Judge sounds reversal in Linden council seat battle

LINDEN, NJ — The battle for control of the 8th Ward seat on the City Council has been extended, with a judge on March 19 sounding as if she may reverse herself and side with state Sen. Nicholas Scutari in his ongoing feud with Mayor Derek Armstead.

Chancery Judge Katherine Dupuis, in court documents dated March 27, declared that the “balance of hardships weighs in favor” of Paul Coates, but that a new hearing must be scheduled to determine if local committee members were properly notified of the Feb. 6 meeting when Coates was selected to fill the seat.

The fight is the latest in a yearlong skirmish between Scutari and Armstead, and involves a vacancy created when Michele Yamakaitis resigned the 8th Ward seat Jan. 1 to serve as council president.

The Armstead-aligned council voted to keep the seat vacant until the voters can decide a replacement in the November general election. Regardless, the Scutari-chaired Linden Democratic Committee selected Coates, 44, a barber and bail bondsman, by a 20-0 vote to take the seat and he and sworn in by Scutari on Feb. 6. But the city council refused to recognize him.

Scutari sued to seat Coates, sparking the legal confrontation.
City attorney Daniel Antonelli and Jarrid Kantor presented affidavits from committee members Cleadel Way, Danie Orelien and James Larken that state they did not receive notice of the LDC meeting and that they would have voted against Coates, according to the March 27 document.

Kurt Sigmund, Scutari’s aide, said that he contacted committee members by phone, text message and email address, including that he left a voicemail for Way on Feb. 4, the document went on to say.
Dupuis found that the certifications from Scutari and Sigmund are contradicted by the certification of the three committee members.

No date for the hearing on the issue of notice to the committee members had been set at the time LocalSource went to press.

Scutari did not return phone calls to his regional senate office or cell phone by deadline.
The March 19 hearing was the third three hearings with the first two leaving the seat open.
Dupuis, in court documents dated Feb. 14, acknowledged a right for the city to keep the seat vacant and Judge Amy O’Connor, in a court document dated Feb. 28, denied an appeal for a temporary restraining order filed by Scutari to have Coates seated.

The LDC and Coates filed a motion in Superior Court against the city and council Feb. 28, seeking to nullify a vote by the city council to keep the seat vacant.

The council voted 8-1, with one abstention, at its Jan. 15 meeting not to fill the unexpired 8th Ward vacancy.
Scutari and Armstead’s feud began when Armstead backed Fanwood Colleen Mahr over Scutari in the race for the Union County Democratic chairmanship more than a year ago. Scutari followed by giving the endorsed line in last year’s Linden mayoral primary to Gretchen Hickey over the incumbent Armstead.

Armstead subsequently won the primary and then the general election along with several allies who ran for city council. With the majority on council, Armstead replaced Scutari as Linden municipal prosecutor earlier this year after more than 16 years.
Scutari subsequently introduced what he called “Derek’s Law” a bill — which has now passed both the state Assembly and Senate — which would force Armstead to give back a retroactive $26,575 raise he received in December. The city council increased the mayor’s salary to $100,000, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018.

Scutari’s legislation would prohibit retroactive raises for all elected officials throughout the state.
The most recent battleground was when the Linden council recently approved the establishment of a committee — composed of Armstead-aligned council members Peter Brown, Ralph Strano and Alfred Mohammed — to investigate accusations that Scutari was absent from his prosecutor job more than 60 times in 2017 and 2018.