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Somerset County Democratic Chair Peg Schaffer. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

Schaffer takes on local Democratic organization in court fight

Judge allows Roselle councilwoman to stay pending full hearing

By David Wildstein, February 12 2020 3:43 pm

Peg Schaffer is taking on Craig Coughlin in a court fight over a council seat in Roselle.

Schaffer, the vice chair of the Democratic State Committee, is representing Isabel Sousa in a complicated lawsuit over the filling of a vacant Roselle council seat.  The Assembly Speaker’s law firm is representing the Roselle Democratic Committee.

The two sides are fighting over the legality of an appointment to fill the 1st ward seat left vacant on January 1 when Denise Wilkerson resigned to become the council president.

Schaffer’s representation pits the second-ranking state party official against the elected local Democratic organization.

That has left several party officials infuriated over the appearance that Schaffer, who is also the Somerset County Democratic chair, is taking sides in an intra-party battle in a different county.

“The governor and the (state) chairman should have a serious conversation with the vice chair about whether her priorities are the party or profit,” said one senior Democratic official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a letter to the court, Shaffer said she was retained by Sousa yesterday and that she was supporting the brief field by the municipality against a motion by the Democratic Party to remove her.

The Roselle Democrats are allied with the Union County Democratic Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari.

Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy ruled today that Sousa may remain on the council pending the outcome of a full hearing.

Roselle Democratic Municipal Chairman Reginald Atkins called a special county committee meeting on January 14 and voted to submit three candidates to the council: Richard Villeda, Dr. Cynthia Atkins, and Atkins.

The council, which is controlled by a different faction of the local Democratic party, held a special meeting on January 27 and voted to seat Sousa, who was not one of the candidates submitted by the Roselle Democrats.  A resolution passed by the council claimed that Atkins did not follow appropriate legal procedures to fill the vacancy.

A brief filed by Jarrid Kantor, a special counsel for Roselle,  says that the Democratic organization did not have a quorum at the meeting.

Roselle Democrats disagree.  They say that there were three vacancies on the county committee and that the 18 of the 35 incumbent members were in attendance at the special meeting.

David Minchello, one of Coughlin’s law partners, alleges that the council violated the state’s municipal vacancy law, which gives the party organization fifteen days to submit a name to the council.

The organization voted on February 6 to pick Villeda.  State law sends the choice back to the party organization if the council declines to make a pick within thirty days.

Schaffer said in a filing with the court that Sousa’s appointment “was effective and consistent with the governing statute.”

Both Sousa and Villeda have been sworn in.

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