So you violated ethics from the board, you and Mr. Martucci. And you lied, in my opinion.”
Kozak declined to comment after the meeting.
Board member Elizabeth Welsh also used the meeting as a chance to respond to Armstead’s accusation that “the majority of the school board is aligned with Scutari” and that “either he is behind this cynical move or one of his fiefdoms is out of control.”
“There is no one controlling anyone on this board,” Welsh said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ll speak personally for myself. Sen. Scutari, I’ve never personally spoken to the man.”
Villani interrupted to say she has met Scutari “like one and a half times.”
Welsh then continued: “I have no relationship with him. He does not control what I say. He does not control what I do. I find that – I was very disturbed when I read that in the article that the board members not all because it was limited to certain ones are controlled by other people and I am here to say that I am not controlled by anyone.”
Armstead did not respond to messages left for him at City Hall.