Council Chooses a New Member In Unanimous Vote


L to R: Lily D'Amato, Councilman Chris D'Amato, Mayor Ray Grabowski, City Clerk Nancy Ferrigno

Clifton’s City Council met for their first meeting of February, where choosing a seventh councilor was an eagerly anticipated agenda item and the first action item of the night. By state statute, the council only has a short window of 30 days in which to make a decision when there is a vacancy. While there is no obligation for the council to go to the eighth-place vote-getter in appointing someone to fill that spot, it was an expected outcome for many after the uproar when that tradition was challenged in choosing the new mayor. Councilman Bill Gibson had previously shared that he thought it was “the right thing” to do and Councilman Joe Kolodziej had also indicated that he intended to vote for the person who had come in eighth place in the November 2022 election. That person was Chris D’Amato.

In the Facebook group Clifton News and Community, residents who commented on the issue were united in hoping that D’Amato would be appointed. “I would like to see the City Council unanimously appoint the 8th place finisher in the council election, Chris D'Amato, to the vacant council seat and avoid what happened in appointing the mayor,” said James Vester.

Samantha Bassford, who often attends City Council and Board of Education meetings as a concerned and involved citizen said, “I am hoping to see a seat filled as our council needs a council member present and not just an empty seat…If they choose to pick someone for the seat it should go to a person who ran for council and ranked higher [in the votes earned]. If they are really in tune with the people of this city, this has been the loud feedback in most spaces.”

Tuesday’s meeting saw a larger-than-typical turnout for the 6:30 work session, with some dressed in Clifton’s maroon and gray to indicate their support for D’Amato, who was in attendance with wife Lily.

Chris and Lily D'Amato

Following a hearing for Agave’s application for an entertainment license*, the council turned to the first action item on the agenda. Councilman Bill Gibson motioned to appoint Chris D’Amato to fill Lauren Murphy’s seat. There were no other nominees and the motion was quickly seconded and approved by unanimous vote. Immediately after, D’Amato was administered the oath of office with his wife at his side and he joined his colleagues at the table for his first meeting.

Leading up to Tuesday night’s meeting, D’Amato said that he wished that the process of choosing a new councilor allowed for more time. “While I’m grateful for this opportunity and I think it’s important that the business of the city be addressed in a timely fashion, Lauren meant a lot to a lot of people and I don’t know that everybody feels closure on that yet. That hangs over me,” he said, “but I’m hopeful that good work is going to get done now.”

Although rumors swirled about some former candidates vying for the appointment, D’Amato stayed quiet in the weeks leading up to this night. He said that he refused to respond to Murphy’s tragic passing with more politicking. “I campaigned in 2022,” he said. “That was my pitch to Clifton.”

D’Amato will be thrown in headfirst, with no time to learn the ropes before he’ll need to navigate them. The next budget meeting is coming up in just one week and he knows that it is the single most important and urgent matter before him as the newest councilor. “It’s a tough budget,” he said, “I have questions I want to ask. I want to hear what our Chief Financial Officer has to say.”

He knows that he isn’t getting the two months that most candidates get when they win in November - to attend workshops, get the lay of the land, and ease into the position. “I’ll be diving in head first,” he said, “and it’s incumbent on me to do my homework and be ready to move fast.” In addition to his other duties as a member of the council, D’Amato will be filling Murphy’s seat on various committees, including Recreation.

The municipal budget is not merely a stack of papers covered in numbers. There are statutes and regulations that govern how a municipality can treat those numbers - how much they can budget as anticipated revenue relative to how much they brought in the previous year, for instance. D’Amato said that he’ll need to “practice humility,” acknowledging when there is something he doesn’t know and looking to the experts to help him. “I’m willing to do the work,” he said, as he spoke of asking the right questions, listening to the experts, and weighing his colleagues' various viewpoints.

D’Amato’s appointment will expire at the end of the year. It is a temporary appointment, meant to help the council function until the special election, which will occur in November. Naturally, the question came up of whether D’Amato intended to run in that election. He shared the happy news that he and wife Lily are expecting their first child in June and D’Amato was clear that he could not make that decision yet, before seeing what fatherhood looked like. “I would be doing a disservice to my family and the city to say definitively one way or another whether I am or am not running in November. I’ll do it if it’s right,” he said.

“I believe in being transparent with the city,” he continued. “I don’t know how this is going to impact my life. I don’t know my kid yet, I don’t know what being on council and working full-time looks like yet.”

One former candidate for City Council, who ran with D’Amato in the 2022 election, has thrown his support behind the newest councilor. Avraham Eisenman hopes that D’Amato will run in November’s election. “Whether you plan on supporting Chris, as I do, or another candidate, get involved. Help them get signatures to be on the ballot, talk to your friends and neighbors as to why you're supporting them, and lastly…vote.”

D’Amato takes very seriously the fact that he is stepping into Lauren Murphy’s seat and shoes. “The people voted for me to be me,” he said, noting that he might not always vote the way she would have but acknowledged that he would “keep Lauren’s spirit of kindness, generosity, and help for those who need it most” in his heart. In that spirit, D’Amato hopes to take up the mantle regarding Murphy’s work with the unhoused. “I think the city deserves it and she would have wanted someone to take charge of that and take it seriously.”

D’Amato’s appointment from an often-divided City Council is evidence of the very character trait that helped convince him to run in the first place. “I ran [in November 2022] because I am a consensus-builder,” he said, “and I take pride in bringing people across divides together and I think this council’s going to need that.”

Although the task ahead of him would be daunting to many, Clifton’s newest councilor is not intimidated. “I’m ready to get to work,” D’Amato said.

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