Members of the Hoboken City Council opposed to the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who is up for reelection on Nov. 5, unceremoniously voted down on Thursday a measure that would mandate stricter construction standards and serve as a first step toward lowering Hoboken’s astronomical flood insurance rates.
The measure, an amendment to the city’s existing flood protection codes, mandates that any new construction in Hoboken or major renovations to existing structures would have to adhere to strict safety and flood resiliency standards set forth by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It does not apply to normal work on existing structures, though it could have an effect on residents still rebuilding or renovating after Hurricane Sandy last year.
The deeper importance of the amendment, though, would be to work toward lowering the flood insurance rates of Hoboken residents, which are currently some of the highest in the nation. Zimmer has made lowering the rates a priority since Sandy, and explained Thursday that the passage of the ordinance would gain the city considerable points on a survey called the Community Rating System (CRS). The CRS, administered by the National Flood Insurance Program, allows municipalities to reduce their rates by gaining points through actions like passing a strict construction codes ordinance.
“Every single Hoboken homeowner would have benefited from this.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
The mayor’s opponents on the council – First Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, Second Ward Councilman Beth Mason, Third Ward Councilman Michael Russo, and Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti – tried to table the ordinance until after the election so that it could be vetted at a separate public meeting, but voted it down when the tabling failed.
Castellano and Mason did not specify their objections to the ordinance, but said they were upset that the discussion, which lasted about two hours, was seeping into time allocated for the public portion of the meeting, while Russo said he was especially concerned about Third Ward constituents who may be affected by the ordinance.
“I don’t give one or two anything’s about LCOR right now,” he said. “I want to know what the effect of this is going to be on my residents who are still waiting for insurance money to rebuild after Sandy and are now going to have to do it in a manner that costs much more money.”
Occhipinti, who along with state Assemblyman Ruben Ramos is challenging Zimmer’s mayoralty, commented that he simply thought Zimmer was too focused on election season.
“It seems like this is being rushed through before an election so a headline can be pushed ahead of this election,” he said, noting that the ordinance would also create the salaried job of Flood Plain Officer, which he referred to as “another bureaucratic position in City Hall.”
On Friday, Zimmer criticized her opponents for what she said was choosing the interests of a developer over those of the city.
“Every single Hoboken homeowner would have benefited from this ordinance,” she said. “There was a lot of smoke being blown, but at the end of the day there was no reason they should not have voted for it.”
Andrew Robbins, a lawyer representing LCOR, argued that the city’s ordinance was too far- reaching and unnecessarily strict.
“This ordinance would apply standards to Hoboken that aren’t used anywhere else,” said Robbins. “It causes prohibitions across the board, not just for new developers.”
In an interview prior to the meeting, Zimmer painted LCOR’s position as profit-driven because the stricter standards would drive up construction costs.
“It’s not our obligation as a city to make the developer more money, we need to be looking at the bigger picture,” she said. “Their priority is maximizing profits; mine is protecting the city from unfair flood insurance rates.”
Robbins said his main grievance was the city’s choice to use FEMA’s Advance Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps to designate what areas of Hoboken would fall under the ordinance’s jurisdiction rather than a newer map offered by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He described the ABFE maps as outdated, but the city’s attorney, James Maraziti, countered the claim.
“It’s true that the ABFE maps came first, but we’re using the ABFE maps because they’re stricter and more consistent with what happened to Hoboken in Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “We’re allowed to be more stringent, and we’ll get more points by doing so.”
Anti-Bhalla rhetoric shut down, then ramped up
A resolution condemning Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, who is up for reelection on Zimmer’s ticket, for possible conflicts of interest due to his employment with a politically active law firm, was barred from appearing on the agenda, but the subject was still mentioned several times during the meeting. One member of the public was removed after he cursed at Bhalla and accused him of lying.
The resolution, authored by Second Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason and co-sponsored by First Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, alleges that Bhalla’s employment with the law firm Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader constitutes a clear conflict of interest on Bhalla’s part. Florio Perrucci has done significant work for the city in the past, but has severed ties with the city since hiring Bhalla.
On Monday, Council President Peter Cunningham issued an internal memo to his fellow council members, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and administration officials attempting to debunk several of the claims in the original resolution and explain his reasoning for not placing it on the agenda.
At the meeting Thursday night, despite saying that there would be no discussion of the issue, Cunningham rehashed his reasoning in an attempt to debunk several of Mason and Castellano’s claims.
“Councilman Bhalla has done nothing wrong,” he said, to audible sniggering from the audience and fellow council members. “The allegations in the resolution were false.”
But Perry Belfiore, a member of the public and supporter of Mason, railed against Bhalla for the second meeting in three occasions, and accused him of lying to the public and using his office simply to gain favor with higher powers. Bhalla, who has developed a reputation as a stoic on a crazed council, did not respond to Belfiore.
But Cunningham, who has had trouble maintaining decorum in council meetings this election cycle, refused to tolerate Belfiore, who would not step down when his allotted five minutes to speak was up. Cunningham ordered police to escort him out. After some coaxing from two officers, Belfiore excused himself.
For her part, Mason maintained her position that Bhalla is out of order.
“The public has an absolute right to know all of the circumstances as to how a councilman suddenly became partners with a major city vendor,” said Mason in a statement. “The people of Hoboken have made it loud and clear that they are tired of politicians in City Hall using their offices for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of the community.”
According to the Cunningham memo, which was written after consultation with the city’s attorney, Mellissa Longo, Florio Perrucci has done no legal work for the city since taking Bhalla on as a partner, and existing cases in which it was involved were transferred to other firms. Mason had claimed that an opinion issued by the Appellate Division on Sept. 6 on a case in which Florio Perrucci had represented the city was proof of the alleged impropriety, but Cunningham disagreed, arguing that the firm had submitted its work to the court last January, before Bhalla’s hiring.
“Apparently, Councilwomen Mason and Castellano, who are not attorneys, did not understand that there can be a long wait, in this case seven and a half months, for a case to be decided after legal work is completed,” Cunningham wrote.
Furthermore, Cunningham claimed that Bhalla has not taken part in any council votes related to Florio Perrucci since joining the firm, and abstained from votes in the month prior. The last time he voted on a Florio Perrucci contract was in February, Cunningham said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org