The biggest story in Hudson County this year was the massive FBI sting operation against government corruption. Many politicians who were running for office this past spring as well as their associates were snared when a government informant offered them cash for their campaigns, purportedly in exchange for help with his development.
But not everything fueling Hudson County’s fire was political. Union City got a new high school, combining their two high schools into one new building on Kennedy Boulevard. And Weehawken and Guttenberg both celebrated their 150th anniversaries. Weehawken held a number of interesting events to celebrate, including a ceremony honoring the township’s oldest families and residents.
Read on and refresh your memory of the biggest events in your town this year.
44 politicians arrested in FBI sting – Three years ago, a Monmouth County-based developer named Solomon Dwek was snared by federal officials for bank fraud. He became an informant and helped bring down dozens of religious and political leaders statewide.
This past spring, Dwek held meetings with various Hudson County politicians and their aides to offer money for their campaigns, allegedly in exchange for help with his developments.
On July 23, 44 people were arrested, 21 of those from Hudson County. The biggest fish were newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, and several assemblymen. Jersey City saw 11 officials and consultants arrested. While eight of those arrested have pleaded guilty, more are awaiting their plea dates, and others are being investigated.
Guttenberg public housing investigated – Early last year, this newspaper, along with Mayor Gerald Drasheff, the Town Council, and the Police Department, received a package outlining several complaints against the Guttenberg Housing Authority. The list of complaints included one allegation that the GHA Executive Director Barbara Criscione, Assistant Director Maryann Morro, and Housing Manager Fatima Becerril purchased a $770,000 Monmouth Beach, N.J. shore house together. While Criscione no longer lived in public housing, Morro was a resident of senior housing, while Becerril lived in public housing.
The GHA hired a “special auditor” to look into this complaint and others, but no results have been announced as of the end of this year. Under the current Housing and Urban Development qualifications for public housing, Becerril and Morro may not have met eligibility to be in subsidized housing.
Guttenberg’s 150th Anniversary – On March 9, Guttenberg celebrated its 150th Anniversary. The town began its celebration last March and it will extend into May of 2010.
The town held outdoor concerts and memorabilia exhibitions this year, and similar events are planned for next year.
Mayor Cammarano arrested; Zimmer elected – Dawn Zimmer, a relative political newcomer, was elected the first female mayor in Hoboken history in November of 2009. Zimmer had been narrowly defeated by Peter Cammarano in the regular June mayoral runoff election, but Cammarano was arrested on corruption charges the following month and resigned. Zimmer took over as acting mayor until she won a sweeping victory in the November special election.
Dawn Zimmer became Hoboken’s first female mayor and first Jewish mayor.
Zimmer is Hoboken’s first female mayor and first Jewish mayor.
Hospital’s future iffy – Hoboken University Medical Center just received $7 million in aid to keep it alive in 2010, but it still could use more.
Formerly St. Mary’s Hospital, the institution faced closure in 2005, but was propped up by a state bill that allowed Hoboken taxpayers to back $52 million in bonds to fund operations and improvements, like a new Emergency Department that opened in 2009. Unfortunately, hospital officials released reports in 2009 that showed the institution lost one third of its assets in 2008 and is currently running a deficit of $1 million per month. The hospital needs $10 million in state hospital stabilization funds to continue operating.
Healy reelected, candidates arrested – Mayor Jerramiah Healy was reelected in May for a second full term. Healy won handily in a five man race. In addition, but eight of the nine candidates running for City Council seats on Healy’s slate also prevailed.
However, his second term has so far not been a smooth one. Two of the council candidates who ran with Healy, Phil Kenny (who won) and Guy Catrillo (who lost), pleaded guilty as part of the July 23 arrests by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And Healy was also named in the arrest documents as “Public Official No. 4” and faces constant rumors of being under investigation.
And to try and plug a large deficit in the municipal budget, his administration plans to implement a two-day-a-month temporary layoff policy for city employees (police and fire exempted) over a six-month period.
Golf, concerts, and controversies at state park – It was a big year for concerts and controversies at Liberty State Park. The All Points West Music Festival was held on July 31 and Aug. 1-2, and the PGA Tournament the Barclays was held Aug. 25-30 at nearby Liberty National Golf Club.
All Points West brought out tens of thousands for a rainy, muddy weekend to see music superstars Jay-Z, Tool, and Coldplay. The Barclays was also packed with spectators who watched an exciting match with Tiger Woods finishing second to relative unknown Heath Slocum.
