Saying that something had to be done to correct the error that led to the sale of a portion of MOTBY to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $50 million, Councilman Ted Connolly sided with councilmen Anthony Chiappone and Gary La Pelusa to authorize the legal department to draft an ordinance dissolving the BLRA.
Voting against the move were Council President Vincent Lo Re and Councilman John Halecky, both of whom are sitting members of the BLRA.
"I'm not saying anybody did anything illegal," Connolly said. "But it certainly looks like it."
Jay Coffey, who serves as the BLRA counsel as well as the director of the city's Law Department, said the matter would have to be reviewed by the state's Local Finance Board to make certain the city has the resources to absorb the BLRA's debt. The BLRA currently owes more than $48 million.
Ironically, Mayor Joseph Doria, who has been a strong supporter of the BLRA in the past, is leaving for a post as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the Local Finance Board.
The action was prompted by the BLRA pushing through the sale of more than 150 acres of MOTBY land to the Port Authority in mid-September over strong objections of residents, union workers and others.
La Pelusa was particularly angered by the BLRA because he had hoped to get a hearing on a proposed container port for the site, and said BLRA members had told him no current negotiations for the sale of that land were underway.
"I was misled," he said. "While I was under the impression that the BLRA would allow a hearing on the container port, the BLRA was in secret negotiations to sell the land."
The conception of secrecy was made worse when BLRA Chairman Howard Fitch blasted a local daily newspaper for breaking the story before the vote, outraging several councilmen who said the public should have had more input into the decision.
Because the BLRA is an autonomous agency, it is not directly answerable to the mayor or the City Council and is free to bond or make deals without a City Council vote.
While BLRA Executive Director Nancy Kist has been the focus of some criticism, under state law, she cannot inform the mayor or City Council of BLRA activities without the permission of the BLRA members.
The structure of independent boards like the BLRA always includes a representative from the City Council, who, theoretically, is supposed to keep the general council informed.
But apparently in this case, neither Halecky nor Lo Re did so, leaving the other council members in the dark to the pending deal with the Port Authority.
The council, however, has no power to take back or override actions made by autonomous bodies such as the BLRA, said Coffey.
Even dissolving the BLRA - which will take 60 days or more - cannot block the sale of the land to the Port Authority.
Chiappone has written to Gov. Jon Corzine requesting that the governor, as the New Jersey head of the Port Authority, veto the sale. Several members of the International Longshoremen Association have made a similar request of New York Governor Elliot Spitzer.
"Since the BLRA meeting, I have been getting calls from residents who are outraged by the sale," Chiappone said.
Part of a larger conflict
The sale of land is part of much broader conflict that was fought out partly in the 2006 mayor election.
Under Doria, the BLRA has been seeking to develop the MOTBY to include office buildings, residential development, retail business establishments as well as open space, modeled in some ways after Battery Park City in New York or the Exchange Place area in Jersey City.
Proponents of this development theme see the MOTBY as becoming the next Hoboken, a Mecca for young professionals that will help transform the city into a more modern, urban area. Through the sale of land and increase in taxes coming in, the BLRA hopes to cure some of the city's economic woes, filling an annual gap in revenues.
Although the BLRA has retained a maritime district onsite, they have excluded any use as a container port, claiming such operations would not fit in with the luxury development planned for other parts of the MOTBY.
Critics of the BLRA vary, some claiming that luxury housing has a limited place in an otherwise working class town. People like Leonard Kantor believe the MOTBY should be geared toward retail and business, not residential properties.
"What we need are jobs, not residential units no one in Bayonne can afford to buy," he said.
Proponents of using a portion of the MOTBY for a container port claim a modern facility can coexist side by side with the proposed housing and do much to generate jobs and additional taxes.
The BLRA deal virtually kills any use of the maritime district as a container port since the contract includes a restriction against it.
La Pelusa was angered also by the fact that the BLRA continued to fine tune the contract even after council members raised their objections as to get around any restrictions that the council might enforce in regards to the payments instead of taxes.
The BLRA and Port Authority came to an agreement that if the council voted against accepting payments instead of taxes, the Port Authority would give the BLRA payments directly. The BLRA also modified the contract so that the Port Authority would make payments instead of taxes beyond the original 20-year limit first proposed.
Kist, who negotiated the deal with the Port Authority, received a lot of criticism for her role, but may have allowed the city to ease away from financial ruin since the $50 million from the Port Authority balances the fiscal year budgets for 2007 and 2008.
Because a delay in finalizing deals for the residential tracts on MOTBY, the city budget for last year was short $23 million. This year, the city would have been faced with another $25 million gap. The sale of the maritime district could allow the city to take austerity measures, such as lay offs to cut the budget for FY 2009 and to avoid a similar shortfall.