The fact that the 4th Ward special election in November is the only race this year isn’t the only reason it’s of intense interest to the people of Hoboken. The result of the election will determine whether Mayor Dawn Zimmer will continue to have a 5-4 council majority allied with her.
And whoever emerges victorious after Nov. 2 will not have much time to relax, as he’ll be defending the seat in seven short months in a May election.
Both candidates believe the 4th Ward often remains forgotten.
Lenz and Occhipinti both agree that the main issues of the 4th Ward include flooding, taxes, concerns about development, quality of life, public safety, and a lack of parks and open space.
Although the assumption is that an Occhipinti victory will tilt the majority against Zimmer, he says he will view everything independently, suggesting that as a swing vote he could be the most powerful member on the council.
“I am not an obstructionist,” Occhipinti said. “I will support good ideas, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. I will not support bad ideas. However, you can take a bad idea and make it better through communication and dialogue.”
Occhipinti said the way to fix the problems of the 4th Ward is to “work cohesively to accomplish what the goals are.”
Lenz believes fiscal responsibility will lead to a better city and a better 4th Ward.
“We have enough money for everything we need,” Lenz said. “But we don’t have any to waste. We have to start spending more carefully…The key is efficiency. We have to do things smarter and better.”
The forgotten ward
Both candidates believe the 4th Ward often remains forgotten. The ward is the home to the Hoboken Housing Authority and chronic flooding problems.
“We need to make sure that the services [the council and city] do provide are provided fairly to the ward,” Lenz said. “The 4th Ward has been forgotten a lot.”
Occhipinti cites a lack of open space as a specific example of how the ward is neglected.
“I find it disconcerting that the mayor, who represented this ward, made the top priority, when it came to redevelopment, the western edge, which affected the 3rd and 5th wards before the 4th Ward,” Occhipinti said. “Again, the 4th Ward was put on a backburner.”
Lenz has previously served as the city’s Interim Chief Financial Officer in 2002, a campaign manager for David Roberts in 2001, and Board of Education president.
“I’ve been involved for a very long time,” Lenz said. “I know the issues. I haven’t always been right, but I’ve been right a lot more often than I’ve been wrong. I’ve taken the time to learn the business of government.”
Occhipinti sees his corporate job as an advantage that will allow him to better serve his constituents. Occhipinti said he has a “passion for government, service, and volunteering.”
“I enjoy listening to people and helping solve problems,” Occhipinti said. “I have been working in the private sector for 10 years. I was brought up with a good sense of morals and integrity, and I will be using those principles to guide me. I also bring project management experience and communication skills from my profession.”
Occhipinti works for a large asset management company in Information Technology.
Occhipinti questioned Lenz’s commitment to the people because of Lenz’s job with the county.
“I work in the private sector,” Occhipinti said. “I’m not on the public payroll. I get my benefits from my corporate job. I’m indebted to no one but my constituents, not the county.”
Lenz has recently offered a “clean election pledge” for candidates to sign which, “seeks to make the 4th Ward election in November a model of transparency and respect for the voters,” according to Lenz’s campaign website.
“One of the reasons I’m qualified to serve for council is because I’m committed to running a clean campaign,” Lenz said. “People behind [Occhipinti] have never done anything of that sort, and won’t commit to do so now. I challenged him to sign the pledge.”
Occhipinti said he will not get into a press release battle with Lenz, and will not sign Lenz’s pledge.
“I think it is campaign silliness not worthy of a response,” Occhipinti said of the pledge. “Let’s talk about the issues.”
State of the city
The point of view regarding the current operating status of the city may be the sharpest difference between the two candidates. Lenz sees the city as improving, while Occhipinti sees a sharp decline in the quality of Hoboken’s government.
“It’s not excellent, but it’s getting better everyday,” Lenz said of the state of the city. “The city is, in hundreds of ways, large and small, getting better everyday. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re doing it quickly.”
Occhipinti sees the wheels of government moving backward.
“The city is at a crossroads,” Occhipinti said. “Over the last year, we have seen the process fail. [An example is] the fact that we’re now in a tremendous lawsuit over the municipal garage that we created…Laying off police officers is putting our public safety at risk. I will not put our public safety at risk.”
Lenz voted against a non-binding resolution urging Zimmer to abandon her police layoff plan, but has said that more officers should be on the street.
Zimmer has said the layoff plan will not result in fewer police officers on the street and made an announcement on Friday to that effect in the wake of an agreement with the Housing Authority to hire five officers who were headed for unemployment.
Occhipinti said he would have supported Councilwoman Beth Mason’s resolution in opposition of the layoffs.
“Public safety is paramount to a ward with high crime,” Occhipinti said.
“I think I’m making a difference in a positive way, and there’s a lot more to be done,” Lenz said.
The election, in a city where politics is taken very seriously and played for keeps, will inevitably be seen as a referendum on the state of the city and on Mayor Zimmer and her council allies’ stewardship of municipal affairs. Right now the mayor has a one vote majority on the governing body with Lenz on the council.
On Nov. 2, that may or may not change.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.