Despite some opposition, the Jersey City Council ultimately voted to appoint lawyer and education activist Yousef Saleh to replace the late Michael Yun as the Ward D councilman at a special meeting this afternoon.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
During the public portion, several members of the public urged the council to vet each candidate thoroughly prior to naming Yun’s successor, including Heights resident Moriah Kinburg – who unsuccessfully ran against Yun in 2017 as part of Mayor Steven Fulop’s ticket.
“From my experience, what I’ve learned, is when you lose somebody, it’s up to you to take on the fight that that person had. Councilman Yun fought for transparency and accountability. So I’m asking each of you to take on his fight and continue that,” she said.
Kinberg was one of many Heights residents circulating a virtual letter asking for a “transparent process” before the new Ward D representative is named.
Saleh, along with council hopefuls Jocelyn Patrick, Patrick Ambrossi, and Brian Rans, all spoke prior to any action from the governing body.
Councilmen Rolando Lavarro and James Solomon, who interviewed six council hopefuls including Saleh and uploaded the footage to YouTube, both expressed reservations about voting today instead of at the regularly scheduled May 6th hearing.
As a result, Solomon made a motion to table the resolution, which was seconded by Lavarro, but that motion failed 5-3, with Lavarro, Solomon, and Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano voting yes.
Council President Joyce Watterman, who yesterday defended calling a special meeting instead of waiting, initiated the vote to name Saleh the new Ward D representative – which passed 6-2.
Lavarro and Solomon voted no, with both expressing disappointment with the process and indicating that they would’ve liked to see Patrick, the president of the Riverview Neighborhood Association take the seat, in part because she expressed that she was only interested in holding it until the end of the year.
In an unexpected turn of events, some elected leaders who voted yes voiced dismay with how things played out following Yun’s passing.
“This might sound odd as a member of the council, but I feel like, as a council – in this case – we dropped the ball. The council president didn’t drop the ball because she made the nomination. So, this wasn’t something that was rushed because we knew that we had a certain amount of time to fill this seat,” said Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley.
“And if there were other people that we wanted to nominate, if there was a process that we wanted to put in place, then we had time to do that – and we didn’t – and now we’re up against the clock and all of these different things are coming out.”
She also called for a better decision making process by the council as a whole going forward.
Additionally, Boggiano said he declined to be part of the interview process conducted by Solomon and Lavarro since it would be “a waste of time,” expressing his belief that City Hall would make the pick at the end of the day.
“I’m voting yes, but I’m very disappointed in this whole process and so are the people of the Heights,” he added, exclaiming he believes close to 1,000 people expressed dissatisfaction with the appointment despite only 200 or so signing the virtual letter.
Furthermore, Solomon said he felt is was “improper” for Fulop to vet candidates before he and Watterman endorsed Saleh on Monday, given that the nomination is a council decision.
“My complaint in the process, and I think why so many members of the public are upset, I’ll just be frank, is the way that the mayor handled it. This is a council decision, by law, and he was posting name of people that reached out to him then blasting out a press release with a recommendation,” he explained.
“And if you are trying to argue that this is an open, transparent process – where everybody had a fair shot to make their case … that didn’t convey that.”
Yun, highly regarded as an independent leader on the council, died due to complications from COVID-19 on April 6th and the governing body had 30 days to name his successor, based on state statute – though a provision exists where the seat could remain vacant through the end of the year.
While several officials compared this situation to when Jermaine Robinson was named to the Ward F seat in January 2017, Lavarro argued that this was different since that occurred due to Diane Coleman being elected as the county registrar, while this predicament unfolded due to an untimely death.
“This difference here is that this comes out of tragedy, nobody knew that this was coming, and the trauma that it leaves for me … the process didn’t start for me … until after Councilman Yun was laid to rest,” a choked up Lavarro said.
He added that a memorial service for Yun didn’t occur until April 10th and that most council members had not started considering or interviewing Ward D candidates before April 24th.
Voters will still have a say via a special election in November, with the seat then up for grabs again in November 2021 during the municipal elections.
Watterman highlighted this point, as well as the fact that even if 1,000 people signed the Heights petition, there are 40,000 to 50,000 Heights residents and that she viewed this as merely a “probation period” for Saleh.
“This is the kicker here, so to say: now this is the probation period, this is what I call a probation period because if Yousef does not meet the needs of the Heights, then in November, the residents of the Heights can come out and vote against him. Their voice will be heard.”
Following the meeting, Fulop congratulated Saleh and returned fire at Solomon and Lavarro, noting that they never offered an alternate candidate.
“Congratulations to Yousef and now the real work starts where he will be judged in November based on the job he does for the residents. It is unfortunate though that James and Rolando chose to grandstand on a historic vote like this when in reality it was the same process done for every Jersey City vacancy over the last 100 years,” the mayor said.
“That was just them sadly playing politics which is clear by the fact that neither James nor Rolando ever offered an alternative suggestion of a candidate as they both know that in reality the process was followed and Yousef is qualified.”
Following an early 2021 campaign kickoff in February, Fulop could now already have six running mates for next year – depending on how Saleh fares at the polls this fall.
The entire meeting can be viewed here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information.