Battle over council vacancy brews in Linden

Linden City Attorney Daniel Antonelli was in court to contest Senator Nick Scutari’s effort to appoint Paul Coates to City Council, despite a nearly unanimous vote on the governing body to maintain a vacancy until the 8th Ward voters can decide.

Senator Nick Scutari wants to call the shots but City Council says ‘no’

Scutari filed a lawsuit against the city seeking a temporary restraining order that could preventing the City Council from enforcing the resolution to maintain a vacancy until a successor is elected to replace Council President Michele Yamakaitis, who represented the 8th Ward until she won her current citywide office. Mayor Derek Armstead said that is going to put a financial burden on taxpayers in the city because legal bills can add up quickly.

Scutari, who is also the Union County Democratic Committee chairman, is ostensibly the city political boss but his writ was cut short after Mayor Derek Armstead fired him as the municipal prosecutor on January 1, citing about 60 absences in the last year.

Yamakaitis said the people in her neighborhood object to Scutari’s ‘power grab’ because it would disrupt city business and give Coates an unfair advantage in the election despite the fact that area residents prefer someone better able to cooperate with Armstead.

Coates, a 44-year-old barber and bail bondsman, was chosen by Scutari to replace Yamakaitis but council members worry that he would try to divert public money to the senator’s political contributors, if he became the appointee.

An ordinance to leave the seat vacant until November was approved by an 8-1 vote — with an abstention from Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey — and that could have been the end of it.

Council President Michele Yamakaitis, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, and Mayor Derek Armstead appear together in this file photo.

Armstead and Yamakaitis charge that Scutari is seeking to influence the city for his own profit, that his actions violate state law and pose a clear conflict of interest that works to harm city residents.

“Scutari’s naked power grab is one of the most appalling actions I have ever witnessed in this decaying democracy,” said Armstead.

“This bully has taken it upon himself to select and swear in a councilman for himself because he wants to control the allocation of tax dollars and deny voters the government that they voted for,” said Armstead.

Yamakaitis, whose election to lead the governing body created the vacancy in the 8th Ward council seat, said, “The individual appointed by Senator Scutari will not represent the people because he has allegiances to the political boss who wants to dictate how we spend money becauses we fired him from a job he was doing poorly for way too long.”

Scutari, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes communities in Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, submitted the names of Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard as replacements for Yamakaitis

Scutari’s preferred candidates were sent to the governing body to choose from after Yamakaitis was installed as the city’s first female council president Jan. 2, but they were not backed by people in the neighborhood.

The 8th Ward Democratic Club sent Scutari the names of three residents, Mark Armstead, Garnett Blaine and Patty Murgo, but according to club president Daniel Yamakaitis, the Linden Democratic Committee did not send any of the neighborhood’s recommendations to the governing body.

Daniel Yamakaitis, who is also the son of the council president, expressed disappointment that Scutari is trying to force his choice on the city with the help of people who do not live in the 8th Ward.

He said when the Linden Democratic Committee voted 35-17 to submit Scutari’s picks, seven of the eight members from the 8th Ward were out voted by committee people who reside in other neighborhoods.

“I am pleased that the court did not rule against City Council,” said Armstead who, before lawyers made their arguments on Tuesday, was concerned that the judge would be unfair due to Scutari’s influence as Senate Judiciary Committee chairmen. “It is clear to me that the court is taking the council’s statutory right to maintain a vacancy seriously.”

Daniel Yamakaitis said Scutari’s refusal to accept any of the 8th Ward Democratic Club’s recommended candidates was “disrespectful.”

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