Thursday, that shift in the board's majority caused tempers to flare and accusations to fly.
Before Ramos was appointed the board, it was split down the middle: Three members, Jessica Andreula, the daughter of Councilwoman Roseanne Andreula, Angel Alicea, and Bill Noonan have been highly critical of the performance of the HHA's executive director E. Troy Washington. They have welcomed input from City Hall, the City Council and Mayor David Roberts.
The other faction, made up of Lynda Walker, Jean Rodriguez and Arlette Braxton, are currently Washington loyalists and have taken a adversarial stance toward the City Hall's political involvement in Housing Authority policy.
Now, with Ramos joining the board, there is a clear-cut majority. The new majority has wasted no time in taking action and making changes. The four Washington critics called a special meeting for Thursday night, but the three Washington supporters said that meeting was illegal.
When Thursday's meeting started, only four commissioners sat at the board table at Fox Hill Senior Building. Walker and Braxton were in the audience, but refused to participate because of their assertions that the meeting should have been canceled and was illegal. Washington, who serves both as the agency's executive director and Housing board's secretary, was not present for Thursday's meeting. In the days before the meeting, Washington, on the authority of Commissioners Rodriguez and Braxton, printed and posted flyers at all HHA buildings saying that the Thursday's meeting was canceled.
"It's not in my best interest to sit in on this meeting, because it is illegal," said Walker. "I'll just sit here and be a spectator."
Walker, Braxton, Rodriguez and Washington claim that the meeting was illegal because the board did not have legal representation when the meeting started. At the HHA's last meeting, the politically-connected law firm of Weiner, Lesniak was hired to represent them. One condition of the firm's hiring was that it had to get a letter from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which sets policy for and gives grants to the agency, saying that the firm had no conflict of interest in representing the HHA. This is because the firm represents other clients having city business. On June 17, HUD returned a letter saying that there was a conflict and until a waiver could be obtained, Weiner, Lesniak cannot serve as counsel. Obtaining a waiver is a process that, according to officials, could take several months.
The HHA has been embroiled in an almost three month legal battle over who would represent them. Washington has, from the beginning, ardently supported the law firm of Miller and Galdieri, which has represented them for more than three years. After the board voted 5-2 to hire Weiner, Lesniak, the firm of Miller and Galdieri has appealed to State Superior Court Judge Arthur D'Italia on the grounds that their original bid was actually lower than Weiner, Lesniak's. Judge D'Italia was scheduled to rule Friday just one day after the special meeting.
The anti-Washington faction said Thursday's meeting was absolutely legal and it was well within the authority of four of the commissioners to call and convene a meeting. The four commissioners supplied adequate written public notice of at least 48 hours, giving the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of the special meeting. The notice was mailed to two local papers, and was prominently posted in at least one public place reserved for such similar announcement. It was also delivered to all seven commissioners, signed by four and then delivered and kept on file at the Hoboken city clerk's office and the executive director's office.
Board reorganization and moving forward
The first item on the meeting agenda was board reorganization. Until Thursday, Rodriguez was the board's chair and Braxton was the vice-chair. The four members present, a voting majority, voted to make Noonan chair and Alicea vice-chair.
Then, with Noonan in charge of running the meeting, the board resolved the attorney issue, at least for the evening. The board called on Joseph Ranieri of Weiner, Lesniak to update the board. He informed the board that HUD has decided that the firm does have conflicts of interest and cannot serve as board attorney until it gets a wavier.
Noonan, the new chair, said that the board cannot wait around for Weiner, Lesniak to get a waiver. "It's in our best interest to move forward," he said.
Ramos then made a motion to hire the law firm of Hill, Wallack as interim council. The four members present accepted the motion. Then Ramos made a motion to re-bid the legal services contract. That motion also passed.
The board set dates for the next year's worth of meetings. The HHA is notorious for canceling meetings. At one point last year, the board went six months without convening once. The reasons for cancellations are that the board could not get enough commissioners to show up to make a quorum.
In fact, the HHA has not had a regularly scheduled meeting in over a year and a half. Every meeting that has been held in that time period has been called a "special meeting" and falls under different rules and guidelines.
"Since we've only had special meetings over the past year," said Noonan. "I think it is important that we set dates for the next year." The board them passed a motion to adopt a regular meeting schedule for the next year. Ramos pointed to a piece of legislation that he plans to introduce that would raise the amount the landlords will receive for Section 8 vouchers. But according to HHA rules he is only able to introduce the resolution during the "new business" portion of a regularly scheduled meeting.
Discussion then turned to the performance of Washington. "He is not best representing the will of this board," Ramos charged. "He works for us; we do not work for him. I find it troubling that he would speed more energy in canceling meetings than conducting the real business of the Housing Authority, things such as fixing the elevators, kitchens and bathrooms."
The criticism of Washington in the past was that he has not moved quickly enough to improve conditions in the projects. Supporters of Washington have complained that City Hall should not interfere in HHA business. Unlike some officials in town, Washington, who lives out of town, has resisted involvement in political elections in Hoboken.
Noonan added, "This board is acting legally and moving forward with its business. We will not be thwarted or stonewalled [by the executive director]."
Those comments caused Braxton, who was sitting in the audience, to stand up. "I have to say something," said Braxton.
"The public will have a chance to speak later in the meeting," replied Noonan.
"But I'm a commissioner," said Braxton.
"Then come up here and be one," shot back Ramos. Braxton then walked up the front of the room and for a moment, it looked as if she might join the meeting - but then she thought better of sitting down and giving validation to a meeting that she had said was illegal. So she just left the room.
After the meeting, Walker criticized the actions of the Thursday's four-member board. "They need to keep all their cronies and politics out of the Housing Authority," she said. "All they're interested in is getting rid of Troy Washington and taking over the Housing Authority. That's what this is about."
After the meeting, Ramos had harsh words for Washington.
"I'm embarrassed for him," said Ramos, who grew up in the same ward as the projects. "He's our employee - not the other way around. We need to be diligent and conduct the businesses of the Housing Authority. We need to be holding more meetings; not canceling them."