LINDEN, NJ — The battle for control of the vacant 8th Ward council seat intensified when the mayor issued a letter to city officials instructing them not to recognize anyone selected by the city’s Democratic Committee to fill the seat.
According to a copy of the letter provided to LocalSource by Mayor Derek Armstead’s office and dated Jan. 31, Armstead is “advising all department heads and elected officials” to not recognize anyone sworn in by the Linden Democratic Municipal Committee to fill the seat.
According to the letter, “all department heads should be further advised that this individual is not to be given access to City Hall as a member of council, which shall include but not be limited to official city documents, access to the city’s email or computer system, nor should this individual be provided any confidential information.”
State Sen. Nick Scutari, Armstead’s political rival in Linden and chairman of the LDMC, said in a Jan. 31 phone interview that the committee was set to convene Wednesday, Feb. 6, to select a replacement for Michele Yamakaitis, who vacated the seat to be sworn in as City Council president Jan. 2.
Scutari, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Linden, Clark and Rahway, said the committee has “the statutory authority” to select and swear in the next council member. He said the vote likely will be conducted by ballot form or a “hand raise.”
“They will be seated as a council member and if they are not seated, I will file a lawsuit against the city and I’ll ask for costs and fees associated with their frivolous action and their blatant disregard for the law,” Scutari said.
After the Jan. 31 Board of Education meeting, Armstead said, “They can convene whatever they want, if I have to sit a police officer in the 8th Ward seat that night, there will not be a person he appoints in that chair. The department heads have been instructed to not give information or provide access to our emails or do anything else critical to the city function.”
The City Council at its Jan. 15 meeting voted 8-1 with one abstention to leave the seat vacant until the November general election.
Days before the council meeting, the LDMC voted 35-17 to submit Paul Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard as candidates to the council to fill the vacancy. All three are aligned with Scutari.
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, the mayor 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 the mayor in November as an independent, said at the Jan. 15 meeting that Armstead had “yelled” at Scutari about 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 the mayor, 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 — with Rhashonna Cosby voting against it and Gretchen Hickey abstaining — Michele Yamakaitis said she would step in to cover the vacated seat as necessary.
“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.
Cosby 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.”
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.
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.
After the Jan. 31 Board of Education meeting, Armstead vowed to stand his ground in the fight to keep the seat vacant.
“No party boss, whether Democrat, Republican or Communist, is going to come and put somebody in that seat that the governing body said is going to stay vacant,” Armstead said. “We feel the best thing for that position, if anybody wants that seat, they should run for it rather than have him take committee people from all over town who have nothing to do with the 8th Ward and select individuals who he wants. It doesn’t matter, I still have majority vote on council, anyway, whether he puts one of his people there