Ethics charges filed in Linden schools’ primary voting spat

Katarzyna Kozak
Gregory Martucci

LINDEN, NJ — State ethics charges have been filed against two school board members stemming from the unauthorized release of internal communications that ignited controversy between school officials and Mayor Derek Armstead.

Board of Education President Raymond Topoleski confirmed during an Oct. 19 phone interview that charges were filed against Gregory Martucci and Katarzyna Kozak by board member Ahmed Shehata. The board also voted 6-0 with one abstention to add its official sanction to the charges filed with the School Ethics Commission.

According to the commission’s website, Martucci and Kozak have 20 days to formally answer the charges. If a violation is found after its investigation, “the commission may recommend to the commissioner the reprimand, censure, suspension, or removal of the school official.”

Kozak is finishing the first year of her three-year term and Martucci is in the second year of a three-year term.

Martucci and Kozak did not respond to emails seeking comment. Topoleski, citing board policy, said he could not give out their phone numbers. He said both were out of the country, but agreed to try to pass along a request for comment on LocalSource’s behalf.

Martucci and Kozak were quoted in an Aug. 7 statement released by Armstead that condemned the school board’s exploration of removing the June primary voting from the city’s schools.

The issue of school security in Linden came into focus after several parents complained to school board members that they had to adhere to more stringent security measures implemented by the board in the wake of the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February. The parents said they had to show identification while voters were allowed, by law, to enter the school without vetting.

Topoleski said the board instructed Superintendent Danny Robertozzi to draft letters to the Union County Board of Elections and the city clerk, asking if the June primary polling could be moved out of the schools in the name of safety for its 6,100 students. He sent copies of the letters to board members to review.

“The fact of the matter is when Dr. Robertozzi sent the information out to us, Mr. Martucci had some questions about it and Dr. Robertozzi called me and said, ‘You know, Mr. Martucci had some issues,’” Topoleski said. “I said, ‘Fine.’ We have a board meeting next week or it might have even been Monday. It was Monday because the information had just been sent out on a Friday, I believe. So, I said, ‘Let’s hold it. Don’t send it and then we can discuss it at our committee meeting.’”

Drafts of that letters were “leaked” to Armstead, Topoleski said. Armstead then released a statement in which he slammed the proposal, saying the safety issue was a “smokescreen” and that BOE was engaging in 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 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.”

Topoleski said Robertozzi was unaware of Armstead’s press release until a reporter called him, seeking comment.

In the release, Martucci is quoted as saying, “I have absolutely no evidence that at any time did any member of the public approach the Board of Education in person, through text, or snail mail that the safety of our students and staff was a concern. I am further dismayed that this is the second-time correspondence to the public has been released without formal action by the Board of Education.”

Later in the statement, Kozak is quoted as saying, “Superintendent Robertozzi sent communication to Union County Board of Elections and Linden City Clerk regarding Linden Board of Education’s request for change in polling sites due to issues of student safety and interruption of educational services. My 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.”

Topoleski dismissed the suggestion that comments could have been manufactured and assigned to Martucci and Kozak without their knowledge.

“They never came to us and said, ‘Hey look, we never said that,’ Topoleski said. “That would have been my first thought. If a comment was attributed to me that I didn’t make, the first I would say is, ‘Hey, look, I didn’t say that. I don’t know where … they got that from.’ I would be writing something in the paper or calling you guys (LocalSource) up and say, ‘Hey, who said I said this?’”

Emotions ran high at the school board’s Aug. 28 meeting when members confronted Kozak about the quotes and her alleged violation of board bylaws prohibiting any member except the superintendent from speaking on the behalf of the board.

At one point, BOE Vice President Theresa 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. Martucci was not present. After the meeting, Villani said that ethic charges would be filed against two members of the board. She declined to say which board members.

At the same meeting, the board voted to authorize Topoleski to write a letter to the UCBE and city clerk, requesting that June primary polls be removed from the schools. Topoleski announced at the Sept. 20 meeting that not only was the school board’s request denied, but it had been notified that the Ward 5 polling station previously located in the Ann J. Ferguson Towers was being reassigned to School No. 4 in the spring.

School Nos. 1, 2, 4, 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. In addition, 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.

Robertozzi said at the Sept. 20 meeting that the school district will go to “Plan B.” Schools are allotted four snow days each year; the first unused snow day or “giveback day” will be used to close schools for the primary June 4. If all four snow days are used, “Plan C” will go into effect, which will remove the vacation day scheduled for the Monday after Easter and use it to close schools for the June primary.

Robertozzi said if those plans fall through, the BOE will declare a half day, and will look into having a police presence inside the schools.

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