With a mayoral election two months away, this past Wednesday’s meeting of the Hoboken City Council can best be described as cantankerous. Barbs were thrown from all sides at Acting Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her four-member voting bloc.
Zimmer’s bike was even stolen from outside City Hall while the meeting was in session.
Councilwoman Beth Mason has been polling to decide whether to run against Zimmer in November, and council members (and cousins) Theresa Castellano and Michael Russo are said to be deciding between the two of them who may run.
Last week, Russo and Castellano challenged the sitting mayor at every turn. The council was dealing with an extensive agenda as well as two appointments to seats on the Housing Authority board.
Several times, the meeting devolved into bickering. Attempts were made to discredit the process the acting mayor was using to appoint members to the housing board and to hire a new “transitional lawyer” to replace the outgoing Corporation Counsel Steven Kleinman.
Voting Zimmer out of council seat
Late in the six-hour meeting, which ended around 1 a.m., Russo and Castellano made a motion to vote Zimmer in as an interim mayor rather than acting mayor, which would have caused her to vacate her 4th Ward seat. Since Zimmer took over last month for arrested mayor Peter Cammarano, she has legally assumed the role of mayor and still remained council president.
According to Kleinman, a vote to appoint her as an interim mayor would have had to have been made within the 30 day legal window of her assuming the role. But Kleinman said a judge could decide the legality should the council wish to take the vote anyway.
Zimmer responded by declining the nomination. The vote was never called, much to Russo’s chagrin.
Then, he complained that Zimmer was playing politics by continuing to occupy both the mayor’s seat and her 4th Ward council seat.
“I view it as a major conflict to set policy and then come down here and vote on it,” Russo said.
Zimmer responded, “The statute provides exactly for this situation.”
Russo seemed almost petulant at times, answering Zimmer’s requests for order with “Yes ma’am, yes ma’am” and laughing at her attempts to regain control of the meeting.
Russo did not run against Zimmer for mayor this past May, but he allied himself with Beth Mason who did. Zimmer, Russo, and Mason have accumulated a few supporters who are very vocal on internet messageboards and at meetings, throwing barbs at each other. These supporters’ personality conflicts with each other and quests for power have further pushed apart the divide in town politics. Generally, elections have pitted a newcomer against a born and raised resident, but new dynamics have been added with Hoboken’s new residents.
During the discussion, Russo shot at Zimmer, “You are no longer the reformer.”
Housing board appointments
The City Council filled one of two empty seats on the Hoboken Housing Authority board at the meeting, although they intended to fill both. The HHA is an unpaid seven-member board that oversees policy for the city’s federally subsidized housing projects. The projects are also seen as a big source of votes at election time.
Zimmer has made a point of requesting resumes for open positions in the city, both paid and unpaid. But issues with the new process hamstrung it.
After some arguing, Zimmer decided to fill one seat – vacated by Hector Claveria following his arrest on bribery charges – at this meeting. The other – vacated by the expiring term of Perry Belfiore – will be filled at the next meeting.
More than a dozen people have filed for the seats, including several who were involved in recent campaigns.
Council members were asked to fill in their nomination on a sheet of paper, although Russo and Castellano objected on principle to the process. Castellano tore up her paper and threw in on the dais.
Russo wrote on his, “This is not an open process,” which was read by City Clerk Jim Farina as he tallied the votes.
Mason nominated Eduardo Gonzalez; Councilman Nino Giacchi nominated Belfiore, who has said he wants his seat back; and the five-member majority all nominated Jake Stuiver, Mason’s former campaign manager who endorsed Zimmer during the runoff. Stuiver is also involved in volunteer work in the city.
After a vote for Belfiore failed, the council unanimously appointed Stuiver to the seat.
Despite the controversy, Zimmer still called it “the most open process Hoboken has ever used for a Housing Authority appointment.”
She said after the meeting, “We will continue to move that process forward to make it as transparent as possible.”
During the public portion, vocal critic Lane Bajardi, an ardent Mason supporter who has criticized Zimmer at recent meetings, said it was a “mad rush to make appointments before an election.”
Broader approach to parking
Zimmer introduced an ordinance at the meeting for first reading to expand the scope of the Hoboken Parking Utility. Years ago, the HPU was a separate agency called the Hoboken Parking Authority. After the election of Mayor David Roberts, his administration brought it under the City Hall umbrella and added some money from the HPU budget into the city budget.
