Sticking to the recommendations of retiring municipal clerk Jane Williams-Warren, the city council on Monday evening appointed Sonia Gordon as city clerk and Joan Campbell-Douglas as deputy clerk.
The vote came after a week of racial controversy that placed Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward councilman, at odds with Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. Tavarez wanted the city clerk’s office to include at least one Hispanic-American in a leadership role. He wanted Audrey Cartright, who is Hispanic. She holds four years of experience in the office.
Morris found Tavarez’s plan to skip over Campbell-Douglas, who is African-American and has 15 years of experience working at the office, unacceptable. He opposed Tavarez’s plan which he said was concocted with assistance from Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, who had ostensibly promised Cartright a position in the mayor’s office during his abortive mayoral campaign in May.
Tavarez pushed Cartright in the name of diversity; Morris pushed Campbell-Douglas in the name of seniority. A number of mostly black city residents took offense to Tavarez’s plan to overlook an experienced, seniority holding African-American, in favor of an Hispanic-American.
“We’re now interjecting race into this process,” said Ernest Rucker, a city activist, who expressed outrage at the plan. Rucker, who was one of 14 speakers during the appointment meeting, called for a no-confidence vote on Tavarez. He said the council president was engaging in “race baiting.”
Another speaker, Bilal Hakeem, president of the POWER Coalition, said the council president was attempting to “circumvent” the usual manner in which the council appoints the clerks. Hakeem urged William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, to call for a no confidence vote on Tavarez.
“You’re just as dark as I am. Your hair is as nappy as mine,” added Donald Lynch, a regular speaker at the council. Lynch said Dominican-Americans also have slave blood in their veins. “So how can you make racist statements?” asked Lynch.
“We seem to be fighting each other symbolically through this appointment,” said Jesus Castro, head of the Hispanic Council. “We need diversity.”
Castro said the council has to recognize it’s a Hispanic majority city and diversity needs to be embraced.
“Diversity is always good, but, if you ask me, I choose experience over diversity any day,” said Errol Kerr, school board member. “The last thing I would want to do is take a flight on an airplane and they tell me that the person that’s flying the plane is flying because we have to diversify.”
Tavarez, speaking after all the speakers finished, said every speaker desired the council to appoint qualified individuals. How will a closed process result in the most qualified individuals being appointed? asked Tavarez.
He called on the council to postpone the appointments in order to advertise the positions in search of qualified candidates from throughout the city, the state, and the country. Tavarez wanted the council to spend 30 to 45 days in going through resumes and interviewing candidates prior to making appointments.
“[And] give away more jobs!” shouted a resident sitting in the overcrowded council chamber at the prospect of hiring a non-resident.
Williams-Warren said she made the council aware of her retirement once in January of this year and again in July. “I advised the council early enough so they can open up the process and discuss it,” said Williams-Warren.
“We need to follow the tradition. We need to honor the city clerk’s request and move forward,” said David Gilmore, an open government activist. “We’ve created a very bad climate not only in the clerk’s office but a hurt in the city as well.”
With Williams-Warren’s retirement in less than a month, the council was in no mood of postponing the appointment. Council members quickly voted to approve Gordon for city clerk with Tavarez abstaining. Then came the vote for deputy clerk.
Casting her vote in favor of Campbell-Douglas, councilwoman at-large Maritza Davila said she was put in an awkward spot with swirling race conversations. “I was raised not looking at color but looking at people as humans,” said Davila. “Today, I’m not voting on race. I’m voting on merit. I’m voting for what is right.”
“I expected pandemonium,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, praising the conduct of residents as they expressed their dissatisfaction. Save for a few shouts from juvenile curfew activist Kim Freeman the meeting was orderly.
McKoy said he was troubled by the racial tone the conversation took. Morris, who briefly skipped teaching his class at William Paterson University to attend, described the days leading to the vote “reminiscent [of] times” similar to the “ugliness of the 1960s.”
Council members called for unity. “To say that I’m a racist that I don’t care about certain ethnic group is so unfair,” said Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman.
Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, talked about his openness to embrace all ethnic groups. He too called for unity adding no one race alone has the impetus to move the city forward.
Quoting the city’s first black mayor Martin “Marty” Barnes, Sayegh said: “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat together.”
Sayegh and other council members voted in favor of appointing Campbell-Douglas as deputy clerk. Tavarez abstained.
“I’m not the usual politician, I don’t placate too much. I don’t say what people want to hear. I say what I think is right,” said Tavarez. “If I feel there’s something wrong with the process, I’m going to speak up.”
Tavarez, who thought the process was flawed, protested by abstaining on both votes.
“I don’t want this vote to be taken as I’m on the African-American side or the Latino side,” said Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman. “Once we pass the culture, we’re all the same.”