The majority of the council voted (7-2) to let the public determine later this year whether the city should go back to holding runoff elections for mayor and council, which were eliminated by public referendum in 2012. In the past, when more than two candidates were running for local office, the top two vote-getters would compete in a runoff election a few weeks later (unless one candidate commanded more than 50 percent of the vote). This led to longer elections, more costs, and more political wrangling.
But now that the last mayoral election, with six candidates, resulted in the winner (Mayor Ravi Bhalla) getting only around a third of the vote, most of the council wants to go back to some version of runoffs.
The question is, which version? On Wednesday, the council also unanimously passed a resolution urging the state legislature to consider allowing instant runoff elections, which would mean a winner would be chosen on Election Day rather than a few weeks later in a separate election.
This past Wednesday’s council vote negates Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s veto in January of a prior attempt to put runoffs on the ballot.
Bhalla said he was concerned with potential voter drop-off as well as illegal activity related to the election.
In fact, he has attempted to paint those voting in favor of runoffs as being also in favor of vote-buying. However, accusations of vote-buying have been made in Hoboken in regular elections in the past as well.
Councilman Jim Doyle and Councilwoman Emily Jabbour voted against the 7-2 override.
Jabbour has been a proponent for instant runoffs instead, and wrote a resolution with Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino urging the state legislature to permit them in New Jersey. In an instant runoff, instead of voting for a single candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are initially counted for each voter’s top choice, losing candidates or those with the least votes are eliminated, and ballots for losing candidates are redistributed until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority of the voters.
Public asks for override
Nine residents spoke at the meeting about runoff elections. Most were in favor of a referendum, including former council members Dave Mello and Michael Lenz. Mello ran for council on Freeholder Anthony Romano’s mayoral ticket in November, and had been a Zimmer ally in the past but was sometimes independent while on the council. Lenz supported Giattino’s campaign.
They both said last November’s election was divisive and the public should be able to vote in a referendum on whether to reinstate runoff elections.
“It’s true, that we have dealt with some level of election fraud in this city, but a lot of other things are also true,” said Mello. “It’s true that now-Mayor Bhalla sent out extremely negative Republican-bashing mailer after Republican-bashing mailer, mailers that directly bashed my former colleague, Councilwoman Giattino, drawing attention away from the issues that you truly should be grappling, with and moving to the worst of what electorates tend to be about: hate for somebody that’s different than us.”
“December runoffs have their problems, but eliminating the runoff entirely created an even bigger [problem],” said Lenz. “One that nobody anticipated when we made the switch from May to November that without intending to, we have created a situation where running a divisive campaign, narrowly focused, is the surest path to victory.”
Resident Franz Paetzold said he would probably be more in favor of instant runoffs should they be enabled by the state legislature, but that he feels the people should be the ones to decide if runoff elections should be brought back.
“While it may be true that there are fewer voters vote in the runoff because it is in December, in contrast to [the general election in] November … it is also true that more focus will be on the local runoff election if it is the only thing on the ballot,” said resident Dan Tumpson.
Peter Bologna, who moved to town two years ago, was the only resident to speak in favor of the veto. “I believe an examination of the evidence shows that runoff elections opens the door for improper interference and manipulation of a free voting public,” said Bologna, who added that his vote means a lot to him and should be treated as such.
Council discusses the vote
Each councilperson also weighed in on the issue before casting their vote.
Doyle, who ran with Bhalla, said he felt that the referendum shouldn’t be on the ballot in November as there wouldn’t be much else on the ballot. He cited a statement made by Councilman Michael DeFusco calling Bhalla’s veto a “cynical ploy.” He noted, “There’s a conscious decision to put this vote up in the year with the historically least amount of turnout.”
DeFusco responded, “I called it a cynical ploy after the mayor issued his veto because he spread half truths and this is a smokescreen by this current administration and his council colleagues, the two that sit on this board, to distract from the real issue,and the real issue is that we had a mayor elected with 32 percent of the vote.”
Council President Ruben Ramos, who teaches history, said that Hoboken is the only municipality in New Jersey in which a mayor doesn’t need to be elected with more than 50 percent of the vote.
