LINDEN, NJ – The vice president of the local Board of Education, who was a vocal opponent of the mayor in the weeks leading up to the general election, said he is trying to get her fired from her job at the city library.
Theresa Villani first made the claim that Mayor Derek Armstead was trying to get her fired from her position as a library assistant to LocalSource at the Oct. 30 board meeting. She repeated it during a phone interview on Nov. 5.
Villani, who failed in her bid for re-election to the school board when she and running mates Tanya Grissett and Kyle Holder were defeated by Armstead-supported candidates Patrick Gargano, Doris Johnson and Marianthe Manganello, came into conflict with Armstead several times leading up to the election.
The rising tensions between Villani, Armstead and the Board of Education members he was backing reached a crescendo at the Board of Education meeting when Manganello said that her daughter and several other students at McManus Middle School had gotten sick during a class trip to Students to Science, in Morris County, on Oct. 25.
Capt. Jack Ambrose of the East Hanover police department said in a Nov. 6 phone interview that two students passed out at the science center and four others were transported to Morristown Medical Center after complaining of being “light-headed.” The county’s HAZMAT unit “cleared” the science center and the bus for the presence of carbon monoxide, but Ambrose said the students eventually tested positive for carbon monoxide poisoning.
The students were transported on the school trip by the Villani Bus Company, which has been owned and operated by Villani’s family since 1920, according to the company’s web site.
Manganello said there had been no communication from the school district’s administration and said, “We would like to know are you representing the children of the Linden school system or are you representing the interest of the Villani Bus Company? That’s what I want to know. Why was no email sent out to the parents to follow up?”
“The mayor came on to the library board (as a trustee) just this year,” Villani said during a Nov. 5 phone interview. “I’ve been working there for five years. I’ve never been written up. I’ve gotten straight ‘excellents’ up and down the line. But, all of a sudden, I’m being terminated or they’re trying to terminate me. This came directly after the bus incident when Marianthe’s daughter was one of the people on the bus. And they haven’t given me a reason as to why.”
During a Nov. 3 phone interview, Armstead said he was not aware of the claim that he was exerting his influence to have Villani fired.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it because they’re an autonomous board,” he said. “Nobody can really say anything about what was going on. I’m at this point just trying to figure out what’s going on. This is getting crazier and crazier by the minute.
“The only thing I can say is that they’re an autonomous board. Most of the board was there before I got there so it’s not like it’s my board members. I think I had two people I put on the board since I been there.”
Villani provided LocalSource with a copy of a Rice Notice she received from Dennis Purves, the director of the library. A Rice Notice informs an individual that they are to be a subject of discussion at a public meeting.
According to the notice, which was addressed to Villani, the library’s board of trustees at the Nov. 5 board meeting had scheduled an agenda item to “have a discussion which could affect the terms and conditions of your employment. Specifically, the Board will discuss your actions as an employee of Linden Library and how they may impact discipline and future employment.”
According to a subsequent email from Purves to Villani, a copy of which was provided to the LocalSource, “I have been authorized to rescind the Rice Notice for discussion and possible action on November 5th, 2018. There will be no discussion or legal action.”
Linden Library Board of Trustees President Marilyn Coplan, who said she was appointed to the board by the mayor, denied that Armstead holds sway over the members.
“The board is autonomous,” said Coplan, who according to the city website also works for the planning board. “We don’t act on the behalf of the mayor. We are autonomous and we discuss things among ourselves. We do not go to the mayor for advice.
“It was a thing she (Villani) started on her phone that made it …,” Coplan said before her voice trailed off. “Unfortunately, it happened to have been right before the election. That, I can’t help when things happen. It was just a coincidence. It had nothing to do with the mayor. The mayor knew nothing about it because we do not go to the mayor. The board discusses it amongst themselves.”
Villani appeared at the Oct. 16 council meeting brandishing a copy of “Linden Ledger,” an eight-page newspaper that contained an article critical of the Board of Education’s “frivolous spending.”
A notice on the bottom of Page 8 states that the publication was paid for by the Committee to Elect Armstead for Mayor and the Committee to elect Michele Yamakaitis for Council President.
Villani was tangentially involved in a social media conflict that flared between Armstead and state Assemblyman Jamel Holley in October.
In posts, Armstead alleged that Holley had paid children to distribute campaign literature supporting Villani, Grissett and Holder in Linden Wards 2, 6, 9 and 10. Holley, the former Roselle mayor who represents District 20, which includes Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle and Union, denied the claims.
Villani also spoke out against Board of Education member Katarzyna Kozak, who was endorsed by Armstead during her run for the board, during the board’s Sept. 28 meeting. Board members Kozak and Gregory Martucci had been quoted in a press release issued by Armstead condemning the board’s exploration of having June primary voting moved out of the city’s schools.
Board president Raymond Topoleski said board policy dictates that only the president can speak on the behalf of the board.
Martucci did not attend the Sept. 28 meeting, but Kozak did.
“You’re recorded in newspapers and press releases,” Villani said. “So you violated ethics from the board, you and Mr. Martucci. And you lied, in my opinion.”
Armstead and Villani were not always political rivals. Villani said she ran for the Board of Education 2015 as a part of “Team Armstead,” but soon broke their alliance.
“They were telling me when we won, and I was told — and this was in the Armstead kitchen — I was told that we were to vote as a block because that is where our power lies and that they would be going over the agendas with us so that we would know how to vote,” Villani said.
“I appreciate you trying to get me elected, but these are the people who are electing me. I’m here for the kids, not your agenda. He just kept putting it out there, that he wanted to get rid of the superintendent (Danny Robertozzi) and I just completely — I broke free. I publicly said, ‘Please stop supporting me in public.’ Even when it could have benefited me, I still broke away.”
She said her relationship with Armstead eventually became adversarial.
“The mayor has threatened me before and told me I better watch myself or I would be sorry,” she said. “He also told me I better watch what I put on Facebook and that it’s going to come back and bite me. I was totally taken aback. When he said it to me, it was in a public place, the first time he said something to me.
“He bends over to shake your hand and then he goes to whisper in your ear so nobody else can hear. So, it looks like he’s just saying hello, but he’s whispering threats into your ear.
“The first time it happened, I just looked around like, ‘Did anybody else just hear that?’ The people I attended with were like, ‘No.’ I told them right then and there on the spot what happened and everybody was just taken aback. That is not how adults are supposed to behave.”
When contacted via phone before a Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 12, Armstead said, “I threatened her? Come on, that’s insane. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never threatened anybody in this business. I’ve heard it all. I really have.”
Villani said she wouldn’t rule out the possibility of filing a hostile work environment lawsuit “if they continue to interfere with my job.”
“I will have no recourse accept to file one,” she said. “It’s the only way I can protect myself and my job. If they leave me alone from here on in, I’m fine. I’m bigger than them. I won’t stoop to the pettiness. Just let it blow over. But, if they keep coming after my job or interfering with the day-to-day operations of the library, in which they’re not supposed to have any say, then I’m going to have to do something stronger.”