The bitterly divided Hoboken City Council continued its infighting Wednesday night, failing to make any progress on filling a council seat that has been vacant since October and arguing about the spending habits of Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s administration. Several speakers at the meeting also discussed a controversial rent control issue.
Voices were raised throughout the evening as the four-member pro-Zimmer contingent of the council, led by Council President Peter Cunningham, clashed with the mayor’s four opponents, led by 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason. Though the topics of the conversation were varied, they consistently returned to the issue of the empty seat. The seat was briefly filled by James Doyle, a Zimmer appointee, but is now in litigation with both sides warring over it.
It only took 15 minutes for fighting to break out at the nearly seven-hour meeting. Former Zoning Board member Phil Cohen came up to the microphone to complain about the legal fees the city is incurring in the ongoing court battle over the empty council seat.
He blamed the anti-Zimmer faction for dragging out the process. He offered a definition of the Yiddish word for nerve, chutzpah, and told a famous anecdote about the boy who, after killing his parents, pleads for mercy because he is an orphan.
“When you don’t attend a council meeting, and don’t phone in to participate, and then argue that a council vote was illegal because not enough members voted,” Cohen said, “that’s chutzpah.”
Cohen was referring to October, when Mason and Russo were each absent from concurrent meetings. Mason has said she was in Italy on business.
“You think it’s funny?” – Council President Peter Cunningham, to Councilwoman Beth Mason
“You think it’s funny?” Cunningham asked her.
“I think it’s funny when there are absolute lies being told,” she responded, setting off a chaotic few minutes. Third Ward Councilman Michael Russo then questioned Cohen’s integrity, alleging that Cohen had approached him to “re-negotiate” his seat on the Zoning Board.
“It’s not about government for you,” Russo told Cohen. “It’s about politics for you. That’s all it’s about, so let’s call it what it is.”
Russo added, “I don’t speak Yiddish, but to paraphrase Bill Clinton, you’ve got some brass. Every time you come up to the microphone your credibility goes out the window.”
Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla criticized Russo for attacking Cohen personally, and the meeting once again descended into verbal chaos. Cohen had already returned to his seat by the time Russo began criticizing him, and did not respond.
Business as usual?
Zimmer’s opponents on the council repeatedly questioned her administration’s requests for large funding allocations for various projects.
The council failed to pass a resolution increasing an existing $25,250 contract with the law firm of Florio, Perucci, Steinhart & Faber, LLC by another $25,000 to cover the cost of a former city employee’s ongoing appeal of a termination.
The city’s corporation counsel, Mellissa Longo, said the case was so complicated that it might last longer than she had estimated when the contract was originally signed.
Longo faced scrutiny from the anti-Zimmer half of the council, who complained that the process by which bids were awarded to outside law firms was not transparent. Russo accused Zimmer, who was not at the meeting, of going back on her campaign promise about open government.
Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti suggested that perhaps the city needs more legal contracts because of inadequacy of the city’s legal department, made up of Longo and two other attorneys, to handle the caseload. He said he had he reviewed Longo’s qualifications, and expressed dissatisfaction with what he called a lack of experience in the public sector.
Longo defended her colleagues and told Occhipinti that she had eight years of experience in the public sector.
Occhipinti also challenged a resolution to allocate $79,000 for four new Harley Davidson motorcycles to replace bikes that were destroyed in the city’s Observer Highway municipal garage during Hurricane Sandy. The councilman questioned Director of Health and Human Services Leo Pellegrini as to why the motorcycles were left in the garage when most of the other vehicles had been moved. He requested a record of all correspondence regarding the orders to move vehicles before Sandy.
Pellegrini and other members of the council asked what record could possibly exist when there was no electricity during the storm.
“You’re playing Monday morning quarterback,” Pellegrini told Occhipinti.
City files with FEMA
Hurricane Sandy was invoked several times during the meeting, mostly regarding the fast-growing tab the city is racking up as it attempts to recover. The council failed to approve a requested $500,000 more to the city for Hurricane Sandy recovery.
Business Administrator Quentin Wiest said that with that money, the cost of recovery would have eclipsed $7 million.
“All along we’ve estimated it would be close to $10 million,” he said.
The city has filed extensive insurance claims with the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) but has yet to receive any money back.
Russo referred to the post-Sandy recovery spending as a “black hole” several times during the meeting. He suggested more oversight was necessary, especially in the process of awarding bids and purchasing replacement vehicles.
Mason agreed, and at the end of the meeting requested that a special meeting of the council be held specifically to address Sandy recovery.
Rent control still an issue
Several residents at the meeting addressed the rent control issue that has plagued Hoboken since the November election, when a referendum to loosen or eliminate rent control on certain buildings was narrowly defeated. Recently a judge ruled that the results of the election were invalid, and ordered that a special election on the same referendum be held within 60 days of his decision.
“In this case we have a situation where if you have a lot of money and don’t like the results of an election, and you want to undo it, just get your lawyer dressed up in his nice suit, have him go down to the courthouse and overturn the election,” said longtime tenant activist Dan Tumpson.
Tumpson implored the council to protect the election results.
Mary Ondrejka, a fellow activist and member of the pro-rent control Hoboken Fair Housing Association, presented an extensive package of evidence she had compiled regarding the election, which she said suggests the possibility of voter fraud during the November vote.
She focused her argument on 483 absentee ballots, which she said presented peculiar patterns, such as the voters being listed in order by apartment number, and nearly all of the ballots hailing from the 4th Ward.
Later in the meeting, Bhalla all but accused Occhipinti, who represents that ward, of conspiring to commit voter fraud.
“Be careful, councilman,” Occhipinti replied, and then denied any wrongdoing on his part.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org