The city of Linden has been ordered to pay $110,236 in legal fees related to 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 on the city council.
The fees were awarded to the law firm of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, which represented Paul Coates, the choice of the Linden Democratic Party to fill the 8th ward council seat left empty when Michele Yamakaitis was elected council president.
The city was represented by their attorney, Dan Antonelli.
Coates finally took office in May, just two weeks before losing the Democratic primary to Armstead’s candidate, Garnett Blaine.
The Linden Democratic organization –led at the time by State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, 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.
The fees were awarded by Superior Court Judge Katherine Regan Dupuis, who presided over the case earlier this year.
The idea that the case went to court at all baffled longtime political observers, who understand how the system works: a partisan council vacancy goes to the county committee, who recommends three names to the governing body. If they don’t pick one, the vacancy goes back to the county committee, who makes the choice.
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.
Dupuis initially 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.