The chairman of the city’s public housing board of commissioners said last week he plans to file complaints with state and federal authorities against three fellow commissioners who are allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, claiming political “bullying.” At a meeting two weeks ago and one in January, two of the housing board members introduced resolutions to oust Rob Davis III as the chairman of the all-volunteer board, despite a scheduled reorganization of the board that is coming in just two months.
The Hoboken Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is a group of seven appointees tasked with overseeing the city’s low-income federally funded housing and providing some oversight over the agency’s paid executive director. Some allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer want to remove the executive director, Carmelo Garcia, an opponent of Zimmer who was also recently elected to the state Assembly. Supporters of Garcia, like Davis, want him to remain.
Some of the struggle is related to a disagreement about a plan for demolition and reconstruction of large sections of public housing, called Vision 20/20, that Garcia supports. The Hoboken Housing Authority has, for decades, been a major source of votes and goldmine for government contracts that come up for a vote at nearly every meeting.
“There’s no legal basis for what they’re doing. They know they could get the votes now so they’re saying ‘We’re taking over.’ ” – Rob Davis III
At the board’s regular meeting on March 13, newly-appointed commissioner Dana Wefer tried to push through a resolution that would give the board the option of electing a new chair and vice-chair whenever a new composition of the board was in session. In other words, since Wefer and fellow-Zimmer appointee James Sanford were not on the board when Davis and vice-chair Eduardo Gonzalez were elected last May, she believes a new vote should be held.
Councilman-at-Large David Mello, who also serves as an HHA commissioner allied with Zimmer, had attempted to introduce a nearly-identical resolution during a January meeting.
“We really didn’t have anything in the bylaws that allows us to have the opportunity, if not the requirement, to vote in new leadership on the board,” said Mello in an interview on Wednesday. “I think that’s only appropriate. Because when you have new membership, they didn’t vote for previous leadership. For me, it’s not democratic to not have that option available to commissioners.”
But Davis said that democracy has nothing to do with the resolution, which he believes is aimed at gaining control of the board and, by extension, Garcia. (Garcia also happens to be suing Zimmer and her husband, Stan Grossbard, for discrimination. His suit was originally thrown out due to lack of supporting evidence, but he changed it slightly and filed again in January.)
Wefer disagreed with Davis, saying she lost confidence in Davis’ ability to properly execute the chair’s duties after the January housing board meeting became chaotic and Davis failed to quell what another media outlet described as a “riot.”
“I wouldn't describe it as a riot, but it was evident that Chairman Davis had completely lost control of the meeting,” she said. “Additionally, when I was reviewing the January meeting minutes, I thought that Chairman Davis acted inappropriately a few times, referring to residents by pet names…”
“At no point did these board members show any respect to me as the chairman or the position of the chairman in general,” Davis said last week. “There’s no legal basis for what they’re doing. They know they could get the votes now so they’re saying ‘We’re taking over.’”
Davis said he would file two complaints: one with the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and one with the state Department of Community Affairs. Both, he said, will claim political bullying and intimidation, as well as claims that Zimmer’s supporters on the board obstructed what are called “Sunshine Laws,” meaning he believes they colluded out of the public eye to work against Davis once the meeting began.
The complaint would not be criminal, Davis said, but it is a formal complaint.
In both January and March, Davis refused to entertain a vote on the resolution, on the advice of the board’s lawyer. The lawyer, Charlie Daglian, claimed that the votes would be illegal because the members of the board had not been properly served with the resolution prior to the meeting.
In March, Wefer had hand-delivered her resolution to several members, but emailed it to Davis and one other commissioner. Daglian claimed that email was not a proper means of deliverance.
Reached on Wednesday, Wefer said that she had researched the proper procedure for commissioners seeking to introduce a resolution and was confident that serving her colleagues by email was sufficient based on the law.
“There’s no law on email either way. It’s open to interpretation, and I think if it went to court, a judge would say that email is fine,” she said.
