A Superior Court judge ruled that Linden must immediately seat Paul Coates as a city councilman, ending a four-month legal battle that began when mayor Derek Armstead refused to allow the choice of the local Democratic Party to fill a vacancy.
The decision marks a big win for State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the Linden Democratic municipal chairman and a defeat for Armstead just three weeks before the two compete in Democratic primaries for council and county committee.
“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. “The real tragedy is 8th Ward residents have had no representation for 134 days. This was shameful misconduct.”
Coates, who takes office immediately, faces Garnett Blaine in the Democratic primary to run in a November special election to fill the unexpired term. Michele Yamakaitis, who left her 8th ward seat on January 1 to become the new council president.
The Linden Democratic organization submitted the names of Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard to the city council as replacements for Yamakaitis.
Coates, a longtime county committeeman, won 20-0.
But Armstead, who doesn’t get along with Scutari, refused to accept any of the choices. He said he wants the seat to remain vacant until a November special election.
On behalf of the Linden Democratic Party, I congratulate Paul Coates Paul chosen to serve by the Official Democratic Committee,” Scutari said. “Paul owns a business in our downtown, is a member of the downtown Special Improvement District, and is eager to serve the residents of Linden.”
Coates said that the “real winners in the case are the residents of the 8th ward.”
“Eighth Ward taxpayers have been without Council representation since the resignation of the Councilwoman on January 1,” Coates said. “My residents have been disenfranchised. I will be their voice on Council.”
Coates pointed out that since the mayor and his council allies refused to fill the vacant council seat, Armstead allies rewarded connected city employees with over $100,000 in raises, adopted a municipal budget that reduced road paving by 25%, and expedited development deals for campaign contributors.
Judge was a former municipal chair
Most longtime political observers know exactly what happens in that situation: the vacancy goes back to the county committee, who picks one of the three in what is effectively a special election.
That put the matter in court in what should be a slam-dunk. After all, this happens ten or twenty times every year across the state.
Judge Katherine Regan Dupuis denied the request of Linden Democrat to order the city to seat Coates. Instead, she forced a protracted court battle.
Earlier this month, it looked as though the two sides had reached a settlement. The Armstead-controlled city council called a special meeting to approve the measure, but it was unexpectedly defeated.
Dupuis is no neophyte when it comes to election law.
Back in 1985, Kit Dupuis was the Democratic candidate for Westfield Town Council against a Republican incumbent who had been appointed to fill a vacancy using the same law Coates is citing.
When councilman Harry Brown resigned to move to Virginia, the Westfield Republican county committee submitted three names – Jubb Corbet, Kenneth MacRitchie and Elizabeth Gorski – to the council. The council voted 6-1 to pick Corbet; Richard Bagger, then a 24-year-old councilman, voted for Corbet.
That gave Corbet the benefit of incumbency when he faced Dupuis in a contest for the first ward council seat a few months later.
Corbet won the endorsement of a local newspaper, who said he had more experience.
“Dupuis, a lawyer, doesn’t have that background,” the editorial said.
Dupuis got smoked.
Corbet beat her by a 2-1 margin, 66%-34%.
She ran about 100 votes behind the Democratic candidate for Union County freeholder, Charlotte DeFilippo.
Dupuis went on to become the Westfield Democratic municipal chair.
After John Stamler passed away in 1990, Dupuis was one of the finalists Gov. Jim Florio considered for Union County prosecutor.
She didn’t get the job, but Florio nominated her to serve as a judge in 1992.
Dupuis’ opportunity to legislate a law that didn’t work to her advantage nearly 34 years ago might be out of her hands completely.