Half the members of the Newark Municipal Council announced Wednesday they are planning immediate legal action to reverse the appointment of Shanique Speight to the governing body, an appointment the council members said has tarnished Mayor Cory Booker’s national reputation and has the potential to open up a rift between the city’s African-American and Latino citizens.
“I’m going to get right to the point,” said West Ward Councilman Ron Rice, who holds a law degree from Seton Hall University. “What happened last night was not only illegal and unconstitutional but was a slap in the face to every voter in Newark.”
Wednesday’s press conference was called following a melee at city hall Tuesday night touched off when Councilman Anibal Ramos called for a vote on Speight, a member of the board of education who has, at least for now, replaced former council member Donald Payne. Payne officially left the governing body last week after being sworn in as congressman for the 10th District.
Council members Ras Baraka, Mildred Crump and Darrin Sharif left the dais after Ramos failed to acknowledge a motion by Baraka. In an unusual move, Booker, citing a law that gives him the power to vote on council appointments when there’s a lack of a quorum, joined members Ramos, Augusto Amador, Carlos Gonzalez and Luis Quintana in selecting Speight for Payne’s seat.
Members of the audience, upset by what they perceived as high-handed tactics by Booker, shouted and moved towards the podium, prompting police to move in and subdue the crowd with pepper spray. At least two men were hospitalized and one arrested.
Rice and the other council members accused the mayor of cutting deals with the council members who did vote for Speight to engineer last night’s outcome. Rice “boycotted” the meeting in an attempt to avoid a 4-4 tie, a circumstance under which Booker clearly would have the power to cast the tie-breaking vote.
In a statement, Booker said Rice’s deliberate absence from the meeting and the other members’ departure from the dais legally empowered Booker to break the deadlock.
“Under state law, the mayor has the authority to vote for a council candidate. Certain council members’ attempts to cause an insufficient vote, by their voluntary absence or departure from the dais, invoked the mayor’s voting power,” Booker said. “Council member Ronald Rice, who remained outside of City Hall, purposely did not attend the meeting in order to avoid a tie vote.”
Rice, however, citing a recent court ruling regarding a nearly identical situation in Hoboken, questioned Booker’s interpretation of the relevant law. The council members also said Booker had misinterpreted the law when citing his right to intervene when there’s no quorum, or majority.
“In the absence of sufficient voters....he should have turned around and left,” Sharif said of Booker.
The council members also said that the governing body had 30 days -- or until mid-December -- to name Payne’s replacement, prompting them to question why there was a rush to get someone appointed.
Neither the clerk’s office nor the city’s corporation counsel had alerted the four council members of the Speight vote, Sharif also said. The item was not on the council’s agenda.
“I met with the corporation counsel at 4 pm on another matter and this was not mentioned,” said Sharif.
“We are alleging that there is potential collusion with the corporation counsel and the clerk’s office,” Rice said.
In addition to legal missteps, council members also levelled an even more serious charge against Booker -- that he had set the city’s black population against its Hispanic residents. The four members at Wednesday’s press conference are all African-American, while three of the four who voted for Speight are Hispanic. Amador is Portuguese.
“What happened yesterday divided this city like nothing I’ve ever seen since the 1967 riots,” said Crump.
“The truth must be told. There’s a myth going around this country that Mayor Booker has the best interests of Newark at heart. That is not true,” she also said.
“This is the mayor’s opportunity to show the state he could be governor, that he could be more mean than Chris Christie, that he could separate blacks from Latinos,” Baraka said, referring to speculation Booker may seek Christie’s job in 2013.
But in a statement, Ramos said the appointment of Speight -- an African-American reportedly allied with political kingmaker Stephen Adubato -- would help redress a gender imbalance on the council. Crump had been the only woman on the governing body.
“This is the time for more qualified African American women to take on leadership roles in the city. There is no doubt that Councilwoman Shanique Speight is eminently qualified. She was twice elected to the school board, and elected to leadership role on the board by her colleagues,” Ramos said. “My goal is to encourage more qualified women to step forward and help us solve critical issues that will be facing the city in the upcoming years.”
“This is not a time to play politics or grandstand. We need leadership in this city and we need to move forward and focus on what residents really care about: the budget, public safety and jobs for our residents. This can only be done when we have full city council focused on issues, not politics.”
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