Linden council rejects proposal on 8th Ward seat

LINDEN, NJ — The battle to fill the 8th Ward seat will return to the courts after a divided City Council rejected a settlement offer at a special meeting on May 2.

Mayor Derek Armstead-aligned council members Lisa Ormon, Barry Javick, Peter Brown, Alfred Mohammad, Ralph Strano and Michele Yamakaitis voted against the offer, while Rhashonna Cosby, John Francis Roman, Armando Medina and Gretchen Hickey voted in favor of it.

The special meeting lasted only a few minutes, with most of it being conducted in private session.
The rejection sent the issue back to Chancery Judge Katherine Dupuis’ court, Armstead confirmed in a May 6 phone interview.
The adoption of the resolution would have required all members of the Linden Democratic Committee to be notified, at which time a selection would have been made to fill the 8th Ward vacancy, city attorney Daniel Antonelli said in a May 6 email.
“We didn’t go with the settlement because we feel that the council was bypassed on the issue,” Armstead said, referring to the previous selection of Paul Coates to fill the seat.

The rejection of the settlement was the latest in a yearlong battle between state Sen. Nick Scutari, the Union County and Linden Democratic Party chairman, and Armstead, and involves the vacancy created when Yamakaitis resigned the 8th Ward seat Jan. 1 to serve as council president.

The Armstead-aligned council voted 8-1, with one abstention, at its Jan. 15 meeting not to fill the unexpired 8th Ward vacancy, but to keep the seat vacant until voters elect a replacement for Yamakaitis in the November general election.

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, and the Scutari-chaired Linden Democratic Committee selected Coates, 44, a barber and bail bondsman, by a 20-0 vote to take the seat. He was sworn in by Scutari on Feb. 6, but the City Council refused to recognize Coates. Scutari then sued to seat Coates, sparking the legal confrontation.

In court documents dated Feb. 14, Dupuis acknowledged a right for the city to keep the seat vacant and in a court document dated Feb. 28, Judge Amy O’Connor denied an appeal for a temporary restraining order filed by Scutari to have Coates seated.
But in court documents dated March 27, Dupuis declared that the “balance of hardships weighs in favor” of Coates, hinting that he might be seated.

“What concerns us is that the judge ruled in our favor the first two times and then she flipped,” Armstead said May 6, adding that Scutari is “only looking to seat people that will vote to give him his job back as prosecutor.”
Scutari, who had served as Linden’s municipal prosecutor for more than 16 years, was replaced by Armstead earlier this year after the mayor gained control of the council.

Scutari did not respond to a request for comment by deadline this week.
Scutari and Armstead’s feud began more than a year ago when Armstead backed Fanwood Colleen Mahr over Scutari in the race for the Union County Democratic chairmanship. 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 council. Scutari recently announced his endorsement for five candidates for the June primary, including Coates for the 8th Ward.

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