The board that oversees Hoboken’s public housing voted at a meeting on Wednesday to retain a lawyer for $30,000 to look at the agency’s own financial practices, likely targeting $3.5 million awarded to contractors through no-bid contracts since 2010, some of whom recently made campaign donations to the agency’s paid director.
However, the director called the meeting illegal, as did the board’s lawyer and outside counsel.
The Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) Board of Commissioners, under the new chairmanship of Dana Wefer, voted on Wednesday to hire lawyer Joseph Manfredi of Joseph Manfredi & Associates.
Two weeks ago, Wefer pointed to $3.5 million in contracts awarded to companies outside the normal bidding process. The agency’s executive director, Carmelo Garcia, who has been at odds with the board, has said that the contracts were awarded in emergency situations and for other special situations.
“It is clear to me these past few weeks that your primary function is not to talk to the residents of the HHA, but advancing [Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s] political agenda.” – Carmelo Garcia
The issue is a small piece of a larger power struggle between Garcia and the Mayor Dawn Zimmer-supported board majority, which is led by Wefer. The agency overseeing the housing projects approves millions of dollars in contracts, and the buildings are a source of hundreds of votes for whichever candidates residents support.
Garcia, besides serving as director, was elected to the state Assembly this past November. This past March, three of the firms doing business with the HHA donated $3,600 to Garcia’s still-active election fund.
Way to get rid of Garcia?
The resolution, as well as the manner in which it was presented and passed, was called illegal and against the HHA’s policies by Garcia. A legal advertisement with Garcia’s name on it, paid for by Wefer, appeared on Friday in newspapers including The Hoboken Reporter, but Garcia says he never approved the notice.
Wefer presented an opposing legal opinion and the resolution to hire the attorney passed by a 5-2 vote.
Zimmer’s allies got control of the board in May when a new member was appointed to fill a vacancy. Before that, the board was 4-3 in favor of Garcia.
Should the board’s new lawyer find anything illegal or unethical, Garcia’s contract, which expires in September of next year, could be in jeopardy.
It is unclear if the donations are actually illegal. Municipal pay-to-play campaign donation laws do not apply to the federally funded HHA. A clause in the New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law that is cited in the HHA’s own policies states that “Public housing authority officers, employees or agents shall not solicit or accept gratuities, favors, or anything of monetary value from contractors, potential contractors, or parties to subcontracts...” But this appears to apply to gifts (or bribes) rather than campaign donations.
Wefer has expressed serious concerns about the donations and Garcia’s business savvy, leading residents and politicos alike to believe that she will attempt to remove Garcia as soon as possible.
“It is clear to me these past few weeks that your primary function is not to talk to the residents of the HHA, but advancing the mayor’s political agenda to try and target me and make me look bad,” said Garcia to Wefer during the meeting.
Zimmer and Wefer have in the past denied any vendetta against Garcia, who last year sued the mayor, her husband, and former housing board Chairman Jake Stuiver for harassment and civil rights abuses. The suit was dismissed, re-introduced with slightly different language, and awaits a final outcome.
Fiery meeting in City Hall
Though Wefer scored a victory against Garcia on paper Wednesday night, she was met with anger and repeated jeering by HHA residents who, despite a change of venue, turned out in large numbers to express their discontent with what they called a “disrespectful” attitude toward both themselves and Garcia.
Sources said that residents were actually bused to the meeting. The funding source for the buses was unclear, though Wefer said on Thursday that she was pleased the residents had made the trip across town.
Housing Authority meetings, which are held once a month, typically take place in the various common rooms of public housing buildings on the west side of town. Wednesday night’s meeting, which was called late last Friday ahead of the long Memorial Day Weekend by Wefer, was held at City Hall.
Wefer said on Thursday that issues with the Housing Authority’s audio system, including an insufficient number of microphones, caused the change in venue. But residents said they believed the change was intended to keep them from making the trip.
Wefer and Garcia clashed before and throughout the meeting, first with a back-and-forth over where Garcia would sit (he was relegated to the far end of the council chambers, where the city’s lawyer usually sits during council meetings).
Both Garcia and the board’s lawyer Charles Daglian said the resolution could legally be passed at the next regular HHA meeting, but would be illegal if passed on Wednesday. Daglian and Wefer, who provided a separate legal opinion in response, both invoked various New Jersey and federal statutes.
Generators still not addressed
Meanwhile, numerous speakers also expressed concerns about 14 emergency backup power generators that were delivered to the HHA last summer but still have not been installed. They have been sitting in a Hoboken parking lot since last summer. Some in attendance said they thought this special meeting was to discuss the generator situation.
Commissioner Robert Davis III, who is an HHA resident, admitted that he thought the special meeting was being held in order to resolve the generator issue.
None of the commissioners, neither those who are allied with Zimmer or those allied with Garcia, have explained publicly why the generators have not been installed yet, or made any public move to address the situation that has been going on since summer.
“I will sponsor a special meeting to address the generator situation,” said Commissioner David Mello.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org