Scutari prevails in Linden council vacancy fight

Paul Coates

LINDEN, NJ — State Sen. Nicholas Scutari has prevailed in his battle with Mayor Derek Armstead for the 8th Ward council seat as Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis ruled May 14 that Paul Coates must be seated in the vacant position.
After several rounds in court, the decision ends the struggle between the mayor and Scutari, chairman of both the Union County and Linden Democratic parties; the two have sparred over the vacancy created when Councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis resigned the 8th Ward seat to serve as council president Jan. 1.

“I am clearly disappointed in Mayor Armstead’s shameful and arrogant actions which led the city taxpayers down a path of owing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, for an unnecessary legal fight, but pleased the judge saw this as a pure power grab by Mayor Armstead, a political bully who will stop at nothing to further his own political agenda, including wasting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars,” Scutari said in a May 14 press release.

“The real tragedy is 8th Ward residents have had no representation for 134 days. This was shameful misconduct.”
Amstead said in a phone interview with LocalSource on May 20 that Dupuis’ ruling would not be appealed.
“I was surprised that she flipped. I’m not sure what changed between the beginning and now but it was certainly surprising,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the 8th Ward voters will decide who their councilperson will be,” Armstead added, referring to the upcoming June 4 primary election.

The vacancy was only one of a series of political battles between Scutari and Armstead, which they have been waging for more than a year since the mayor backed the senator’s opponent, Colleen Mahr, in the contest for the Union County Democratic Party chairmanship.

The battle for the 8th Ward seat began when 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.

But the Scutari-chaired Linden Democratic Committee selected Coates, 44, a barber and bail bondsman, by a 20-0 vote to fill the seat and h was sworn in Feb. 6. However, when the council refused to recognize Coates, Scutari sued to seat him, sparking the legal confrontation.

Dupuis on Feb. 14 denied Scutari and Coates’ initial request to require the council immediately recognize Coates as a councilman, and two weeks later Appellate Division Judge Amy O’Connor denied an appeal for a temporary restraining order to mandate the same request.

Armstead told LocalSource that he was surprised at Dupuis’ latest decision, considering that the ruling had been in the council’s favor in the first two rounds of the legal battle.
Armstead has endorsed the Democrats United for Progress candidates on the primary ballot, which includes Garnett Blaine for the 8th Ward seat.

Coates is the owner and manager of UpperCuts Barber Shop on Elizabeth Avenue and is also the former aviation security agent for the Department of Homeland Security.

“The real winners in this case are the residents of the 8th Ward. 8th Ward taxpayers have been without council representation since the resignation of the councilwoman on Jan. 1,” said Coates in the release from Scutari. “My residents have been disenfranchised. I will be their voice on council.”

A divided Linden City Council previously rejected a settlement offer that would have the seat filled at a special meeting May 2. 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 feud between Armstead and Scutari began more than a year ago when Armstead backed 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 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.