Wefer also disagreed with Daglian’s assertion that Wefer must wait until the end of the meeting, new business, to introduce her ordinance. She also claimed that Davis was running the meeting outside its usual procedural order, and so her introduction of the ordinance was acceptable.
At the meeting, Daglian said voting on the resolution was illegal several times, but Wefer, Mello, and Sanford continued to press forward with the resolution, according to the meeting’s minutes, which show Wefer interjecting on the agenda several times.
At one point, toward the meeting’s conclusion, Mello abruptly nominated Wefer for the new chair position.
“I don’t believe that the lawyer in this case was right. If you have a lawyer that’s giving you advice you don’t think it is good advice, then you have to take action,” said Wefer on Wednesday. “I think we acted properly, and I did the research beforehand to have my bases covered. Calling the vote illegal is a dramatic overstatement, at best it was debatable.”
Mello said he thought the vote was reasonable, regardless of its potential illegality.
“There’s no harm to put a vote on the record whether or not we had disagreements over whether it could be properly taken,” he said. “I think you air on the side of caution by having a vote at that point. If it’s deemed illegal or improper then so be it. I still think it’s the cautious and correct move to have a vote.”
Additionally, Wefer said she had corresponded with Davis in February about placing the resolution on the agenda and that he had responded by telling her it would never come up for a vote. Davis denied the claim.
Why not wait?
The board is required by law to hold a reorganization meeting in May, at which point Zimmer’s supporters will have a fair shot at electing a new chairman.
“There’s no reason to do this now; they can vote me out in two months anyway,” said Davis. “We’re trying to conduct housing business down here; this isn’t the City Council part two. We have a proper way we do things.”
Mello said that time was more of the essence in January, when there were still five months until the reorganization meeting. Wefer said that she will not attempt to put the resolution up for a vote at the April meeting, but will wait for the May reorganization meeting for the scheduled vote on a potential new chair and vice-chair.
As for Mello’s attempt to nominate her for chairwoman, Wefer said that taking the position is something she would consider despite only having served on the board for less than three months. Wefer, a lawyer by trade, has a political history, though not in Hoboken – she unsuccessfully ran for the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2005 as a Democrat.
“I think there’s a misconception with what the chair does,” she said. “The chair’s job is to administer the rules and I’m eminently qualified for that. I think I’d do a good job.”
Intimidation alleged on both sides
Meanwhile, Zimmer’s supporters are not the only ones in the housing board saga that have been accused of intimidation. In August, two public housing tenants said they were threatened with eviction by HHA employees for posting flyers taking aim at Vision 20/20.
Garcia, the plan’s main proponent, denied issuing notices of eviction, as both tenants claimed. But he acknowledged that one of the two residents had been issued a “cease and desist” notice for posting flyers against Vision 20/20 in the buildings.
Later one of the tenants, Jessica Coco, said that her car and apartment had both been broken into and that she believed the incidents were related to her outspoken views on Vision 20/20. She has had to go to the police several times.
Wefer said that she could not believe that Davis would mistake a difference of opinion for impropriety.
“I cannot imagine a world in which anyone would consider pushing a new resolution ‘bullying,’ ” she said, noting that perhaps Davis should not serve if “he can’t function on a board where there’s going to be a debate and pushback.”
“I’m really saddened by [the charges]; I’ve never been accused of being a bully before,” she added.
Mello said he welcomed any review that HUD might take up as a result of Davis’ claims.
“If that’s how he chooses to respond to this, I will be eager for HUD to take a closer look at the recent workings of our Board of Commissioners,” he said.
Mello also said he was tired of what he said was a growing trend in Hoboken politics: using legal action as a last result to circumvent proper municipal procedure, “various parties trying to use the legal system as a hammer against boards, legislative bodies and so forth,” he said. Mello said he was referring to a number of suits currently in litigation, specifically pointing to Garcia’s suit against Zimmer, which was originally filed with charges of “ethnic cleansing.” He said the suit was “frivolous” and “insulting.”
New commissioner James Sanford did not return two calls for comment by press time.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org