Fourth Ward politics reached ugly heights at a City Council meeting on Wednesday when an argument erupted over recent events in the Hoboken Housing Authority projects.
For many years, politicians in Hoboken paid little mind to the problems of the resident's 4th Ward low-income housing projects, but in the last two years, the living conditions there have become a popular issue to address. Candidates on all political sides have, in the last year, complained that HHA Executive Director Troy Washington is not doing a good enough job running the projects.
An argument had erupted three weeks ago at a Housing Authority meeting over the board's deliberations about whether to renew Washington's contract. City Councilman Chris Campos, who was in the audience at that Sept. 26 HHA meeting and is running for re-election in the 4th Ward, led a crowd of residents in agitating for Washington's contract to be discussed first on the agenda. When the meeting got out of hand, police were called.
Opponents of Campos have said that he was irresponsible in riling up the residents. Campos said that he was only voicing residents' concerns for what he deemed were poor conditions.
At Wednesday night's City Council meeting, former 4th Ward council candidate Lynda Walker, whose name was only taken off the election ballot by order of a judge on Friday, took the microphone during the meeting's public session. Walker, who also serves as a Housing Authority commissioner, is now supporting candidate Michael Lenz in the race. Lenz was in the back of the room during Walker's remarks.
After approaching the microphone, a visibly angry Walker verbally tore into Councilman Campos. She became so loud and upset that two police officers flanked her for the last half hour of the meeting.
Council President Tony Soares threatened to have her removed several times if she didn't clam down.
Walker's intent was to present the council with a supposed Hoboken Housing Authority resolution calling for an investigation into Chris Campos' own allegedly rowdy behavior at the Sept. 26 HHA meeting. Walker's resolution said that at the Sept. 26 meeting Campos "harangued and shouted" and "incited the crowd and led it in loud chants and shouted responses." The resolution called for an investigation between the council and the HHA into the matter.
However, the resolution was not adopted by the HHA at a formal meeting. Instead, some of the commissioners, one of whom is also a candidate against Campos, signed it individually in the HHA office.
Walker said that this was because the commissioners were afraid to meet due to the heated conditions at the last meeting.
Walker approached the microphone expecting to read the resolution into the record. But before the council would let her do so, the city's Corporation Council Ester Suarez questioned Walker on the legality of the resolution.
"Did [the Housing Authority commissioners] meet to draft this resolution?" asked Suarez of Walker.
"No, we haven't met again, but we had four commissioners sign it," Walker responded.
The resolution was signed by Walker, and Commissioners Jean Rodriguez, Arlette Braxton and 4th Ward candidate and HHA Commissioner Nellie Moyeno. Rodriguez and Braxton flanked Walker as she addressed the council. Moyeno was not in attendance at Wednesday night's council meeting.
Cries of "Sunshine Law" came from more than one person from the audience. For a body such as the HHA to adopt a resolution, it must be done at a publicly advertised meeting or else it is in violation of the state's Sunshine Law, which ensures that action affecting the public is conducted in front of them. Walker said that the commissioners had come into the HHA office separately to sign the resolution.
Suarez pressed Walker as to whether or not she knew who wrote the resolution.
"I'm not going to tell at this time," she replied. Her answer brought heckling from several members of the crowd.
The cover letter to the resolution said that it was from "E. Troy Washington, Executive Director" of the HHA."
Calls to Washington to ask if he or HHA attorneys were the authors were not returned by press time.
Walker's answers led Suarez to advise the council not to consider the resolution. "My advice to this council would be that it would be premature to consider this resolution at this point," she said.
An upset Walker began one of the several back-and-forth exchanges between her and members of the council. For the most part, Campos remained quiet this time.
"What you are doing tonight is exactly what this resolution accuses," said Soares to Walker as she angrily pleaded with the council begin an investigation into the Campos matter.
Then Ruben Ramos Jr. replied, "I'm all for investigations. Let's look at mismanagement, Let's look at the intimidation. Let's look at the long list of complaints that residents have. Let's look at these issues."
(Ramos has in the past pointed to what he feels are unacceptable conditions at the HHA and lobbied for and received an HHA audit. The outside investigation found that out of the 10 complainants that Ramos had, three were valid. The HUD Inspector General found that the HHA had slow turnover, poor conditions of the bathrooms and poor conditions of the overall physical shape of the area.)
"We have to investigate this now," Walker said about the Campos issue. "We're afraid that we will be threatened if we have another meeting. We're afraid to show up again. How are we ever going to be able to pass this resolution if we are afraid to hold a meeting?" After several more back-and-forth exchanges with council president Soares and several members of the crowd, Walker was shadowed by a police officer and returned to her seat.
Next at the microphone was Perry Belfiore, a supporter of Campos, who questioned Walker's motives for bringing the resolution in front of the council.
"Sure the police were called," he said, referring the Sept 26. HHA meeting. "But how would you know? You weren't even there." [Walker was ill and missed that meeting but learned of it later.] "She's only here to support a political campaign and doesn't represent anyone in the projects. The only person she really represents is the highest bidder. What we are witnessing tonight is a political ambush."
A few minutes, later Human Services Director Carmelo Garcia asked to be recognized. Garcia is a close friend of Campos and has been seen campaigning for him over the last couple of weeks. He held a stack of letters of complaints from residents and children of residents in the Housing Authority.
"I implore you to hold the commissioners accountable for what they are doing down at the HHA," he said as he held the letters in the air.
Then Council President Tony Soares, another Campos ally, read a letter from an unnamed 13 year-old-child. "You really shouldn't mess up our ball field to build a mailroom. We need a place to play," read Soares. Then he made a blanket statement about management at the HHA. "This is what we need to be focusing on," he said. "Mismanagement. We will support any investigation that looks into actions and not reactions."
After the meeting, Lenz defended Walker's actions and said that the confrontation was mostly fueled by the council and its attorney.
"A lot of people have demanded an investigation on what happened at that [HHA] meeting," said Lenz. "[City Attorney] Esther Suarez did a masterful job of turning a rational presentation into a shouting match by pushing [Walker's] buttons. Nothing that happened tonight comes anywhere close to what happened at the Housing Authority meeting."
After the meeting, Hoboken Housing Authority Commissioners Billy Noonan and Angel Alicea said they did not support the actions of their fellow commissioners.
"I don't know who drafted this resolution, and there was not even a meeting to adopt it," Noonan said. "From the start I had real concern about its legality." Noonan is a recent governor's appointee to the board and a political independent. "I'm not a part of any political campaign," he said, "and I don't want to be a part of any of the political games. I just want to make sure the Housing Authority is safe, is run with fiscal responsibility and everyone there has a roof over their head and a working bathroom."
Alicea said he was approached with the resolution but question the legality of it and decided not to sign on.