So an appointment to the city's unpaid seven-member Hoboken Housing Authority board last Monday inspired a bit of jockeying.
In the end, the City Council voted 7-2 to appoint 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo to a seat vacated by former 4th Ward Councilman Chris Campos, who lost his latest council election bid.
At the meeting, new "reform" council members Peter Cunningham and Dawn Zimmer voted against appointing Russo. Zimmer represents the 4th Ward, where much of the housing is located, but she conceded that she hasn't ever attended a Hoboken Housing Authority meeting.
Russo will serve a five-year term that expires in May of 2012, because Campos' term had expired this past May.
In a phone interview last week, Russo said, "We need to change the way the residents of the Hoboken Housing Authority are treated. Right now, the current leadership is moving the Authority in the right direction, and as a commissioner, I will continue improving the quality of life of housing Authority residents until they live just as well as anyone else in the city of Hoboken."
The city's projects have been the scene of numerous police drug busts over the years, and the current director has said that funds for property improvements were misused before he got there.
Currently, the projects are run by a full-time staff paid by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including Executive Director Robert DiVincent, who is also the director of housing authorities in West New York and Weehawken.
One-strike eviction policy
When asked last week how Russo feels about the one-strike policy, in which HHA residents who are convicted of violent or drug-related crimes are evicted along with their families, Russo said that he was in favor of it.
"[Residents] who commit crimes and continue to use the Housing Authority as a base for those crimes don't deserve to live there, and will be removed as fast as possible," he said.
If Russo runs for mayor in 2009, he will have the next year and a half to build and improve upon relationships with potential voters outside his own ward.
Housing in three wards
There was a disagreement by some during the course of Monday's meeting over who should receive the appointment.
Certain members of the public called for Zimmer to be appointed, since that seat often (but not always) goes to the 4th Ward councilperson.
The HHA controls 1,353 units of subsidized housing. Only two HHA buildings are situated in Russo's 3rd Ward, and one senior facility is in the 5th Ward.
Last week, Zimmer responded to the fact that she has never attended an HHA meeting by saying that she was too busy due to her hectic campaign schedule over the past nine plus months.
Zimmer has lived in Hoboken for six years.
After the vote, Zimmer congratulated Russo on his appointment, but also expressed her concern over the Housing Authority possibly being used for political purposes.
She asked for Russo's commitment that that doesn't happen while he is a commissioner.
Russo gave Zimmer his word that it would not occur.
Another mayoral candidate
Although Zimmer has denied rumors that she is one of the reform movement's mayoral hopefuls in the 2009 election, the appointment, many believe, would have in turn strengthened her own position in the community.
If she does decide to run, she might be opposed by another reformer, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Elizabeth Mason, who is believed to be eyeing the mayor's office, though she denies it as well.
Mason voted in favor of Russo's appointment.
When asked last week why she endorsed the 3rd Ward councilman, Mason said, "[Russo] was qualified for the position and expressed an interest in doing that job." Mason added, "Dawn may be perfectly qualified in terms of her skills set. But it takes a lot of time as a new councilperson and to add another item on your agenda. I would find that very challenging."
In a letter in this edition of the Reporter, Zimmer complains that several council people and members of the public weren't told the matter would even be on the agenda, which flies in the face of an open process (see letters page).
In a phone interview last week, Chris Campos voiced his approval of the appointment, saying, "I'm delighted to see that someone who has demonstrated his commitment to the Housing Authority in the past is succeeding me." Campos added that he was "very much concerned that someone who has no idea of the process and lacks the experience might have been appointed." Public weighs in on Zimmer, Russo
Several members of the public spoke out before the vote, supporting the two front-runners for the post.
Hoboken resident Marianne Camporeale said, "With all due respect to Ms. Zimmer, I cannot believe she is at all qualified to be a commissioner at Hoboken Housing. Michael Russo is clearly the most qualified choice."
Camporeale, who resides at Fox Hills Gardens, an HHA senior facility in the 5th Ward, added, "Just last spring, he organized a group to join him in cleaning the common areas at Columbus Gardens. He has emphasized public safety and pressed for speed bumps. He was very instrumental in getting stadium lights in the ballfield for the children downtown. His presence in Harrison and Jackson Gardens shows his commitment to all residents."
In contrast, 4th Ward resident Forde Prigot, a supporter of Zimmer who assisted in her campaign, offered the council an alternative view.
"A great deal of the Housing Authority exists in the 4th Ward, and a large number of [HHA] residents are Dawn Zimmer supporters," he said. "[Zimmer] has spent a lot of time in the Housing Authority. I know a lot of those people voted for her because they wanted to see change in the Housing Authority and they wanted Dawn to bring it to them."
Former School Board President Michael Lenz, who lives in the 4th Ward, questioned whether the allocation of housing units was being distributed fairly to people waiting for them.
At the end of the meeting, HHA Commissioner Perry Belfiore responded to Lenz, informing the council that the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) monitors the waiting list religiously and that no one is altering the lists.
Belfiore added that the Authority has recently undergone a five-month Inspector General federal audit, from which they emerged with no problems.
Though the seat in question is always appointed by the council, the individual who takes that seat does not have to be a councilperson, according to Corporation Counsel Steven Kleinman.
Of the remaining six seats on the HHA board, four others are appointed by the council, one by the mayor, and one by the governor.
Lenz vs. Russo
One of the most riveting exchanges of the night came when Lenz, who is a Zimmer ally, asked Russo a series of questions that appeared to be an attempt to cast doubt onto the appropriateness of his appointment. This eventually escalated into a heated argument between the two.
"I'd like to ask the question as to why a single councilman is living in subsidized housing who is a business owner [and] a property owner," Lenz said. Russo lives in Church Towers, a government-mandated affordable housing building where his father also lives. The building does not get government subsidies, but when it was built in 1965, its developers got a special low government mortgage to keep rents within a certain affordable range. The rents are geared toward middle-income tenants. The renters in the building do not pay regular property taxes to the town, and neither does the building.
Lenz said, "I would like to know why an individual, who is a stable individual, is taking a subsidized unit when there are many people on waiting lists or [there are] many questions about how the waiting lists are allocated," said Lenz.
Lenz added, "I think it sends the wrong message and I call upon Michael Russo to decline this appointment under these circumstances."
In response to Lenz, Russo said that his "salary this year was less than $35,000."
Russo added that he did indeed qualify for the apartment, which has a lower than market rent geared for middle-income families and individuals.
Russo added that he still pays a monthly "over the limit" fee, which is required when people no longer qualify for the rent break.
During the meeting, Russo incorrectly said that he owned 1 percent of a property in Belmar, when in actuality he currently owns 1 percent of a family-owned property in Hoboken. He corrected that in a phone conversation later in the week. When asked about the piece of property in Belmar, Russo said that he owned part of a family house along with his mother and brother, adding that neither property represents a source of income for him.
However, he also owns property on Grand Street, out of which he operates a physical therapy office.
Russo said he is in the process of selling the Grand Street property, and will continue working on a much smaller scale at another location.
Russo's said his reason for selling is "because I am committed to this city, because I now choose to have my city council position as my full-time position."
Michael Mullins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.