LINDEN – Last week a Superior Court Judge ruled that voters should elect the council president seat, rejecting claims by council that it is their duty.
Judge Karen Cassidy made the decision from the bench on March 14 at a hearing after reviewing arguments from both sides of the complaint that was filed early last year.
Cassidy said that since the city has been electing the council president seat for the past 40 years without objection from citizens, the mayor, council members, attorney or any city officials, she was not going to change how things are done.
Last year council members filed a lawsuit, arguing that the 40-year practice of electing the council president at-large was a direct violation of the city government charter.
According to information filed with the court in 2013, council members argued that until 1974 the council president was elected by council. Why it changed seems to be in question. However, in the early 1970s the city did change the municipal charter to extend the council president’s term from two to four years.
In 1974 the council president’s seat was on the ballot, but the current city council could not explain why that occurred or who initiated the change.
They did acknowledge they were unable to find “a scintilla of evidence” to support the council president running as a candidate, or that any legal action was taken by the governing body at that time to enact the change, according to court documents.
The entire issue surfaced when James Moore, elected in 2010 as council president, came under fire by council for his lack of skill in running public council meetings.
What followed was a “special meeting” called in late June 2011 by council members because they felt Moore, just six months in office, was not following city council protocol or leading with authority. Moore did have the choice of a more private venue, but decided he wanted this particular meeting held in public.
During this public meeting, which LocalSource attended, Moore battled his adversaries, and endured the barrage of criticism from fellow council members and heckling from the audience.
That night, Mayor Rich Gerbounka told council members they needed “to get a thicker skin.”
In February 2012, 3rd Ward Councilman Peter Brown broached the issue of the council president position not legally being an elected seat, according to the city charter. This was followed by Linden City Attorney John Hudak explaining the entire matter had to be decided in court because the issue of the city’s history was not clear.
Edward Kologi represented council members in the lawsuit that was filed, noting in his brief that he felt the city was in the wrong for not changing the law, which put them in violation.
In turn, James Forest, Moore’s attorney, said the election of the council president for the last 40 years had persisted despite municipal and state reviews and a state law passed in 1987 to bring municipal governments up to date.
Tuesday Gerbounka said he was very happy about the decision but he was concerned about the amount of money the city had to pay to defend the entire issue.
“I think it was a total waste of $22,000, but the judge ruled in favor of voters and that is what is important,” the mayor said, explaining taxpayers have to foot the attorney bills for both sides because the matter involved a city issue.