LINDEN, NJ — Legislation that would force Mayor Derek Armstead to give back the $26,575 raise he received in December has passed the state Senate, escalating tension between him and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari.
Legislation that would prohibit retroactive raises for all elected officials throughout the state passed the Senate in a 32-1 vote March 14.
“Elected officials should not have the capability to give themselves retroactive salary increases, especially when there are so many working people in New Jersey who are suffering,” Scutari said in statement released by New Jersey Senate Democrats. “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.
“I brought forward this piece of legislation because as public officials we aim to foster a climate of accountability in government, and to prevent career politicians from increasing their bank accounts by paying themselves for work they have already been paid for,” Scutari said.
The bill, for what Scutari calls “Derek’s Law,” was prompted when Armstead received a raise from $73,425 to $100,000 per year, representing a 36-percent retroactive pay raise.
That meant Armstead received a check for $26,575 of back pay for 11 months of work in December.
Since bill S3369 would retroactively go into effect Dec. 1, 2018, Armstead would have to return $26,575, according to a New Jersey Senate Democrats news release.
The bill now heads to the Assembly and if it passes, Gov. Phil Murphy can sign it into law.
Armstead did not respond to a message left at his office by LocalSource seeking comment March 15.
The feud between Armstead and Scutari intensified earlier this month when they engaged in a public tug of war over who should get credit for an additional $3.6 million in state aid the city will receive for its schools.
According to a March 8 statement issued by Armstead’s office, the mayor criticized Scutari for “taking credit for something, where other people, including Gov. Murphy, clearly did the heavy lifting.” Armstead also criticized Scutari for taking credit for the additional aid money in a mailer “that outraged parents.”
According to the statement, Scutari took a photo of the schoolchildren he read to on Martin Luther King Day and used a computer program to add a sign in front of the children declaring “Sen. Nick Scutari Secures $4 Million in Additional Aid for Linden Schools.”
When contacted by phone March 8, Scutari said, “Is he in the Legislature? Last time I checked, he was the mayor. He should worry about the potholes in the town and let me get the school aid money. Oh yeah, I got it. He wants to get paid for work he already did and he wants to get credit for work other people are doing.”
The last part of the remark referred to Armstead’s raise, which was approved by the Linden City Council at its Dec. 18 meeting. Outraged council members and residents characterized the raise as “greedy” and “excessive.”
Armstead and Scutari are also still engaged in a court battle regarding control of the 8th Ward Council seat.
Appellate Division Judge Amy O’Connor, in a court document dated Feb. 28, denied an appeal for a temporary restraining order filed by Scutari to have Paul Coates seated as the councilman from the ward.
The Linden Democratic Committee, chaired by Scutari, and Coates filed the motion in Superior Court against the city and the council on Feb. 28, seeking to nullify a vote by the council to keep the seat vacant until the November election. The council had voted 8-1, with one abstention, at the Jan. 15 meeting not to fill the unexpired 8th Ward vacancy created when Michele Yamakaitis resigned Jan. 1 to serve as council president.
The matter now returns to Chancery Judge Katherine Dupuis, who, in court documents dated Feb. 14, recognized the city’s right to leave the seat vacant. The matter was adjourned until Tuesday, March 19, when attorneys for the LDC were to seek to have Dupuis’ order reversed and allow Coates to immediately assume the 8th Ward seat.
The feud between Armstead and Scutari escalated Feb. 19, when the council voted 6-4 for a resolution to form a committee to investigate whether Scutari had been paid for work he did not perform while a city employee. The Municipal Council Investigatory Committee, composed of Armstead-aligned council members Peter Brown, Ralph Strano and Alfred Mohammed, will have subpoena powers.
Scutari, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Linden, Clark and Rahway, had served as the municipal prosecutor for about 16 years before being replaced in January by the council. According to a copy of the resolution LocalSource obtained from the Mayor’s Office, the City Council “is of the opinion that based upon information received and compiled, that a certain former municipal prosecutor, who was required to be present three days a week in court, not including holidays, vacation or personal days, has taken more time off than what was permitted and still received payment for services that were not rendered.”
Although Scutari wasn’t mentioned by name in the resolution and at the council meeting, Armstead issued a Feb. 20 release saying, “I support the decision to investigate Nick Scutari’s absenteeism. Taxpayers will no longer tolerate waste, fraud and abuse in city government.”
While serving as municipal prosecutor and earning $84,659 a year, Scutari was absent at least 62 times in 2018 and 65 times in 2017, according to the mayor’s statement.
Scutari called the formation of the committee “political theater” and “a political witch hunt” during a phone interview with LocalSource on Feb. 25.