Because catcalls and heckling had drowned out public speakers two weeks ago, Acting Mayor Dawn Zimmer started out last week’s City Council meeting by demanding respect and decorum.
But when another politically-charged appointment to the Housing Authority came up for a vote, control of the meeting started to slip away. Like a teacher losing control of her students, Zimmer told the room to sit quietly.
“Moment of silence, moment of silence for all of us,” she said. Afterwards, some members of the public thought the idea was funny, but others called it appropriate, since the people of Hoboken have sought some semblance of government stability after last year’s budget debacle and state takeover of finances.
Instead, the city has endured two hotly-contested elections and complete upheaval over the summer when the last mayor, Peter Cammarano, was led away in handcuffs in July on corruption charges.
Now Zimmer has become acting mayor while still serving as council president. Although several city attorneys say it is legal for her to hold both positions at once – the election for a mayor is Nov. 3 – her opponents are making every attempt to force her to give up her council seat.
And they are using her dual positions as a campaign issue when they run against her in November.
The fix wasn’t in
A major issue at the meeting Wednesday night was the council’s vote to fill another seat at the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) Board, an unpaid group of seven volunteers who help the federal government oversee the city’s low-income housing projects.
At least 10 people applied for the seat, some of whom are tenants in the projects, others of whom are long-time political figures.
At the previous meeting two weeks ago, the council voted to appoint Jake Stuiver, a community volunteer and Councilwoman Beth Mason’s former mayoral campaign advisor, to an open seat on the HHA. But one seat remained open.
Board member Perry Belfiore has been filling the seat on holdover status, after his term expired, and hoped to keep the seat. But Zimmer’s allies on the City Council had other ideas.
Eduardo Gonzalez, a young asset management consultant at Deutsche Bank, received nominations from four councilpeople – Beth Mason, Peter Cunningham, Ravi Bhalla, and David Mello. The last three are frequent Zimmer allies. Zimmer herself joined them to make a majority, even though she and Councilwoman Carol Marsh had nominated Lynda Walker, a former HHA commissioner.
Walker’s daughter spoke in support of her at the meeting, firing shots at outgoing commissioner Perry Belfiore and alleging various misdeeds on Belfiore’s part. Belfiore’s sister responded to the criticism from the back of the room and was escorted from the council chambers. (At the previous meeting, residents had shouted accusations about Walker as well.)
Unsuccessfully seeking reappointment to the board, Belfiore – supported by council members Nino Giacchi and Theresa Castellano – called the personal attacks “scurrilous,” and listed highlights from his years of service.
He also told the council he is president of a new non-profit corporation, Hoboken Housing Corporation, and intends to partner with the HHA to create moderate-income housing to provide an opportunity for residents to exit low-income housing.
Another candidate for the board seat, Rev. Anthony Forbes, who was nominated by Councilman Michael Russo, is also involved in the non-profit venture.
When the seat came to a vote, several members of the council thanked Belfiore for his service, but said they foresaw a conflict of interest if he or Forbes sat on the board and also controlled the non-profit.
Gonzalez, a 33-year-old of Cuban descent, said he has learned about the needs of the public housing residents from his father, the long-time CFO of the Union City Housing Authority. Gonzalez was also one of the architects of former Mayor Peter Cammarano’s campaign platform.
Since a five-member majority had voted in lockstep for Jake Stuiver at the last meeting, many residents thought appointment of Zimmer-ally Michael Lenz was a forgone conclusion.
Lenz said two weeks ago that he would prefer a seat on the Municipal Hospital Authority Board overseeing operations at Hoboken University Medical Center.
Council critic Lane Bajardi said during the meeting that he believed Walker was a foregone conclusion, but he admitted later in the meeting he was wrong after calling the selection process a “farce” and assuming “the deal has already been done.”
Another seat on the HHA board becomes available in May.
No more acting
After failing to force Zimmer to vacate her 4th Ward council seat two weeks ago, Russo and Castellano took another swing at it on Wednesday.
They sponsored a resolution appointing Zimmer mayor, essentially removing “acting” from her title and, according to the law, forcing her to vacate her ward council seat, despite the fact that city lawyers Joseph Pojanowski and Edward Buzak agreed that the council missed the 30-day period in which the council could make Zimmer a permanent mayor.
Russo, Castellano, Mason, and Giacchi all vocally oppose what they are calling “dual office-holding” by Zimmer, but Buzak pointed out in an interview that the letter of the state law only prohibits dual office-holding for elected positions. Zimmer became mayor after Cammarano was arrested, and she was never elected. The lawyers have said that the state law allows for this scenario to provide continuity of government in an emergency situation.
Zimmer doesn’t collect a salary for her position as council president, only as mayor, for which she has taken a voluntary 10 percent reduction.
Resident Scott Siegel blamed ex-Mayor Cammarano for the situation Zimmer finds herself in, calling the council’s attempts to remove her “sophomoric.”
Nonetheless, Castellano and Russo said they had been deprived of the opportunity to vote on the measure at the last meeting because Zimmer declined their nomination, which city attorney Steven Kleinman agreed was well within her right.
At that meeting, they were also beyond the 30-day window, although Kleinman was willing to allow it.
“That ship has sailed,” Pojanowski told the council on Wednesday. “Move onto business the council does have jurisdiction over.”
Other (less contentious) appointments
Zimmer and the council filled six seats on the Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board, including outspoken rent-control advocate Cheryl Fallick. Other appointees to the board include newcomers Laura Burkhart and Michael Chong, and re-appointees Michael Mastropasqua, Mark Critides, and Lutricia Alexander.
They also filled a vacant seat on the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, appointing Robert Phillips to the three-member board. The board votes on liquor license suspensions, transfers, and penalties.
Russo, historically a “budget hawk,” has been pressing the administration to introduce the city’s 2009-2010 municipal budget.
At the last meeting, Finance Director Nick Trasente had stopped short of promising an introduced budget for this meeting. No budget was ready for introduction and Russo couldn’t get Zimmer to give him a target date for the spending document.
Zimmer said she is negotiating six union collective bargaining contracts for the city and that the bottom line for the budget will depend on the outcome of those talks. Russo pressed her for any estimate of the total budget number, but Zimmer held her ground.
Russo said afterwards that he was astounded that he couldn’t even get a range of what the total budget cost might be.
“Stifled and stymied again,” he lamented.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.