DeFusco also read a leaked text message between the mayor, one of the mayor’s relatives, and others in which the relative said, “Great job with the mayoral veto memo. Important public education moment and opportunity to box in our opponents. We know an override will happen, in that scenario it makes sense to take the opportunity to shape the frame of the discussion and for our opponents to have to respond to the frame we set.” The relative does not hold a government position, so the reference to "our" opponents is unclear. Bhalla’s responses were brief and don’t use any language about strategy or opponents.
“This is the type of a cynical ploy I was talking about,” said DeFusco. “This ordinance merely offered up a question to the voters, who are then to answer, ‘Do we want to select one of two people or do we want deeply entrenched politicians introducing spoilers into an election so that the will of the majority is never heard?’ ”
Councilwoman Emily Jabbour cited her experience on the rainy election day last November as one of the reasons she was against the referendum. She said people in the campaign were worried about voter turnout once the rain began, and that in December, the chance for snow would decrease turnout.
“By the time we got to November I think the entire city was sick of hearing from most of the people out there campaigning,” she said.
“I know, the last administration, Mayor Zimmer was very good at creating a boogeyman to produce her success,” Ramos said, “to say ‘That person’s evil, that person’s bad, that person’s no good. You have to vote for me because I’ll protect you,’ and Mayor Bhalla is looking to follow the same playbook.”
Mayor says he knows of fraud
In response to the council’s override, Mayor Ravi Bhalla issued a statement through a spokesman, implying malfeasance. “On the issue of reducing voter fraud, last night Council Members Cunningham, Fisher, and Giattino have chosen to align themselves with Council Members DeFusco, Ramos and other beneficiaries of voter fraud.”
When city spokesman Juan Melli was asked what evidence he had that councilmen had been “beneficiaries” of fraud and which authorities they had reported the fraud to, Melli sent a link to a Hoboken Reporter article from nearly eight years ago, “Attorney General to probe 4th Ward votes” which details a 4th Ward election and 190 “suspicious” ballots sent to the attorney general for investigation. The article does not mention either DeFusco or Ramos.
When asked about the council people specifically, Melli responded, stating “In the specific instance referenced in that story, then-Councilman Bhalla submitted extensive affidavits and evidence of voter fraud regarding the candidate Councilman Ramos supported in the election. He reported it to the Hudson County Prosecutors Office, which referred it to the Attorney General’s office. He also personally met with and reported this voter fraud to the FBI.”
“Mayor Bhalla is talking about a systemic problem of paying large numbers of election day workers, which amounts to paying for a vote,” Melli added. “This has benefited some candidates more than others and is a problem a December runoff will make worse. He is not making any specific accusation of voter fraud.”
After reading Melli’s statement earlier, DeFusco responded, “This false, disgusting smear is the latest proof that Mayor Bhalla is totally disinterested in working with the City Council to bring Hoboken together and is instead intent on wasting taxpayer resources on completely unsubstantiated, divisive political attacks. For a mayor to use a taxpayer-funded spokesman to spread lies and deceit without any credible evidence borders on libel.”
“Mayor Bhalla,” he continued, “should be ashamed of himself for engaging in a Trump-like level of deceit and sleaze that is doing nothing to heal the wounds in our community. Mayor Bhalla should be using his first months in office to solve the problems our city faces like fixing Washington Street, not on petty political drama.”
“By now we are all aware that Mayor Bhalla has no problem in utilizing gutter politics and is once again making false accusations without any evidence to sully anyone who dare challenge him,” said Ramos in response.
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said, “The texts are troubling and the mayor’s statement is…reckless. It’s really a shame because the council has been working really well with the administration on all issues important to residents.”
Councilman Peter Cunningham, who supported Giattino for mayor, said, “Given the divisive nature of the elections, I have been very sensitive to my 5th Ward constituents and their concerns about having a collaborative relationship with Mayor Bhalla. We can agree to disagree on this run-off election matter, but for the mayor to say one thing and do another is disappointing. His tone does not reflect the collaborative relationship that I have and will continue to work toward.”
“I find it really disheartening that the mayor met with the three of us and talked about collaborating and working together, which is exactly what I think good government should do, and then came out with a statement that’s so divisive,” said Councilwoman Jen Giattino. “ I was definitely surprised. You talk about working with people and then don’t actually talk to them about this. You just put out a statement like that.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.