Four members of the City Council filed a lawsuit in Superior Court of New Jersey last week aimed at overturning the appointment of James Doyle to the council on Oct 3. The four council members – Theresa Castellano, Beth Mason, Tim Occhipinti and Michael Russo – comprise the council minority and are openly opposed to Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Defendants in this case are the remaining members of council who make up the Zimmer-allied majority: Ravinder Bhalla, Jennifer Giattino, David Mello, and Council President Peter Cunningham. Zimmer is also a defendant.
The lawsuit seeks to remove James Doyle from the council and requires Doyle to repay any salary or benefits earned to date.
Councilwoman At Large Carol Marsh announced her resignation at a council meeting on Sept. 19, leaving the vacancy to be filled by the City Council, which typically has a 5 to 4 majority to minority split. Marsh frequently voted with the majority. Had Marsh stepped down prior to Sept. 1, a special election would have been required by the Municipal Vacancy Law to fill the seat.
That law stipulates that the governing body may fill the vacancy by “majority” vote. If all eight remaining members of the council had attended the meeting, this likely would have led to a 4 to 4 tie. In the event of a tie, the law empowers the mayor to cast a fifth, tie-breaking vote.
“These Council members are attempting to paralyze our government for political reasons.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
Zimmer and city officials have said that the council minority is simply trying to create stalemated decisions for the remainder of the term.
“The apparent purpose of the lawsuit is to create a 4-4 deadlocked Council for at least the next eight months,” Zimmer said Tuesday.
“The City believes that their claims are entirely without merit,” she said. “It is extremely unfortunate that instead of focusing on properly representing the interests of their constituents that these Council members are attempting to paralyze our government for political reasons to the detriment of the citizens of Hoboken who they were elected to serve.”
The disputed appointment
On Oct. 3, not all of the remaining eight members of the council were present to vote on the Doyle appointment. Councilwoman Beth Mason was absent and Councilman Michael Russo abstained. As a result the Doyle appointment received four “yes” votes, two “no” votes and one abstention.
The crucial question, if and when the lawsuit reaches the court, will likely be what the Municipal Vacancy Law means by a “majority” vote. Members of the council debated whether “majority” pertained to a majority of the remaining eight members or of the seven voting members actually present.
At the time of the vote, Corporation Counsel Mellissa Longo clarified her opinion of the law. She said the law did not require a five-person majority and that a four person majority was sufficient. However, during the commotion, Mayor Zimmer stepped up and cast a fifth vote for Doyle. Members of the public and council called this illegal because Zimmer was supposedly only empowered to cast a vote if there was a tie.
After Doyle was sworn in by the city clerk, council members Castellano, Occhipinti, and Russo objected to his votes cast on resolutions and ordinances for the remainder of the meeting. The trio said they felt that Doyle’s votes were illegal since they questioned the validity of his appointment.
The lawsuit states that a re-vote without notice took place on Oct. 17 and again resulted in a 4 – 2 – 1 outcome (four in favor, two against, one absence and one abstention). The lawsuit also states that Zimmer cast a fifth vote in favor of Doyle again.
More grey areas
The appointment of Doyle is also complicated by a public question on the Nov. 6 ballot that seeks to reschedule municipal elections to November of 2013 as opposed to the traditional May election date.
Marsh’s at-large term was set to run through June 30, 2013. If municipal elections are in fact moved to November, this would permit Doyle to remain on the council for over a year, before any election would be held for that seat again.
Questions have also been raised as to whether delaying the municipal election six months would consequently push back the Sept. 1 deadline to have had a special election.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.