When the president of the Hoboken City Council, Peter Cunningham, crossed the proverbial aisle last month and voted with opponents of Mayor Dawn Zimmer to pass an amendment to the city’s 2013 budget, he made it known that he was doing it in protest, but said afterwards that it was in the city’s best interest.
Cunningham may not have realized it at the time, but after a recent court decision all but guaranteed that the council would remain one member short until January 2014, he may have been previewing the type of compromise that his colleagues will need to engage in if the council is to progress in the next five months.
The nine-member City Council has been without a ninth member since the fall, leaving the body divided with four members allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer and four opposed.
Last Friday, the appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled that Jim Doyle, the man Zimmer chose to fill a vacated seat on the City Council last fall, could not legally join the council because Zimmer’s tie-breaking vote to put him on the council was invalid. The ruling was the culmination of a nearly eight-month lawsuit brought by Zimmer’s opponents on the council – 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, and 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano – to block Zimmer from seating Doyle.
“We’ve got to keep in mind that we’re advocating for the common good.” -- Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla
But in interviews last week, Mason, Russo, and Occhipinti rejected the term “deadlocked” used by Zimmer’s allies, arguing that the council has simply been forced into a situation where compromise is the only way forward. The sides are divided on what constitutes compromise, and although nearly all involved said they’re willing to follow Cunningham’s lead, Wednesday night’s City Council meeting proved to be more of the same – relatively minor resolutions passed unanimously, but little progress was seen on hot button issues.
Mason and her allies celebrated last week following the appellate division’s decision, denying right off the bat any effort to deadlock the council for their own political purposes.
“We warned the mayor that we would not stand for any attempt to manipulate the process of filling Carol Marsh’s vacancy,” they said in a statement. “Rather than working with us to allow the people to choose who should fill the Marsh vacancy, the mayor shamefully rammed through an appointment of a political crony, and then wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on defending the indefensible.”
The group had argued extensively throughout the process for a special election to fill Marsh’s seat, but Zimmer said last week that an election would have cost just as much, if not more, than the litigation, and that regardless, the election was not an option, due to a stipulation in the city’s council vacancy ordinance.
“The appellate division ruled that it’s legal to obstruct an appointment, and [that decision] will leave the City Council deadlocked for 15 months,” she said. “While the court said it’s legally permissible, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do for the city.”
Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, an ally of Zimmer and an attorney by trade, said he thought the appellate division’s ruling was misguided because rather than analyzing city and state vacancy ordinances, it referred only to “Robert’s Rules of Order,” a 1876 legal statute which the city employs to guide its legislative proceedings.
“I don’t agree with the ruling in structure or in substance,” he said in an interview. “They were successful in gaming the system toward a result that I don’t think our city’s legislation planned for.”
Russo disagreed and said that he thought the court ruling forced the council into a situation where they would be forced to compromise, a situation he said the mayor isn’t used to “because now she can’t have everything she wants.”
“When the mayor had a majority on the council, there were no efforts to listen to any opposing views,” he said. “Having to deal with an eight member council will be a check and balance that this administration sorely needs.”
Since the appellate division’s ruling, both sides have scrambled to advocate compromise in the face of stagnancy, and many council members pointed to the budget’s recent adoption as proof that such agreements are possible.
But the actions don’t seem to agree with the rhetoric. Members on both sides of the issue described backroom dealings, failed promises, and misrepresentations as commonplace in the council’s day-to-day operations, despite almost every member’s insistences that they’re willing to work together.
“I’ve always made that phone call to the other side,” said Council Vice President Jen Giattino, who is the chair of the council’s Finance Committee and spearheaded the recent budget negotiations. “I’ve been told people would vote one way and then show up in to the meeting and vote another way and that people were satisfied with something we’d discussed and then brought up disagreements in public. You can’t compromise when people act like that.”
But Occhipinti, whom Giattino accused of such flip-flopping at a meeting in May, said that Zimmer and her allies only seek compromise when they need it most.
“The mayor does a very good job of playing the victim and the bully at the same time,” he said. “I always want to compromise, but it’s not compromise if it’s a last resort.”
Mason echoed Occhipinti’s comments, denying the mayor’s accusation that the Doyle lawsuit was meant to intentionally derail Hoboken’s progress.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. My position has always been simple; I will support the mayor when she is right and oppose her when she is wrong,” she said. “The political bosses in City Hall may not like it, but my loyalty has, and always will, belong to the people, not to them.”
Important issues ahead
The adoption of the $104 million budget, despite coming six months into the year, bodes well for the council’s progress going forward. Several issues remain unresolved, however, such as the city’s contract with its municipal workers, the council’s approval of several development projects that could result in an increase of open space, and the filling of several vacancies on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.
Russo said that he was confident in the council going forward, and again downplayed the mayor’s statements that the council is deadlocked.
“The bottom line is that I vote for good legislation, and I don’t vote for bad legislation,” he said. “And I think most other council members do as well. I’d say we pass about 98 percent of the things that are put on an agenda, but the mayor can’t expect a rubber stamp vote from us the way she can from [her allies.]”
Bhalla, who often comes across in meetings as a voice of reason amidst the high-strung emotions of his colleagues, said he wasn’t optimistic about finding board appointees who a majority of the council could agree on, but that in general, a lack of confidence is not an excuse for not trying.
“We’ve got to keep in mind that we’re advocating for the common good, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to work together and compromise on some things,” he said.
Like his colleagues, Bhalla pointed to Cunningham’s willingness to vote with his opponents on the budget amendment as an act worth imitating.
“The budget he supported wasn’t the budget he agreed with,” said Bhalla. “But you can’t always let perfection be the enemy of good.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org