TRENTON -- Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson sought to shake up the municipal court by replacing three of the city's four judges, but City Council rejected his choices over concerns about the process and the non-reappointments of respected judges.
The mayor had tapped Judge Rodney Thompson, the only holdover, to become the new chief judge and council gave him unanimous approval.
But his other three choices -- Emilia Perez, William Sitzler and Geraldine Eure -- were voted down. Council President Zachary Chester and Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson were the only two who voted in favor of all of the judges.
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"When it comes to advice and consent, it's not just you present and we consent," Councilman Alex Bethea said. "We have the responsibility that when we feel your recommendations are not in the best interest of this city, we need to step up."
Jackson said the terms of the sitting judges -- Thompson, Harold George, John McCarthy and Gregory Williams -- expired last June and it was his prerogative to either re-appoint the judges or appoint new ones.
"Each of the judges served with distinction and served the city well," Jackson said.
But he wanted to bring on three new faces to create a more diverse bench and chose his nominees from a field of 17 candidates.
Advice and consent was twice-delayed, once to make sure the candidates were 100 percent vetted and a second time following the death of Jackson's mother.
The mayor is now expected to come Feb. 2 and City Council would then vote on Feb. 4
During Thursday's meeting, the mayor said City Council's responsibility was to review the nominees and decide whether or not they were qualified.
"I'm to bring qualified people," he said following the votes. "None of you have said these individuals aren't qualified. You haven't said that tonight."
Several council members, however, said the administration was not forthcoming with all of the candidates' backgrounds and were upset that they were only allowed to review the files in City Hall.
"What I expect from you is to have full openness with me and give me the documents so I can look through them and feel comfortable that I'm actually going to vote for someone that's going to sit on the bench and cast judgement and make decisions for people that come before them," Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson said.
Councilman George Muschal said with the backlog of court cases, the city would benefit from adding judges to the current bench and opening up the two vacant police stations to use as courtrooms.
"We need you. We definitely need you. I'm not against you. The problem is ... council did not receive the information," he said.
Trenton attorney Dwaine Williamson also advocated for the city to expand the number of judges.
"I personally think that institutional knowledge is necessary for this court to function properly," he said. "I have no problem with the other appointees ... but this backlog can only get worse if you don't have the judges that have the knowledge of how to keep the number of cases moving and moving quickly."
Bethea expressed concerns that George and Williams would be replaced by Perez and Eure, who have no prior experience as judges -- though the mayor said that George, too, was once new to the bench.
Resident Bill Watson applauded the work of the sitting judges, but urged council to now look at the character and qualifications of the candidates the mayor brought forward.
"None of us have lifetime rights to any position and because we're being replaced does not mean we've done anything improper or not of high standard," he said. "Judges George and Williams represented the past. The mayor is presenting you the future. Please respect that."
Others said the court would suffer if three-quarters of the judges were replaced all at once.
"If I had the option of replacing 75 percent of my home -- the bones are strong, the foundation is good, it's been through many hurricanes -- I elect not to replace but keep going in that direction," resident Ed Bullock said.
City activist Lee Ingram said the community has built relationships with the sitting judges and would now be forced to start over.
"We don't know these people. We don't know what to expect," he said, adding that the way George and Williams ran their courtrooms balanced each other out. "We liked that balance.
"I don't want you to base your vote on the race card," he continued. "I don't want you to base your vote on someone being a woman because people's lives are on the line."
Still others spoke in favor of Perez and Eure.
Perez, who has served in the City of Newark's law department since 2008, was endorsed by the Latino Action Network, the Latino Civic Forum and the Latino Merchants Association because in a city with a large Latino population, the court would now better reflect the residents it serves.
Several praised Eure's character, legal experience and commitment to the city after Muschal brought up an issue dating back to her time on the city's school board.
She served from 1993 until 2007 when she was not reappointed by former Mayor Doug Palmer. She was one of several members who had voted against seeking legal advice when allegations of falsified student records surfaced in March 2006.
"That vote was not to not investigate," Eure said. "The vote was not to go into executive session because people had not been RICE'd. If you do something that you're not supposed to do, what impact would that have on the subsequent investigation and what impact would that have on the person?"
The final nominee was Sitzler, whose now-defunct law firm Saponaro and Sitzler has had contracts with the city and who has served as Trenton's special counsel for alcoholic beverage control matters since 2011. Last June, he returned to solo practice and was appointed as a judge in Mount Holly.
Jackson said he planned to talk with each of the council members on Friday and see what needs to be done.