Also at the council meeting, the governing body introduced new legislation that would require the city to keep its website up-to-date and correspond with residents via e-mail, and approved a $540,000 contract with the Hoboken Housing Authority to provide security in the projects.
State ups pressure
The state's Department of Community Affairs has ordered the Hoboken City Council to hold a special meeting to approve budget transfers and $1.94 million in emergency appropriations in order to avoid illegally overspending its approved budget of approximately $60 million.
Originally included in the proposed emergency appropriation was $50,000 to pay for lawyers to defend the city against a suit filed by former Chief Financial Officer Michael Lenz, but that money was removed because, according to city Business Administrator Robert Drasheff, the cost of the suit will be covered by the city's general liability insurance.
Emergency appropriations are permitted under the New Jersey Local Budget Law after the budget has been adopted, to provide for emergencies that were not foreseen at the time of the budget adoption. If an emergency appropriation is approved, a short-term bond, which is to be paid back by the end of the next fiscal year, is obtained.
This is the second letter in the span of two weeks from the state. The first urged the council to approve the measure for more health insurance. At a special meeting held May 26 the City Council voted it down. The measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass and it only got five votes on the nine-member elected board.
The four-member council minority, who are normally critics of the administration, spoke out vocally about the proposed increase in spending. They said that none of them voted for this budget in the first place, and that they shouldn't be held accountable for the spending habits of the administration.
They also questioned how this could be an "emergency," since the same items, particularly group health insurance, had been grossly underbudgeted the past several years. The second letter from the state reiterated that it's the DCA's position that the council should approve the emergency appropriations and transfers, and officially ordered the council hold a meeting for the purpose of taking action. The letter squarely put the responsibility on the shoulders of the dissenting council minority.
"In failing and refusing to take appropriate action in this regard, council members have evaded their responsibilities as public officials and threatened the fiscal integrity of the municipality," read the letter. The state added that New Jersey Law allows the City Council the legal power to make budgetary changes when situations arise that are "unexpected or beyond the control" of elected officials. "Not exercising those powers discredits the municipalities, causes additional fiscal hardship, and jeopardizes the public safety of the residents," read the letter.
Mayor David Roberts has called a special meeting for Wednesday, June 9 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Will this second letter put enough pressure on the council majority to vote despite their reservations? Will the administration be able to prove its case before Wednesday to the point that one member of the minority will change their vote? With so much uncertainty, it should make for interesting political theater.
Electronic ordinance introduced
As promised, the Hoboken City Council has re-introduced an ordinance to require access to public documents through the city's website and e-mail. A local citizen's group called the People For Open Government (POG) had written, developed and introduced an "Electronic Access Ordinance" in November 2003, but the proposed legislation has been lingering in committee for months.
POG believes that there has been a remarkable advance in the use of information technology in the private sector and that Hoboken government should be equally user-friendly. In early May of this year, POG pushed the City Council to bring back the ordinance for discussion and a vote. After several subsequent discussions with council members, they were assured that the resolution would be brought before the council. The proposed legislation would require all public information and documents commonly requested by the public to be posted in a timely fashion on the city's website (www.hobokennj.org), which will be required to be kept up to date.
Also, city employees will be required to accept information submitted by e-mail and will be required to respond via e-mail if so requested. If the measure does pass, the city will have 60 days to implement the ordinance.
A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for the next City Council meeting on June 16 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. The public will be able to comment on the issue, and the council could make a final vote.
Officials from POG hope that the Electronic Access Ordinance will be a stepping stone to wider-reaching legislation that adds to additional transparency in government. The group has submitted to the council three so-called "Pay-to-pay" ordinances which call for campaign finance reform.
"Our members have been willing to meet with the council president and the city attorney to move this legislation along," said Ann Graham, the chairperson of POG. "We wish at very least get it in front of the City Council for discussion."
Drasheff said Friday morning that the council's ad hoc subcommittee and the city's attorney, who was on vacation all last week, has not yet reviewed the ordinances proposed by POG.
Police contract with HHA approved
The Hoboken Housing Authority has agreed to a one-year contract with the Hoboken Police Department to provide security at the Authority. The Hoboken Housing Authority oversees the city's approximately 1,300 federally subsidized units of low-income housing, primarily located in the southwest part of the city.
In the past, the HHA employed a private security firm, which was supplemented by some police patrols, but their contract was voided in March after it was learned that the company had significantly overspent.
According to a report from the HHA acting executive director Robert DiVincent, the firm has been paid 60 percent more than budgeted, which totals around $900,000 in overexpenditures. Since the firm was let go, the HPD has been protecting the HHA on a month-to-month basis. The new $540,000 one-year contract will provide for an officer who will patrol the grounds and perform vertical patrols in the HHA's buildings. The contract will be retroactive to March, the date the HPD first took over security. The police presence in the projects will be based out of a satellite precinct located in a Housing Authority building near the corner of Third and Harrison streets.
Councilman Christopher Campos said at Wednesday night's City Council meeting, "The [HPD] will do a much better job and will effectively address the security needs of the Housing Authority."