On a related note, the Park continued to be the focus of an ongoing battle over the construction and placement of the state’s proposed 9/11 memorial “Empty Sky.” An activist group recently lost a suit to stop its construction. They believed it would block views.
Development on the Palisades Cliffs – Almost as soon as construction began last December on a small parcel of land across from the Palisades Medical Center, so did attempts to stop the construction by local activists. Avak Properties and U&G Development proposed to build a Bank of America, Walgreens, and coffee shop on the site after part of the land was purchased from a North Bergen private auction in 2008.
While the project was approved by the North Bergen Planning Board, the County of Hudson Department of Parks, Engineering and Planning got involved. A document from the department said that building on the land could compromise the water and sewer system, along with J.F.K. Boulevard East, because it was considered 71 percent steep slope.
After a heated Hudson County Planning Board meeting on June 17, the project was granted an “extraordinary hardship” variance and allowed to continue. A group of people who felt that the decision was erroneous have formed the Coalition to Preserve the Palisades Cliffs and filed suit in Superior Court on Oct. 15 in an attempt to stop the project.
New mall brings commerce; jobs – Throughout the course of 2009, the bulk of stores at the mall developed by Vornado Realty Trust opened, bringing in thousands of jobs and retail opportunities. Some of the stores to open included B.J.’s Wholesale Club and Walmart.
While some members of the public criticized the project because of the extra traffic it would bring onto Tonnelle Avenue, North Bergen officials saw the project as a way to bring in ratable growth. They also believed many Bergen County shoppers would travel into North Bergen to spend their funds because of that county’s “Blue Laws,” which prohibit businesses from opening on Sundays.
Scandal-plagued Elwell resigns – In the wake of the FBI corruption sting, Mayor Dennis Elwell resigned from office in July – by fax – and abandoned his campaign for a fifth term. His arrest proved devastating to the rest of the local Democratic party and to the three Town Council candidates running on his slate: Dawn McAdam, Frank Trombetta, and John Reilly. A rival slate of Independent candidates, headed up by Elwell’s opponent, Councilman Michael Gonnelli, capitalized on the corruption scandal and made ethics a central issue in the campaign. The Independent ticket easily swept its Democratic challengers and next year Gonnelli and his allies – Rob Costantin, John Bueckner, William McKeever, and James Clancy – will hold a 6-1 majority on the council. Councilman John Shinnick will be the lone Democrat on the governing body.
Tax office investigated – In April, town officials announced that “accounting irregularities” had been uncovered in the Tax Collector’s Office. This discovery led to several overlapping investigations centered on longtime Tax Collector Alan Bartolozzi, both in his official capacity as tax collector and in his volunteer position as secretary/treasurer for the Secaucus Public Employees’ Association, a municipal workers’ union. Bartolozzi was charged in October with two counts of theft in the second degree for allegedly stealing more than $75,000 from the town. This came after he had already been charged with one count of theft in the third degree for allegedly stealing $4,150 from the union, and one count of drug possession in the third degree. Bartolozzi, who has been suspended without pay, faces up 20 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
New high school – After almost 100 years, Union City got a new high school. Aptly called “Union City High School,” it became home of the UC Soaring Eagles and brought students from Union Hill and Emerson High School into one large five-floor facility with a new rooftop stadium at a cost of $136 million to construct.
During the opening day gala event for the school, controversy ensued. Cucu Diamantes, a well known Cuban singer, was asked not to perform via a letter sent by the school board’s attorney because Diamantes had previously been involved in a “Paz sin Fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) concert in Havana, Cuba a few days earlier, and anti-Castro activists threatened a protest. Though the concert continued with other entertainers, the story was one of the most commented-on in Union City.
You only turn 150 once – Weehawken celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. Officially incorporated on March 15, 1859, the kick-off of celebrations at the Weehawken High School Auditorium included a reenactment of the first town meeting, complete with costumes of the period.
Guttenberg and Weehawken celebrated their 150th anniversaries.
West New York
Taxes, a recall, and belly-bumping – In West New York, a 27 percent tax increase led the township to ask for a state monitor to help oversee the township’s finances throughout the year.
The tax increase also led to citizen protests and a petition drive by Dr. Felix Roque, who wanted to recall Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega. Vega is up for reelection in May, but Roque is hoping to recall him earlier. In December, his attempts to force a recall election were thwarted when many signatures on a petition were determined to be invalid.
The tensions between both sides have led to some police involvement this year. In one case, resident and business owner Dr. Antonio Gines claimed that Commissioner Gerald Lange – an ally of Vega – came to his place of business and cornered him because he put up political signage on his vehicles. Video surveillance showed a confrontation. No one was arrested.