An expected confrontation between City Council President Rolando Lavarro and other council members fizzled out when his critics stopped short of calling for a vote of no-confidence and merely asked Lavarro for an apology – which he would not give.
But Lavarro did agree to “lower the temperature” of meetings, where he has engaged in sharp exchanges with fellow council members, city hall staff, and members of the public.
In the last meeting of 2018, Lavarro dressed down community activist Bruce Alston, who is African-American. That not only incurred the wrath of fellow council members but inspired Alston to hold a public protest in front of Lavarro’s home on Christmas Eve in which Alston accused the council president of being “racist.”
Alston, a frequent critic of Lavarro, raised several issues in the December meeting only to have Lavarro refer to some of Alston’s personal legal troubles later in the meeting. His comments visibly shocked people in the audience as well as other council members.
Many expected this conflict to spill over into the New Year. Some council members were apparently prepared to conduct a vote of no confidence in Lavarro, potentially triggering a challenge to his position as council president.
Threat fizzles, but the rancor continues
Lavarro was apparently aware of this threat when he took his seat on the dias on Jan. 9. He did not appear alarmed when Councilman Daniel Rivera interrupted the regular order of business to issue a statement.
Instead of calling for a no-confidence vote, Rivera asked for civility going into the New Year and for Lavarro to issue an apology for past behavior.
Lavarro, while apparently sobered by the threat, stopped short of apologizing and admitted that the temperature at caucus and regular meetings had risen. He said he would seek to lower the temperature in the future.
Alston sat in the front row near several of his supporters and waited until the public comment period of the meeting to respond. Then in a calm tone but full of vitriol, once more challenged Lavarro and criticized Lavarro’s actions.
“It sets a dangerous precedent when a leader can speak out against a member of the public,” said Alston. “I won’t use the word racist.”
He accused Lavarro of continuing attacks against him later on social media, responding to Alston’s protest and sending text messages to supporters attacking Alston.
Alston said he would apologize to Lavarro’s family for protesting in front of the house on Christmas Eve, except that the Lavarro family wasn’t even at home at the time.
“I accept your apology,” Alston mockingly told Lavarro, who sat stone still and dead silent during Alston’s comments. “But you should have taken the olive branch Councilman Rivera offered. You have shown your true colors. But I hope you learn from this experience.”
An acrimonious end to 2018
While many council members are not allies of Alston, they apparently disliked the level of negative discourse that had been taking place in the closing months of 2018, when Lavarro appeared impatient with other council people, members of the staff representing the mayor and even the city clerk.
“It sets a dangerous precedent when a leader can speak out against a member of the public.” Bruce Alston
A vote of no-confidence is one of the most powerful tools the council has to call the council president into line, and would have forced a change of leadership.
The council president serves a two-year term. Lavarro, who had faced opposition at the start of 2018 when the council reorganized, managed to put together enough council votes to retain his position, even though not everyone was happy about it.
Councilwoman Joyce Watterman, the leading vote getter in the 2017 election, had been promised the council presidency this term.
The council president not only controls much of the council agenda at each meeting, but would serve as acting mayor if the mayor steps down or cannot serve for some reason for a short period of time. The position is also seen as a stepping stone for people who may have mayoral ambitions in the future, as Lavarro reportedly has.
The council president also presides over meetings and has the ability to eject people who become unruly. While Lavarro is seen as a harsh taskmaster in this regard, his past actions when dealing with the public were generally warranted, even if sharply criticized for seeming harsh. His behavior over the last few months, however, seemed to go beyond just being harsh.
Since Jersey City council meetings can at times become extremely contentious, Lavarro may have to walk a fine line between being strict and being someone others see as unfair.
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