The job of corporation counsel is one of the city's most important. The city's head lawyer is saddled with the task of reviewing city policy and ordinances and advising the mayor and City Council on the legality of issues and policy. A mistake can cause months or years of litigation, while prudent and effective advice can save the taxpayers money that could be used for city services.
While only 31, the city's full-time attorney, Esther Suarez, believes she brings the energy and authority to make those difficult and intricate legal decisions.
"Coming into this job I really have two goals," said Suarez in a recent interview. "My immediate goal is to provide sound and professional legal advice to the mayor, the City Council, and the city's directors. My long term goal is to help create preventive measures to make sure the city is a safe as it can be from being sued, [with] things such as harassment training for city employees and the fire and police departments."
Suarez was born and raised in Bayonne. After graduating from high school, she went on to college at Rutgers University and stayed there to obtain a law degree.
After graduating, she became a legal assistant for Congressman Jose Serrano of the South Bronx in 1997. While there, she advised the congressman on communications issues and policies relating directly to communication technologies. "That job was really a valuable experience," she said. "It gave me a lot of exposure to how government works and how a community interacts with its representative."
From there she move back to New Jersey to become a clerk for Middlesex County Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone.
After her clerkship ended, Suarez moved on to the law firm of Scarinci & Hollenbeck, whose founding partner is Donald Scarinci. Scarinci is a powerful political player in Hudson County and a close friend of U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.).
Scarinci & Hollenbeck's clientele is made up mostly of municipalities and county governments. While at the firm, she concentrated on labor and municipal law and mostly worked in Union City.
"The issues I dealt with were issues related to personnel and the day-to-day employment policies of the city," she said. "It was a great fit for me and it was there that I realized how much I enjoyed working at the municipal level."
Suarez first burst onto the Hoboken scene in September of 2000 when she was the lead attorney for a very publicized lawsuit dealing with longevity payments. Suarez was not the city's attorney at the time, and was hired to represent a local taxpayer. The case resulted in city employees having to return well over a $100,000 in longevity payments, which went directly back into the city's coffers. Some of those who had to return money were the city's former corporation counsel, business administrator and mayor.
"Because of that case, I believe I gained the professional respect of some here in Hoboken and developed a professional relationship with [David Roberts], who was a councilman at the time."
So impressed was David Roberts with her performance in that case she made the short list for the job of corporation counsel when Roberts was elected mayor in May. Suarez was hired by the city with the full approval of the City Council on July 1.
Lives in Hoboken
Suarez has lived in Hoboken for almost two years now and makes a flat salary of $70,000 a year. She is a full-time employee who is not associated with any firm.
"The benefit of not being attached to a firm is that the city no longer needs to be billed by the hour when it comes to legal advice, which will save the city a substantial amount of money in the next year," she said. "Also, I represent the city and only the city, so my interests are clear and I'm able to focus on the city."
Sources inside City Hall have said that they believe that there will be over $400,000 in legal savings in the upcoming fiscal year.
Since starting, Suarez's biggest victory occurred when she defended the rights of two of the mayor's handpicked appointees to the Hoboken Parking Authority. In a last minute move, former Mayor Anthony Russo appointed two of his own selections to the board. After Suarez argued that Mayor Roberts should get to make those appointments, a state judge overturned Russo's appointments, clearing the way for Mayor Roberts' selections.
Suarez describes her typical day as being a busy but efficient. "I have an open-door policy," she said. "I meet on a daily basis with the mayor and City Council members to advise them on any legal issues and how they relate to the city. I also spend a good potion of my time drafting the city's ordinances and some of its resolutions."
While she is young, Suarez believe her youth brings a certain vitality that the job may have lacked before.
"The advantage of being young is that I'm more open to learn, as opposed to someone who is tired of learning," she said. "That's the thing about the law. There's always something new to learn, and I enjoy my job and am excited about going in every day and doing the best possible job for the city."