Last week, Zimmer changed the HPU to call the new entity the Transportation and Parking Utility.
Zimmer said after the meeting it will “modernize the parking utility and ensure that we address parking, transportation, and pedestrian safety with an integrated approach.”
The new utility will have a new director. Zimmer hired Ian Sacs, a young transportation engineer who lives in Hoboken, to take over.
Before that, the HPU was run by John Corea, whom Roberts had hired as a manager rather than a director in order to avoid having to get council approval. Corea was hired at a low salary that later increased to six figures.
Zimmer has now moved Corea to the Department of Environmental Services and gave him an involuntary pay cut, reducing his salary $50,000. Corea said he was speaking to his lawyer about the legalities.
Sacs, who spoke at the meeting, had volunteered his services numerous times to the city in the past, helping to create traffic studies and transportation analyses. One insider from former Mayor Peter Cammarano’s administration said last week that Sacs was on the top of the embattled former mayor’s list for head of parking as well.
Russo charged that Zimmer was increasing the size of government at a time that the city could not afford to do so.
But Sacs’ salary matches what Corea was making, and the Department of Environmental Services has been without a deputy for over a year. Sacs will earn $103,500 per year. Corea was earning $114,000.
“I view it as a major conflict to set policy and then come down here and vote on it.” – Michael Russo
Castellano was offended that the council wasn’t given a copy of Sacs’ resume before the meeting, although Zimmer claimed that it was e-mailed that day.
“You’re probably very well qualified, but we don’t know that,” Castellano said.
Corea said at the meeting that Zimmer was trying to “force” the move and salary reduction on him.
Crosstown bus back, Sinatra meters leaving, and…
Several other important issues came up at the meeting:
● After a long discussion about whether the city could afford to pay another lawyer, Zimmer hired a “transitional” attorney for the city while Kleinman attends to his wedding and leaves toward the end of the year. Zimmer said that she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the applicants who submitted resumes for the job, and if she is elected in November, she will revisit the position of corporation counsel. In the meantime, Edward Buzak, of the Buzak Law Group in Montville, N.J., will serve the city along with other special counsels who remain on the payroll.
● Outgoing Director of Health and Human Services Terry LaBruno said the crosstown bus should be back in action mid-September. Sacs said it is one of the first things he’s been working on. The bus service had been canceled due to budget issues.
● The council voted to introduce the removal of the parking meters on Sinatra Drive north of Fifth Street, an initiative that state financial monitor Judy Tripodi had championed. The meters were just installed this year to help increase revenue, but one city source said Friday that the location on Sinatra Drive, although not controversial, was not practical and the meters weren’t being used much. Sacs said he considered it a trial run since the city had the meters on hand and didn’t spend money to purchase them. He called the original move a “non-data-based assumption” that didn’t pan out. The council will have to take a final vote on the matter at a future meeting.
● Probably one of the last legislative remnants of Cammarano’s administration passed on its final reading last week. The measure reduces the value of gifts that officials and employees of the city can receive from $400 to $25. Given Cammarano’s arrest for allegedly negotiating bribes, some observers called the ordinance “ironic.” Kleinman said at the meeting the old law was “not in compliance anywhere near state law.”
● An ordinance for final reading dealing with salaries of the mayor, council, and directors was revised in light of the recent situation with Cammarano receiving pay for 12 vacation days he had not yet accrued. Zimmer said the city will be sending a letter to Cammarano to ask that he return the money. The ordinance will be introduced again for first reading when it is revised, although Russo asked that it go to committee first.
● An ordinance dealing with zoning for dog day cares was also tabled due to legal concerns.
● After asking for his resignation from the North Hudson Sewerage Authority, the council received a letter from Michael Schaffer’s lawyer declining the request. Schaffer was arrested for allegedly taking bribes on behalf of Cammarano’s campaign. The council met in closed session to discuss the matter, but didn’t take any public action.
● The council passed a resolution opposing a state Senate bill that they see as a move to grant NJ Transit the authority statewide to build without regard to local land use laws and local government approval. The bill has only one sponsor in Senate and has not even had a hearing in committee yet. NJ Transit is considering a massive development downtown near their train station.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com.