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Local governments must fill vacancies, high court rules

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Local governments must fill vacancies, high court rules

Jul 06, 2022 | 12:08 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Local governments must fill vacancies, high court rules
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Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Linden councilman the city’s Democratic Committee selected to fill a vacancy should have been seated, overturning an appellate decision that left the position vacant for months.

The justices unanimously found Linden’s city council did not have the authority under the Municipal Vacancy Law to keep empty the seat that Councilwoman Michele Yamakaitis vacated when she became council president. Yamakaitis gave up her 8th ward seat for the council presidency in the first year of the three-year term she won in November 2017.

As is the practice in New Jersey, local elected party officials selected three potential successors for Yamakaitis’ empty seat. But the council was aligned with Mayor Derek Armstead, who then was a political foe of Sen. Nicholas Scutari, chairman of the local party.

The council rejected the party’s picks in an effort to keep the seat vacant until the next general election. The municipal committee responded by appointing Paul Coates on their own, and Scutari swore him in. The council then refused to seat him.

A Chancery Court ruled that process was valid, but an appellate panel reversed that decision on appeal, leaving the seat vacant for 10 months until the general election.

Justice Barry Albin said the council’s actions were improper under amendments made more than three decades ago to the Municipal Vacancy Act.

“The Linden City Council’s decision not to fill the empty seat deprived the citizens of the 8th ward of Linden of representation on their legislative body,” Albin wrote. “That outcome is wholly inconsistent not only with the Legislature’s intent in enacting the 1990 amendments but also with the general guarantee of our laws to ensure representation to all citizens within a municipality.”

The ruling has little immediate effect. Coates was not seated before his term expired, and he did not seek re-election in 2020, when Garnett Blaine ran unopposed for the 8th ward council seat and won.

But it will set precedent that makes it more difficult for local governing bodies to thwart appointments by rival political factions — just as the legislature intended when it amended the Municipal Vacancy Act.

Albin noted the process was different for towns with non-partisan municipal races, but Linden’s candidates run under a party banner.

“The right of representation in the councils of government is one of the most fundamental precepts in our democracy,” Albin wrote in what likely will be his last opinion before he hits the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Thursday. “At stake here is the right of citizens to have a voice in their city government.”