At meeting, public housing activist rises from anonymity
City settles another contract dispute; Zimmer honors Latino residents
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Oct 06, 2013 | 5153 views | 0 0 comments | 154 154 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HISPANIC HEROES – Mayor Dawn Zimmer (left) honored three Hispanic residents of Hoboken for their contributions to the community on Wednesday night as part of the city’s celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month. From left: Carlos Rodriguez, Angela Ledesma and Christian Santini.
HISPANIC HEROES – Mayor Dawn Zimmer (left) honored three Hispanic residents of Hoboken for their contributions to the community on Wednesday night as part of the city’s celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month. From left: Carlos Rodriguez, Angela Ledesma and Christian Santini.
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A resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority who made waves online and on the air this summer when she spoke out against a controversial plan to demolish and rebuild large sections of Hoboken’s public housing appeared before the City Council on Wednesday night to further make her case.

The woman, Jessica Coco, has accused Housing Authority (HHA) Executive Director Carmelo Garcia of attempting to evict her unlawfully due to her activism, a charge Garcia has denied, explaining that she had been issued a “cease and desist” notice because posting flyers of any kind is illegal.

Coco had posted flyers against Garcia’s “Vision 20/20” project to demolish and rebuild sections of the projects.

On Wednesday she let fly a series of disturbing claims about suffering from harassment.

“I was approached by an African-American male who made a gun gesture at me and said ‘You’re dead, [expletive]. Bloods rule,’ ” she said.

She also claimed that her apartment and car had been broken into and her internet privacy compromised, and that other death threats against her were “under review.”

On Thursday, Garcia said in an email that all of Coco’s allegations were false.

Following her statements, which were made during the public comment portion of the meeting, Debra Morrissette, a council meeting regular and member of the HHA’s Tenant Advisory Board, then spoke before the council and called Coco’s integrity into question, saying she had also made outlandish claims against her and other HHA residents.

Garcia was not present at the meeting. Garcia is running for state Assembly in the Nov. 5 election.
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“My guys are happy and I’m happy.” – Union president Joe Grossi
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Meanwhile, several HHA residents, who recently have held voter registration drives, and tenants’ rights activists have united against absentee or vote-by-mail ballots. A state law passed several years ago allows anyone to vote by mail ahead of the election, for any reason.

The tenants publicly questioned the process by which absentee ballots are submitted in Hoboken, arguing that to ensure one’s vote is counted and legitimate, people should report to their local polling place in person and vote there.

Morrissette said that she had been approached by a woman recently who said that she was hassled by a campaign worker in the upcoming mayor/council election. The worker apparently was upset that the woman was going to vote in person. Morrisette said the campaign person was working for a sitting councilman running for office, but would not say who. Three of the sitting council people are running in the November election.

City approves supervisors’ contract

The council also approved an agreement between the city and the Hoboken Municipal Supervisors Organization, finalizing negotiations with the last of the city’s six municipal unions. The agreement was made between Mayor Dawn Zimmer and union representatives on Monday.

Like a contract that was signed with the municipal employees union recently, the supervisors’ new contract will provide for a 2 percent annual salary increase from 2009 through 2014.

Additionally, the agreement included a shift in the contract’s timing, from being tied to the fiscal year to a calendar year, which union president Joseph Grossi said was a major improvement.

“What usually happens is that the unions that are on the calendar year, like the police and firefighters, usually get their negotiations done first,” he said in an interview. “We hope this means that we’ll have a bit more room to negotiate in the future.

Grossi said that his organization, which consists of about 50 members, unanimously approved the contract, its first since July 2008.

“I think everyone wanted to get it done,” he said. “My guys are happy and I’m happy.”

Grossi also noted that the union realized the city was in a tough position due to a mandated 2 percent salary cap imposed by New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie.

There was no discussion between council members over the contract, and it was passed unanimously.

“For the first time in a long time, the city of Hoboken will have current contracts with all six of our municipal unions, and we will work to make sure that remains the case going forward,” said Zimmer in a statement. “This contract agreement is fair to our employees and the taxpayers of Hoboken.”

