LINDEN — For the last 39 years or more Linden voters have gone to the polls to elect a council president, but now it appears the city may have been making a mistake by even putting the position on the ballot.
Whether that is legal or not is now entirely up to a Superior Court judge. Last week the city council decided they were tired of trying to figure out what they should do about this issue that has been unanswered for years and let a judge decide if Linden was breaking the law.
So they hired Edward Kologi to file a lawsuit against council president James Moore, alleging he never should have ran for the seat in the first place. They also want the court to rule that Moore should be ousted from his position as council president immediately and the council allowed to elect a council president on their own from among the remaining members.
Prior to 1970, one of the eleven council members ran as “councilman at large” for a two-year term. From the 1920s through 1974 the city council elected one of its members to serve as president for one year. And then everything changed.
Around 1970 certain legislative enactments changed the manner in which certain council members were elected and extended the term length. However, the city of Linden never adopted those changes by referendum, as required by law.
Then in 1974, the person who previously ran on a citywide basis as councilman-at-large, ran under the title of “council president.” However, no one seems to know why or how that happened.
According to Kologi, there was no legal authorization permitting this designation and the city never had a referendum to change its form of government, which means the city was violating state statute.
Kologi pointed out in court papers filed Jan. 28 that in 1987 this issue was further clarified by the legislature when they changed the code for most city forms of government provisions. In fact, he said, according to law, the city council at its annual reorganization meeting should be electing a council president, not voters.
Based upon the history of New Jersey and revisions that have taken place, Kologi believes Moore can run for reelection as a councilman-at-large for a four year term, but he may not run under the designation of council president again.
Moore was shocked and taken back that court papers were filed in this matter, admitting he thought the entire issue could be resolved through discussion by council members.
“What they are doing is trying to throw out the person voters elected to that seat and that isn’t fair to voters,” Moore said Tuesday, adding that he brought the matter up periodically to council because he felt his opponents might use it during the 2014 campaign. Moore said when the law changed in the 1970s, the governing body should have allowed voters to formally adopt the changes by referendum. But they never did and no one was the wiser. That is, until he decided he was uncomfortable not knowing when or how this subject might come up again.
“I didn’t think it was fair for this to become a political football,” the council president said.
Actually the city council did try to address the problem last year, after 3rd Ward Councilman Peter Brown began questioning the issue.
In an effort to straighten out the mess, City Attorney John Hudak looked into the background, writing a six-page opinion that basically said the issue was unclear and it should be decided in a court of law.
After that Moore admitted he brought up the subject several more times, but council members ignored his questions until recently.
Brown said Monday that as far as he was concerned the question was off the table until Moore brought it up again.
“It was a dead issue and then he kept bringing it up at caucus meetings,” Brown said, adding “it was Jimmy who wanted clarification on this, not council. He brought it up out of left field and we finally decided to do something about it.”
Brown said a city ordinance that should have provided clarification is not clear at all.
“So we decided to let a judge decide,” the 3rd Ward councilman said.
Now Moore is the only defendant in a lawsuit brought by council and he is concerned that if a judge decides the city has been wrong for close to four decades, and he is ousted from council, it would reduce the power voters used when they elected him.
“That’s not fair to voters. They elected me and I should stay in that seat until the 2014 election.”
“I want to know why back in the 70s it was one way and then suddenly one day it changed without a referendum,” the council president said, adding that the entire situation appeared to smack of political interference.
Brown said he just wants the matter resolved one way or another so council can get down to work and not have this coming up over and over.
“We have a lot on our plates and this is just a distraction,” the 3rd Ward councilman said.