Will Council Honor Voters in Filling Vacant Seat?
While the city reels from the death of Councilwoman Lauren Murphy just over a week ago, the business of running the city must continue. The first budget meeting is scheduled for January 30th and the question of who will fill Murphy’s seat is on many minds.
The municipal council has the authority to appoint a temporary replacement for a councilor who has resigned or died. By New Jersey statute, they have only 30 days from the time the vacancy occurs in which to make a move. Thus, Clifton’s council has until February 12 to either fill the open seat or choose to leave it vacant until November. Regardless of how the council chooses to respond, a special election in November will determine who joins the council for the last two years of Murphy’s term. Potential candidates may want to start thinking about the process now; they will need to collect approximately 600 signatures from registered Clifton voters to appear on the ballot.
Any person from Clifton can be considered for the temporary appointment, provided they are at least 18 years of age, a registered voter, and have been a resident of Clifton for at least two years. The Council could invite interested parties to step forward or reach out to individuals themselves. To win the appointment, a candidate must receive at least four affirmative votes. In the event of a tie, the vote would fail and the seat would be left empty until November.
In 2006, eighth-place finisher Matt Ward was appointed to fill a sudden vacancy on the council. He then went on to win the special election in November and finished out the term.
This tradition of choosing the highest vote-getter was tested in January 2023, when Councilwoman Rosemary Pino nominated Councilman Tony Latona to be the new mayor, despite Grabowski having the greatest number of votes. Speculation about this shake-up ahead of the vote caused an uproar in the community, with many demanding that tradition be upheld and that the will of the voters be honored.
In the end, with three votes for Grabowski and three for Latona, it was Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula who broke the tie, delivering the needed fourth vote. Speaking of the need for unity she said, “What has happened for the last four years cannot go on for another four years. I vote for the top vote-getter.”
In the 2022 election, the eighth-place finisher was political newcomer Chris D’Amato. Coming in just a little more than 600 votes behind Sadrakula, D’Amato had an impressive showing and strong popular support in the community. The big question now is, will this council turn to the next highest vote-getter and offer the seat to D’Amato?
Councilman Joe Kolodziej, when asked for his thoughts on the matter said, “In December when there was a movement to not select the top vote-getter as mayor I publicly stated I would honor the voters and vote for Ray Grabowski for mayor. In the event of a vacancy, I would again honor the voters and vote for the eighth-place finisher Chris D'Amato to fill that seat until an election can be held.”
Councilman Bill Gibson echoed his colleague’s sentiments, saying that “it was the right thing” to offer the vacancy to the person who came in eighth place. “That’s the way I think it should go.”
In anticipation of him being a top contender for filling the temporary position, The Clifton Times reached out to D’Amato for a statement.
“First and foremost I want to be crystal clear that Councilwoman Murphy’s death is a tragedy for the city of Clifton,” he began. “As of now, no one from the council or City Hall has reached out to me in any official or unofficial capacity about Councilwoman Murphy’s seat. When the time is appropriate to fill that vacancy, should the council choose to honor the will of the voters, I would proudly step up and serve the city of Clifton as a member of its municipal council.”
Mayor Ray Grabowski said of the vacancy that “It will be on the agenda” for the February 6th meeting and suggested that a decision likely would be made, though he did not indicate specifics.
So now, Clifton voters will wait and wonder, as rumors spread across social media. Will this council stick with tradition and fill the vacancy with the candidate who came in eighth place? Will they turn to someone else - perhaps a previous councilor, a different candidate, or someone entirely new? Or will they instead opt to leave Murphy’s seat vacant, creating a difficult voting situation for the next eleven months with only six council members on the dais and the potential for tied votes?
Time is short. The community will be anxiously watching when the council meets on February 6th to discuss how to proceed.