In a decision that could impact campaigns for the upcoming May City Council elections, a Zimmer administration effort to restrict certain kinds of political campaign contributions was defeated Wednesday by a 5-4 margin. On the council, members opposed to Mayor Dawn Zimmer outnumber the mayor’s allies by one vote.
Also during the nearly seven-hour meeting on Feb. 16, the council discussed controversial measures including rent control, government transparency, and the elections, and even found time to honor some local residents.
The topic of the evening, and seemingly the week, was the practice of “wheeling” in council elections. Wheeling means donating money to a candidate through a political action committee in order to circumvent personal contribution limits.
The matter came to light because the Zimmer administration and a local campaign reform group had been proposing a set of ordinances limiting “pay to play,” or the practice of contractors and developers donating to candidates to get favorable treatment. Late in the game, Zimmer’s administration added the anti-“wheeling” provision and admitted that it was inspired by money that Council President Beth Mason donated to the campaign of Zimmer opponent Councilman Tim Occhipinti last November.
The new provision would have decreased maximum donations from $8,200 to $500 from PACs outside of Hoboken as well as from PACs operating inside the city that were self-funded by at least 70 percent.
More than 70 percent of Mason’s PAC contributions come from herself.
Zimmer said on Thursday that she feels it’s important to keep outside interests out of the Hoboken elections. She pointed out over $100,000 in donations from outside PACs were given to former Mayor Peter Cammarano, who is currently in prison for accepting donations from an FBI informant posing as a real estate developer.
“Let’s make sure the elections are fair,” Zimmer said.
Pay to play passes; anti-wheeling voted down
At the meeting, an ordinance sponsored by Mason and Councilwoman Theresa Castellano to update the pay-to-play laws, which did not include the anti-wheeling provision, passed unanimously.
Then Councilmen Peter Cunningham and Ravinder Bhalla presented the same pay to play ordinance including the anti-wheeling provision. It was defeated by one vote.
Critics of the legislation believe pay to play should not be addressed with limits on wheeling attached, but Cunningham cited examples in New Jersey where wheeling and pay to play were jointly passed.
Mason calls out Zimmer
At the meeting, Mason struck back at the administration, claiming Zimmer herself is guilty of wheeling, which the mayor denied on Thursday, providing documentation to the Reporter to counter Mason’s charges.
On Sept. 30, the election fund of County Executive Tom DeGise donated $500 to Zimmer’s political action committee, Friends of Dawn Zimmer Hoboken Mayor. On Oct. 27, the Zimmer PAC donated $508.25 to A&E Mailers for mailing services benefitting the campaign of former councilman and Zimmer ally Michael Lenz. Mason’s camp has tried to tie the DeGise donation to the payment.
According to e-mails obtained by The Reporter, Lenz’s campaign manager Sam Briggs asked Zimmer’s treasurer for a check for $1,779.68, for the entire cost of a mailing in an e-mail on Oct. 24, not just for $508.25, part of the cost.
Zimmer said she held a fundraiser at a local establishment last October that saw donations of $500 from many individuals, not just DeGise.
“It would be wheeling if Tom came to me and said he wants me to give the money to Michael Lenz,” Zimmer said. “But he didn’t even come to the fundraiser. There was never any type of conversation. He was one of several people that gave me $500. It wasn’t wheeling at all.”
Mason believes she is being unfairly targeted by the legislation. In fact, Bhalla, a sponsor of the anti-wheeling legislation, said in an interview in the Feb. 13 edition of The Hoboken Reporter that the “catalyst” for the legislation was Mason’s donation to Lenz’s opponent, current Councilman Tim Occhipinti.
“I’m being attacked for giving $13,000 to Tim’s campaign when Mayor Zimmer contributed over $130,000 of her own money to council members [Carol] Marsh, Bhalla, and [David] Mello,” Mason said. “That was not illegal and was the mayor’s prerogative to do so with her own money, but it underscores the hypocrisy of this ordinance.”
Zimmer said even if she was guilty of wheeling, she believes that would be even more of a reason for the council to vote in favor of the anti-wheeling legislation.
One representative of the Mason camp said the ordinance should be re-written so it doesn’t specifically target Mason. However, Zimmer stated the failed legislation was vetted through the legal department.
POG speaks out
Some believe it’s an issue of time and place. The People for Open Government (POG) wrote the majority of the pay to play legislation, but did not write the anti-wheeling provision.
Alice Crozier is a board member of POG, and believes campaign finance reform should not be packaged with pay to play.
“The main thing I want to impress on you [the council] is that POG is aware of what wheeling is,” Crozier said at the meeting. “We’ve been talking about it earnestly for years. We’re not in any way opposed to an effort to control it…one of the most baffling things about this process is that although the mayor’s office is obviously interested in wheeling [reform], there was no outreach to a group like us that has been studying it for years.”
Zimmer said she would be open to input from POG.
The issue of rent control resurfaced when the council voted unanimously to introduce an ordinance amending the city’s 1973 Rent Control Ordinance. The ordinance limits rent increases and applies to approximately 8,000 units in the city.
Comments on the measure are expected to be lengthy and passionate on March 2, when a public hearing on the ordinance will be held and a final vote may take place.
The proposed changes would limit repayment of rent overcharges to tenants. Currently, if a tenant can prove that a landlord has been overcharging him, he can sue and win money for the length of the violation, sometimes for many years and many thousands of dollars. But landlords maintain that they have not always had access to accurate records about prior rents at City Hall, so they are paying for preceding landlords’ mistakes.
The new ordinance limits awards to two years.
The ordinance also will require landlords to inform tenants of their rights every time a change in rent or occupancy occurs, and will permit various types of documentation to institute a vacancy decontrol.
Vacancy decontrol allows landlords to raise rents by 25 percent once every three years if a tenant vacates. Currently, landlords must provide a vacancy decontrol certificate, and cannot raise rents by way of decontrol without it.
Some believe the changes will have ramifications for the city on active lawsuits. The administration of the existing ordinance has been challenged in court, and the city is also facing legal fights in the form of a class action lawsuit from a group of Hoboken landlords.
Any changes to rent control laws – and there have been many attempts to change them over the last 37 years – have met with controversy, as tenant advocates fear that weakening the laws may put tenants in jeopardy, and landlords have said the law is antiquated and needs to be revamped. Both sides are sure to speak out at the public hearing.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com
It’s not always politics at the Hoboken City Council meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, Zimmer issued a proclamation honoring Ray Benito, Jr., a father of five, graduate of Hoboken High School, Army veteran, and Hoboken Parking Utility officer for 11 years, who passed away on Dec. 26, 2010. The family members received a standing ovation from the packed chambers following the issuance of the proclamation.
Zimmer also issued a proclamation for the Hoboken youth middleweight Police Athletic League (PAL) football team, who finished 7-0 and defeated North Bergen in a championship game.
“Sorry, Mayor Sacco,” Zimmer said while reading her proclamation, referring to the North Bergen mayor.
The team flooded the front of the council chambers, and later received championship hats in front of City Hall.