LINDEN, NJ — The first round in the battle for control of the 8th Ward City Council seat goes to Mayor Derek Armstead.
Administrative Law Judge Katherine Dupuis, in court documents dated Feb. 14, denied a request by state Sen. Nick Scutari to appoint Paul Coates to the seat that the council had voted to keep vacant until the November election. The council voted 8-1 with one abstention at the Jan. 15 council meeting not to fill the unexpired 8th Ward vacancy created when Michele Yamakaitis resigned Jan. 1 to become the council president.
The Linden Democratic Committee, chaired by Scutari, filed suit in Superior Court against the city and the council to seek a temporary restraining order against the council from enforcing the resolution to maintain the vacancy.
Coates, 44, a barber and bail bondsman, was selected by the LDC by a 20-0 vote and sworn in by Scutari on Feb. 6.
City attorney Daniel Antonelli and Jarrid Kantor argued in front of Dupuis on Feb. 11 that the city has a right to keep the seat vacant. Much of their argument hinged on state Statute 40A:16-5, which states that a “governing body may fill the vacancy temporarily.”
David Minchello, the attorney representing the LDC, argued 40A:16-5 should not give the council the discretion to leave the seat vacant, but that 40A:16-11 must also be considered because it is “a roadmap” that “lays out the process by which all the vacancies are filled.”
Minchello argued that since the council failed to select one of the three candidates — Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard — put forth by the LDC and Scutari, the power to select the successor goes back to the committee.
“Judge Dupuis recognized the existence of two sections of the statute and rightly determined that council, as they did here, had a right to maintain a vacancy,” Antonelli said in a phone interview Feb. 18.
That is not a final decision, however; the order Dupuis signed reflects a final hearing date of March 15. At that time, attorneys for the LDC will seek to have Dupuis’ order reversed and allow Coates to immediately assume the 8th Ward seat.
But the next round will take place before that. Attorneys for the LDC have filed a request for emergent relief in Appellate Court and Antonelli and Kantor had until Feb. 22 to file their response.
Scutari, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Linden, Clark and Rahway, said in a Feb. 18 phone interview that it is “very rare that they would accept such an application.”
No date to hear that request had been set at the time LocalSource went to press.
The battle between Armstead and Scutari also was fought outside the courts last week.
Armstead, who said a police officer would sit in the chair at the Feb. 19 council meeting to prevent anyone from assuming the seat, issued a statement Feb. 14 declaring victory over Scutari’s “power grab” and characterizing it as “a victory for the taxpayers.” According to the release, Armstead “speculated that the political boss was eager to have his own representative on the governing body to stunt efforts to appoint a forensic auditor to investigate Scutari’s performance as municipal prosecutor.”
The council members, six of whom generally support Armstead, voted to remove Scutari, who had served as the city prosecutor for about 16 years, from the position at their Jan. 15 meeting.
According to the statement, Yamakaitis called for Scutari to end his “feud” with Armstead and warned him not to get carried away “confusing public service with blood sport.”
Legislation sponsored by Scutari, which would prohibit retroactive salary increase for all elected officials throughout the state was introduced in the state Senate on Feb. 13. The bill was a direct result of Armstead receiving a raise retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, at the Dec. 18 council meeting, according to a release from the New Jersey Senate Democrats.
The council’s action meant Armstead received about a 36-percent pay raise to push his salary from about $73,000 annually to $100,000. For Christmas, Armstead cashed a check for approximately $26,000.
According to the New Jersey Senate Democrats’ release, Scutari said, “Elected officials should not have the capability to give themselves retroactive salary increases. As elected officials in the Legislature, we are prohibited from giving ourselves retroactive raises and bonuses. No elected official should be able to collect back pay upon salary increases; this legislation extends this basic standard to all elected offices in the state.
“I brought forward this piece of legislation because as public officials we aim to foster a climate of accountability in government, and to prevent politicians from padding their bank accounts by paying themselves for work they have already been paid for,” Scutari said in the release.
Armstead would still have the majority of council members aligned with him even if Coates is recognized as the 8th Ward councilman. However, the terms of Peter Brown, Barry Javick and Ralph Strano, who are generally aligned with Armstead, will expire at the end of this year. Rhashonna Cosby’s term also expires, but she is not aligned with the mayor.