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Both Sides Ask Courts to Settle Speight Appointment Dispute

Booker's pick for governing body touched off disturbance at city hall

Both sides in a dispute over the appointment of Shanique Speight to the Newark Municipal Council earlier this month have turned to the courts to resolve the matter.

On Wednesday, lawyers repesenting Mayor Cory Booker and four members of the council filed a motion in Superior Court in Newark asking Judge Dennis Carey III to either uphold Speight’s appointment or force the full council to vote on it, The Star Ledger reported. Carey scheduled a return date of Dec. 11, the paper also said.

On Thursday, lawyers representing another quartet of council members opposed to the manner in which Speight was appointed challenged Booker’s vote in favor of Speight, alleging the mayor violated council rules and usurped the governing body’s authority, West Ward Councilman Ron Rice said in a statement. Plaintiffs in the suit also include Earl Best, Amina Baraka and Rahman Muhammad.

During a council meeting Nov. 20 attended by hundreds of people, Councilman Anibal Ramos, who was chairing the meeting, called for a vote on Speight, a member of the Newark Board of Education. Speight was nominated as a replacement for Donald Payne Jr., who left the governing body two weeks ago after being sworn in as the congressional representative for the 10th District.

With Payne gone, seven members of the council were present to vote on his replacement Nov. 20. Speight had the backing of Booker as well as four members of the council: Ramos, Luis Quintana, Carlos Gonzalez and Augusto Amador. The remaining three members -- Mildred Crump, Darrin Sharif and Ras Baraka -- either wanted more time to discuss the replacement or supported John Sharpe James, the son of former mayor Sharpe James, who ran a bare-knuckled campaign against Booker in Booker’s first race for mayor a decade ago.

Rice deliberately stayed away from the meeting in order to thwart the possibility of a 4-4 tie, which by law would give Booker the deciding vote.

Immediately prior to the Speight vote, Baraka made a motion that was ignored by Ramos, prompting Baraka, Crump and Sharif to step down from the dais in protest. Booker, who rarely appears at council meetings, stepped forward to vote in favor of Speight.

As Speight was being sworn in, angry members of the audience rushed the podium, compelling police to move in and quell the crowd with pepper spray. Best and Amina Baraka, mother of Ras Baraka, were both exposed to the substance, as was Muhammad, who was also arrested on charges that included inciting a riot.

Booker’s faction is arguing that Rice’s self-described “boycott” of the meeting should count as a “no” vote, in which case Booker’s vote, and Speight’s appointment, would stand, The Star Ledger reported. Failing that, Booker is asking the judge to compel a full vote by the eight members of the council. In the likely event of another 4-4 deadlock, Booker would invoke his right under state law to cast the deciding vote in favor of Speight.

The litigation filed on behalf of Rice and the other plaintiffs, however, turns on whether a quorum existed immediately prior to the Speight vote. Since Crump, Sharif and Baraka left the dais but remained in council chambers, it is unclear whether a quorum, or majority, was still in place. Along with his right to break a tie, Booker also has the power under certain circumstances to cast a vote when there are too few members of the council present to form a majority.

The lawsuit filed by Rice and the other plaintffs argues that enough members were in fact present Nov. 20, making Booker’s intervention illegal.

“By knowingly ignoring the existence of a quorum, and purposely marking council members Baraka, Crump and Sharif ‘absent’ during the unlawful vote to fill a council vacancy, despite their presence in the council chambers, to facilitate Mayor Booker’s casting a ‘tie-breaking’ vote, City Clerk Robert Marasco and Council member Ramos set in motion the illegal appointment of Ms. Davis Speight to the Newark City Council,” Rice said in a statement.

The lawsuits by both sides will likely be consolidated into one case, Rice told Patch Thursday. He and his fellow plaintiffs also expect the court to grant an injunction prohibiting Speight from taking part in council business until the matter is resolved.

The next meeting of the council is Dec. 5 at 12:30 pm.

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