LINDEN — Mayor Derek Armstead is defending his use of of a city-owned luxury SUV and police employees to chauffeur him and his family.

The practice has been criticized by political rivals, who Armstead said should worry about more pressing city business. The chief of police, meanwhile, says he has no problem with the service.

InsiderNJ reported that former Mayor Richard Gerbounka wrote a letter to the city police department concerning Armstead's private use of department personnel and vehicles. Gerbounka said it was "disturbing" that Armstead was "using your department's officers and vehicles as his personal taxi cab service, even though taxpayers purchased a luxury 2017 SUV Tahoe for his official use."

Armstead told New Jersey 101.5 that as the head of the police department he is entitled have police protection at all times and have access to a city-issued vehicle. He said in three years as mayor he has used a police escort just six times for a total of six hours.

Armstead said the city pays a former city official just a single dollar a year to sometimes drive him in his city-issued vehicle. The mayor said the driver was willing to do it for free, but the city required that he paid at least a nominal sum for insurance purposes.

"This is all nonsense and politics. It's foolishness," he said.  "My No. 1 priority in this administration is public safety. At no time did it jeopardize the residents of the community."

But Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey said that by giving Armstead police protection, an officer is being taken off the street.

Linden 10th Ward Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey (City of Linden)

Chief David Hart, however, said that the requests the mayor has made "at no time jeopardized the safety of our residents or officers."

"Mayor Armstead during his term as mayor has been a big supporter of the police department by not only seeing that our compliment is increased, but he has also supported increased training programs and purchase of equipment to help make Linden a safe place to live and work," Hart said in a prepared statement.

Hickey told New Jersey 101.5 that while the mayor is entitled to police protection, "we're very short on our police officers."

She said her 10th Ward constituents are always asking to see a patrol car in their neighborhoods to ensure their safety.

State Police data for Linden shows that the city recorded a single homicide last year, while the 39 robberies and 78 assaults were no greater than the year before. Burglaries, however, climbed 35 percent to 166, while car thefts fell from 74 to 45.

The councilwoman said she was particularly concerned when she learned that Armstead had used a police officer to drive his daughter to school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, saying that the mayor "has his own interest before our residents."

Armstead said that was one of the times he had used the service, saying he was not feeling well at the time, which is why he did not drive her back himself.

Another time that Armstead said he got a ride from a police officer was last month after the Linden Fire Department's annual dinner. In a statement released by his office, Armstead said he opted not to drive home that night "because safety for our town, and me is my top priority as mayor."

While Hickey said she understood that "business is business," she said the mayor could have found other ways to get home that night, whether it be getting a ride from another attendee or calling a cab or an Uber.

"You have a room full of friends and family and know so many people," she said. "Keep our officers on the street."

Armstead also defended using a city-issued luxury SUV. He said when he first took office, he used a Crown Victoria but the police department asked if he would use one of the new vehicles they had recently purchased.

While he has his own vehicle, Armstead said it is easier for him to use his city vehicle when he is balancing his public and private life. The mayor said money is taken out of his $74,000 salary for use of the car.

"Councilwoman Hickey should concentrate on reading and familiarizing herself with city policies and procedures opined by our city attorney and approved by City Council," Armstead said in a statement. "By doing so, when a resident has an inquiry about my use of police protection, or any other rumors, she could properly inform the resident thus eliminating any such rumors, and thereby she could be an asset to our city, if not my administration."

The mayor said Hickey "only inflames these rumors."

"I apologize to Chief Hart, our city attorney and Linden residents for having to take time out of their lives to continuously address these rumors about me, and the vacuous accusations made by various Council members and others," he said in a statement.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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