All of the past year’s political battles were on display again at a marathon City Council meeting Wednesday night. Among the biggest issues was a plan to demote 12 police officers – a number that was reduced to nine by the end of the week.
The council is often split 5-4 on controversial votes right now, with the majority voting against the policies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Councilman Michael Russo, a sometime Zimmer critic, sported his yellow “Stop the Zimmer Police Layoffs” t-shirt. Demotions for 12 top officers in the Hoboken Police Department were scheduled to take effect the next day, and Zimmer confirmed her administration would carry out the demotion plan by issuing a press release around 10 p.m. while the meeting was in progress. (On Thursday evening, the mayor announced that another retirement had taken place, which limited the demotions to nine officers.)
“We have elections, elections have consequences.” – Councilman Ravinder Bhalla
“My guys gotta find out on a blog site that they’re getting demoted,” Drishti complained.
He said the demotions will “demoralize” the department. “Where’s the transparency in government?” he asked. “We tried to talk. We get spit in our face.”
Kenneth Ferrante, a PSOA negotiation team member and police officer, said he came to the meeting knowing the possibility that he was losing his position and being demoted the next day.
“Twelve of us are having our careers devastated,” Ferrante said.
The demotions were part of a plan which would avoid police layoffs in September, after a state audit earlier this year said the department was overstaffed. The audit has been called into question by the PSOA.
The good news for the police department is that the original layoff plan, which would have seen 18 officers lose their job, and 19 officers demoted, has been reduced to nine demotions, which will still save the city the $2.5 million annually, according to Zimmer.
“Particularly during these economic times, I’m very sensitive to how difficult layoffs and demotions can be for families, and I have worked incredibly hard to minimize that pain,” Zimmer said in the press release. “At the same time, residents are struggling with unacceptably high taxes that threaten to make our town unaffordable to them. That’s why I’m incredibly thankful to all the officers who made the very personal decisions to retire, which eliminated the need for layoffs and reduced the need for demotions.”
Ferrante believes the demotions are political, and said so in his comments to the council. Ferrante had organized 20 officers who campaigned for Councilman Tim Occhipinti against Zimmer’s ally Michael Lenz in the recent 4th Ward election. Occhipinti won.
“It sounds more like political retribution than efficiency,” Ferrante said.
“The demotions reflect the Division of Local Government Services audit which recommended that the superior officer structure be modified from one Chief, four Captains, 18 Lieutenants and 30 Sergeants to one Chief, three Captains, 12 Lieutenants and 26 Sergeants,” according to the city’s release.
“I recognize it’s difficult for officers and families,” Zimmer said on Thursday. “But from the beginning, I’ve been upfront and said for every retirement we’d have fewer demotions.”
The officers in the chamber were disappointed with the decision, but Drishti said, “We’ll go out and continue to do our job.”
New council prez on the way
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano proposed a resolution, not advertised on the agenda, to amend the way council business is done. It would ultimately allow the new council majority to select a new council president. The council makeup shifted to 5-4 against Zimmer after Occhpinti’s election.
Normally the council president is chosen each year in the beginning of July.
Sources say the majority hopes to choose Zimmer foe Councilwoman Beth Mason.
The council first had to vote to declare the resolution an “emergency,” which they did by a 5-4 vote. Then, the council voted 9-0 to amend the rules.
“[This is] an important resolution that the public should have been aware of in advance,” Councilman Peter Cunningham said. “If it is the will of the majority, I’ll support it, but I don’t see it as an emergency.”
“This is a change in the legislative body because there has been a change by the voters,” Councilman Nino Giacchi said. “It’s only appropriate.”
Councilman Ravinder Bhalla also supported the resolution. “We have elections; elections have consequences,” he said.
The council must next pass a vote of “no confidence” in Council President Carol Marsh and Vice President Bhalla. A new president could take over in January.
Support for an investigation by the A.G.
The issue of alleged voter fraud in the Nov. 2 special election in the 4th Ward returned to the council.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office has forwarded vote-by-mail ballots from the Occhipinti campaign to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Councilman Bhalla, who has served as legal counsel for the campaign of defeated Councilman Michael Lenz, proposed a resolution that would support the review by the Attorney General of allegations of election fraud.
“Why are we doing this?” asked Mason, who supported Occhipinti. “It’s already being investigated.”
Some residents took to the microphone to share their concerns about the allegations, and questioned the integrity of the election system.
Lane Bajardi, an Occhipinti supporter, said the resolution is “so condescending” and that it “does not have any business in front of this council.”
Nevetheless, the resolution passed by eight votes, with Bhalla abstaining after discussion took place pertaining to whether he has a conflict of interest.
Recreation fee repeal coming?
Councilman Tim Occhipinti proposed an ordinance to repeal the $25 registration fee for recreation programs in Hoboken. It passed on first reading.
Currently, each child participant pays $25 per sport in Hoboken, payable to the city.
The ordinance stated that the “majority of the council feels the fee created an undue burden on participants in a fiscally turbulent climate.”
The ordinance was seconded by Castellano, and passed by a 6-3 vote. The ordinance’s second reading, which will allow for public comment, is Dec. 12.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.