Linden council to leave Yamakaitis seat empty until November

Michele Yamakaitis, center, is sworn in as the first woman Linden City Council president while her son holds the Bible.

LINDEN, NJ — The City Council has voted to leave the 8th Ward seat, which was vacated when Michele Yamakaitis took over as council president, open until the November general election.

Some council members and members of the public bristled at the move during the Jan. 15 meeting, asserting that the seat is being left vacant to maintain a majority of council members aligned with Mayor Derek Armstrong. They claimed the vacated spot would be unfair to citizens in the 8th Ward who would not have a representative on the council.

The process of filling the position allowed for a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the rift between the city’s political power brokers: Armstead and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who represents District 22, which includes Linden, Clark and Rahway, among other municipalities.

Days before the council meeting, the Linden Democratic Committee voted 35-17 to submit Paul Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard as candidates to the council to fill the vacancy created when Yamakaitis was selected the council’s first woman president Jan. 2. Coates, Apalinski and Howard are aligned with Scutari, the Linden Democratic municipal chairman and Union County Democratic chairman.

Daniel Yamakaitis, son of the council president and president of the 8th Ward Democratic Club, said at the Jan. 15 council meeting that the club had drawn up its own list of candidates, including the mayor’s brother.

The qualifications of Mark Armstead, Garnett Blaine and Patty Murgo were spelled out in a letter addressed to Scutari and signed by Daniel and Michele Yamakaitis, and which Daniel Yamakaitis read at the council meeting.

According to Daniel Yamakaitis, Derek Armstead tried to make a motion to present the club’s candidates at the Linden Democratic Committee meeting, but Scutari would not recognize him. The meeting apparently turned heated and John Principato, who ran against Mayor Armstead in November as a independent mayoral candidate, said at the Jan. 15 meeting that Armstead had “yelled” at Scutari over his choice of candidates.
After the Jan. 15 meeting, the mayor said “it wasn’t really yelling” and that he was trying to “implore” Scutari to contact the council president and “solicit her input.”

According to Daniel Yamakaitis and Armstead, there is a long tradition of three candidates being chosen by the various Democratic ward clubs to be submitted to the council in the event of a seat opening.

Daniel Yamakaitis said Scutari’s refusal to consult with the council president or accept the 8th Ward Democratic Club’s candidates was “disrespectful.”
“Shame on him and all the committee people who do not live in the 8th Ward who have widely supported this tyrant,” he said. “He did not meet with councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis and decided to reach out to her the day of the committee meeting and called her while she was at work. The names we were given were decided by committee members who have no interest in the 8th Ward community.”

Moments before the ordinance to leave the seat vacant until November was approved by an 8-1 vote — with one abstention from Gretchen Hickey — Michele Yamakaitis said she would step in to cover the vacated seat when needed.

“I have been a resident of the 8th Ward for 26 years,” she said. “I am more than capable. I have been answering the calls since I took the council presidency. So, I will not let the 8th Ward go forgotten. I will be able to represent the 8th Ward as well as be council president.”
With the seat vacant, six of the 10 council members are generally aligned with Armstead: Yamakaitis, Peter Brown, Barry Javick, Alfred Mohammed, Ralph Strano and Lisa Ormon, the mayor’s sister.

Rhashonna Cosby, who cast the only no vote at the meeting, said the candidates from the committee and the club should have been presented to the council for its consideration, although she would not have voted for the mayor’s brother, saying she, “wouldn’t want to appoint a relative unless they were running and seated.”

“But the other five, I feel like why can’t we go back as a democratic people, go through the names and pick one because I always want an opinion,” Cosby said. “Always. And so not having an opinion from an empty seat doesn’t help us at all. I get it.
“The chairman didn’t do what was expected or it didn’t go the way they have in other instances, however, I just feel we are lacking if we don’t have another person who can give their opinion to the governing body.”

According to Scutari, the seat will not be vacant for long. In a Jan. 19 phone interview, Scutari said the council’s vote to keep the seat open is “not a valid piece of legislation.”

He said if the seat remains vacant until Jan. 30, state statute gives the committee until Feb. 15 to appoint one of its three nominees.
“Once the committee approves that person, I’ll swear that person in and they’ll be seated,” Scutari said. “That’s it. That’s how it works.”
However, city attorney Daniel Antonelli defended the council’s vote, pointing to state statute N.J.S.A. 40A: 16-5(b) that states a governing body “may” fill the vacancy temporarily by appointment. He also cited a 1980 Appellate Division decision that allowed the Galloway Township Council to keep a seat vacant.

“Council’s decision to maintain a vacancy finds its support not just in the statute, which says the council may fill the vacancy temporarily, but also in the appellate decision, where the court upheld the governing body’s discretion to maintain a vacancy in the first instance,” Antonelli said. “Had council decided to fill the vacancy, they would have proceeded to the next step, deciding which of the three names presented to them would be selected to fill the vacancy temporarily.”

At the Jan. 15 meeting at which the council voted to leave the 8th Ward seat vacant, it also voted to replace Linden resident Scutari as the city prosecutor — after 16 years on the job — with Scotch Plains-based attorney Deirdre Mason.

Principato called the council’s actions “political retribution,” but after the Jan. 15 meeting, Armstead denied that Scutari’s ouster was politically motivated. However, the move comes in the wake of last year’s events in which Armstead backed Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr for the Union County Committee chair against Scutari. Armstead ran alongside Mahr to be vice chairman. Scutari won by a 412-341 vote and subsequently as county party chair endorsed Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey for mayor over the incumbent Armstead in the June 2018 primary. Armstead overcame the disadvantage, won the primary and now has six council members aligned with him.