The council passed an ordinance in a 7-2 vote to have a referendum on the ballot this coming November allowing voters to decide whether to reinstate runoff elections for mayor and council. Councilwoman Emily Jabbour and Councilman Jim Doyle voted no.
The city did away with runoff elections in 2012. Before that, if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in an election, the top two vote-getters would participate in another election. Mayor Dawn Zimmer and allies thought the process wasted money and encouraged too much political wrangling. But after this past November mayoral election, in which six candidates ran and Mayor Ravi Bhalla was elected with a third of the vote, the other candidates seem to have had a change of heart.
Residents Cheryl Fallick, Mary Ondrejka, and Patricia Waiters spoke at the meeting, urging the city to pass the ordinance.
“This run off is very very important,” said Waiters. “Please, tonight, vote yes and put the power in the people’s hands to decide.”
However, the council pulled a separate resolution sponsored by Jabbour, a new councilwoman who had run with Bhalla, which urged the state to pass legislation allowing a different kind of runoffs -- instant runoff elections.
The resolution was pulled due to a disagreement about the language.
The resolution stated that this method was preferred to the other type of runoffs, which would occur in December following a November election. With “instant runoffs,” instead of voting for a single candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes for their second choice added to the totals. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the votes, or only two candidates remain.
Jabbour stated that she didn’t intend for her resolution to take the place of the referendum, but rather to work on a parallel track, which might in the future allow voters to choose between a runoff and an instant runoff.
Councilman Jim Doyle said he believes the option eliminates voter dropoff in a subsequent election, as well as most likely saves money, since candidates won’t need to campaign for an additional month.
Jabbour said the measure may be introduced at the next meeting, once rewritten.
The city unanimously approved a contract for $26,854 for bulletproof desks.
Resident Mary Ondrejka spoke out against the resolution.
“I object totally to this resolution,’ said Ondrejka. “I want to be able to walk into friendly City Hall without feeling threatened by barriers. If we start putting up walls for people who are trying to access City Hall, it is sending a bad message.”
“I am not a threat to this world,” said Ondrejka. “Most citizens are not, and to imply we are going to come in with guns and do harm to the city or the furniture is insulting.”
Police Chief Ken Ferrante said that the desks were recommended by a federal Homeland Security task force.
He said the desks provide a safe cover and position if intruders enter the building.
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said generally most government buildings have significant security at the front, including things like bulletproof glass. Examples of this can be seen at the Hoboken Police Department, whose officers sit behind bulletproof glass, as well as the post offices in town. Hoboken has a sign-in desk and metal detector in City Hall.
Public safety task force
An introductory ordinance was pulled from the agenda that would have forced bar owners to pay for more security. The administration of Mayor Ravi Bhalla promoted it due to recent problems with rowdiness at bar crawls, such as “Santacon.” With St. Patrick’s Day crawls coming up, some city officials are concerned.
At the meeting, Aidan Boyle, owner of McSwiggans Pub, said he felt the city hadn’t tried to get input from the bar community on the matter, and the community feels excluded. He said he was surprised when the city recently announced a public safety task force, then to see this introductory ordinance on the agenda.
Bhalla on Tuesday announced the formation of the Mayor's Task Force on Public Safety to address violence and quality of life issues resulting from intoxicated bar patrons.
The force includes Police Chief Ken Ferrante, Provisional Fire Chief Brian Crimmins, Police Capt. Tory Pasculli, Police Sgt. Charles Kucz, Police Sgt. William Montanez, Health Officer Frank Sasso, Battalion Fire Chief David Buoncuore, Fire Captain Stephen DiVincent, Business Administrator Stephen Marks, Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia, and Environmental Services Director Leo Pellegrini.
According to a press release issued Tuesday, in 2017, there were 277 Alcoholic Beverage Control board violations by liquor license holders. Of the 133 liquor license holders, more than half received zero tavern sheets in 2017 and more than three-fourths received two or fewer tavern sheets. Bars are issued a “tavern sheet” when an incident occurs on or near their premises. A “tavern sheet” is a report written up by police, detailing what happened at the bar that needed police attention.
The release also states that half of all violations in 2017 were issued to just 11 establishments and that since Aug. 15, police officers have been attacked, usually late at night by intoxicated people. The release additionally states that during SantaCon, 17 bars received tavern sheets, while the remaining 87 percent of establishments were not issued violations.
"We can no longer ignore the fact that a small number of establishments are creating a big problem for everyone else in the form of violence, property damage, and financial cost,” said Bhalla in the release. “When a person comes from out of town and spits in the face of our officers, as has happened numerous times, that is unacceptable.”
"The mayor’s creation of this task force is not about hurting the bar and restaurant industry in town," said Police Chief Ken Ferrante in the release. "This task force is going to take a deep look into incidents, events, and problem bars that are contributing to a decay of our city's quality of life. The disruption that SantaCon brought to this great city … the week before Christmas and during Hanukkah, just so 10 to 15 percent of our bars can profit, is unacceptable!"
Boyle says he tries to be respectful of his neighbors and would like for the bar owners to be able to work with the City Council before “you throw an ordinance together. We feel like outcasts.. if there is a problem maybe come to us.”
He said he has been in business for 19 years and hopes to have it for another 20 or 60 years so that one day his kids can run it.
“Come and listen to us,” said Boyle. “Get our side of the story.”
Mike Citarella, who owns several bars and restaurants in town including Cadillac Cantina, Venti pizza, and Texas Arizona, said, “A lot of people don’t want to get up [and speak] because we always feel that if we do speak up we will be punished for it, like with tavern sheets.”
Council President Ruben Ramos said the pulled ordinance had no sponsors from the council, and that in the end, the ordinance was pulled by the administration.
City attorney Brian Aloia said the administration heard that the ordinance needed to be looked at and there needed to be more involvement from stakeholders.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.