Zimmer honors Hispanic heroes

Zimmer awarded three Hispanic residents of Hoboken with proclamations commending them for their services to the city during Hurricane Sandy and otherwise in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Carlos Rodriguez, who works as the superintendent of Columbia Gardens, a senior citizen building, was honored for his help following the storm, evacuating elderly residents and fortifying the building.

Christian Santini, likewise, was honored for his role. Santini doesn’t work in the building, but, Zimmer said, he was worried about his grandmother who lives there. The night before the storm was set to hit, he couldn’t convince her to evacuate.

He contacted Zimmer, and together they convinced her to evacuate to Christ Hospital.

“The next morning, there was Christian, on the steps of City Hall, ready to volunteer,” she said.

Santini spoke about his experiences and said that around the time Sandy hit, he had just moved to Hoboken. He considered leaving after the storm, but was inspired to stay after witnessing the community’s response to the devastation.

In a non-Sandy-related effort, Angela Ledesma, a city employee, was also honored for her role in helping several HHA residents keep their homes when an issue between HHA and HUD over a rent reasonableness study threatened to endanger their tenancy. Ledesma brought the issue to the city, who contacted federal officials, who then worked an agreement out with Garcia to have the study finished this month.

SIDEBAR

Bhalla, up for re-election, hit with state ethics violation

Hoboken City Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, who is running for reelection on a ticket with Mayor Dawn Zimmer in November, was issued a notice of violation by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in late August due to an ethics violation in relation to one of Bhalla’s business relationships.

Bhalla was fined $100 for the violation, though the DCA waived the fee.

According to the notice of violation, Bhalla should have abstained from a 2009 City Council vote to extend a legal contract with Paul Condon, a lawyer hired by the administration of David Roberts, because Bhalla shared office space with Condon, and they had co-signed a lease.

Condon was representing the city in an administrative hearing of a police lieutenant who was photographed with Hooters girls holding Hoboken police weapons during a humanitarian mission to the South after Hurricane Katrina.

Bhalla and Condon at the time shared office space in Hoboken, and though they had co-signed a lease, they had no shared bank accounts, said Bhalla last week. Still, the DCA claimed Bhalla crossed the line by voting for a $29,000 extension of Condon’s contract.

“While sharing office space with a professional appointed by the City Council is not in and of itself a ‘substantial conflict with proper discharge of duties in the public interest,’” said the notice, “co-signing a lease agreement is considered a shared business relationship and would appear to constitute a direct/indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair ones objectivity or independence of justice.”

On Thursday, Bhalla said that prior to the 2009 vote, he had consulted the city’s then-corporation counsel, Michael Kates, who apparently saw no problem with Bhalla voting. Bhalla also noted that the vote was 9-0 and that there was no discussion prior.

He also noted that following the alleged violation, once he became aware that a complaint had been made to the state, he introduced an ordinance to tighten the city’s pay-to-play codes, instead of fighting the charges. “Pay to play” is the practice of vendors donating to candidates so that they can hopefully get favorable contracts. The state and cities have passed pay-to-play laws to cut down on campaign donations from vendors to candidates.

Asked how he thought voters should assess his alleged violation, Bhalla referred to his record.

“I think it’s important to note that rather than fight this, I tried to change it,” he said. “My reaction was to try and strengthen our pay-to-play laws. I’m very proud of my record.”

But Bhalla’s record also includes other pay-to-play questions that have been raised about him in the past.

Bhalla’s law firm received a $240,000 contract from the city of Union City in 2007. The next year, in 2008, Bhalla’s firm donated $2,450 to Union City First, a group supporting that city’s mayor, Brian Stack. A few months after that, the firm received a contract from Union City worth $127,000.

In 2010, a local newspaper made inquiries as to why three years worth of Bhalla’s campaign finance reports could not be located in a state database. Bhalla first told the newspaper he didn’t have to file the form. Upon being told he did, his firm filed it the next day. – Dean DeChiaro

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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