The long fight between Hoboken’s public housing board and its executive director could come to a head on Monday, Aug. 4 when the board votes on a resolution to terminate the contract of director Carmelo Garcia. The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.
The HHA board, made up of seven unpaid appointees (four of whom are allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer), has for some time been at odds with Garcia, who has ties to the old Democratic political machine in Hudson County. Last year, Garcia ran for State Assembly on the slate of State Sen. and Union City mayor Brian Stack, and he has served in the past as director of human services under Mayor David Roberts and aide to County Freeholder Anthony Romano.
Recently, the HHA hired a lawyer to investigate several no-bid contracts awarded by Garcia to contractors who later contributed to his campaign fund. However, the Zimmer-allied board members have had concerns about Garcia for some time, so it is not known why they decided to try to terminate him this coming week. As of Thursady, no copies of the resolutions on Monday’s agenda had been released to the public or the board’s commissioners
“This gamble…is going to backfire badly for them and for the taxpayers of Hoboken.” –Louis Zayas
“Instead of just recognizing their mistakes, their wrongdoing, and taking corrective action to stop what they were trying to accomplish,” Zayas said, Zimmer and her allies “have decided to now fire the whistleblower.”
He added, “I don’t know who is giving the mayor or the Hoboken Housing Authority legal advice, but this gamble that they have undertaken is going to backfire badly for them and for the taxpayers of Hoboken.”
Garcia filed a lawsuit last year against the Zimmer administration and HHA board, alleging they were involved in “ethnic cleansing” in Hoboken to remove ethnic minorities from power positions. However, Garcia’s suit had no concrete evidence of such a thing. It was dismissed with prejudice, and he re-filed it in January without the “ethnic cleansing” terminology.
To prove his case that the Zimmer administration was out to get him, Garcia had lunch with Mayor Zimmer’s husband, Stan Grossbard, last year, and tape-recorded it. The men discuss some HHA matters, but Grossbard did not make any direct threats or offer quid pro quos.
In a written statement, Mayor Zimmer said she was not directly involved in the HHA.
“The Hoboken Housing Authority is an independent board to which I as mayor have appointed only one member – Jeannie Rodriguez,” she wrote. “It is the board’s obligation to make decisions that it believes are in the best interests of the Hoboken Housing Authority and I will respect whatever decision they choose to make.”
In addition to potentially firing Garcia on Monday, the board will consider a resolution concerning a “Letter of Need” and appoint an acting executive director.
Garcia signed a five-year paid contract with the housing board in 2009. Under the oversight of the housing board and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), his administration manages the city’s 1,373 low-income public housing units on the west side of town.
According to HUD Public Affairs officer Adam Glantz, New Jersey law makes it clear that the executive director of a housing authority “may be relieved of his or her duties only after not less than 120 days’ notice.” As of press time, it is not known whether the resolution to terminate Garcia’s contract gives him several months to finish out his term.
Dana Wefer, who took over the board in May, has questioned $3.5 million in contracts that Garcia’s administration awarded since 2010 without following the normal bidding process. Three of the companies granted no-bid contracts gave $3,600 to Garcia’s state assembly election fund in March of this year.
Garcia says that the no-bid contracts were allowed under certain provisions, including emergency and special situations triggered by Hurricane Sandy. At the behest of Wefer, the Authority’s contracts have been examined in both an internal audit and a full procurement review by HUD.
The HUD review only began last week, but the audit is complete, and Wefer said it confirmed her belief that the procurements in question had not been secured in a legal manner.
Lawsuit likely in response
However, Garcia’s lawyer Zayas alleged that the housing board has not followed the legally required procedure in seeking Garcia’s termination. According to Zayas, Garcia was alerted that his firing would be considered at the Monday special meeting “without ample notice and without any specific basis for the decision to try to get him removed.”
Under a 1977 New Jersey Superior Court ruling, public employees are “entitled to reasonable notice of the intention of [a] board to consider personnel matters related to them.” These so-called “Rice notices” give employees a chance to request that their employment be discussed in public rather than at a closed session, which is exactly what Zayas said Garcia did last week.
Zayas said Garcia’s employment contract requires an even higher standard of notification than a simple Rice notice. According to Zayas, Garcia must be given 30 days notice and a written description detailing the Housing Authority’s reasons for seeking his termination.
Zayas added that not informing Garcia of the factual allegations against him is “unfair as a matter of due process that any five-year-old could understand” because it “gives him no opportunity to defend himself.”
Zayas repeatedly called Garcia a whistleblower and said his termination would be a “violation of his right to free speech to report allegations of corruption and wrongdoing.”
Second time around
This is not the first time a Zimmer-allied housing board has considered terminating Garcia’s contract. In March 2013, the board, then led by Jake Stuiver, heard a motion to fire Garcia after 120 days. At the time, Stuiver was in conflict with Garcia over retaining Charles Daglian as the Authority’s contracted counsel. Then, as now, the Zimmer allies on the board were unhappy with Garcia’s contractual right to exercise sole authority over the appointment of professionals like lawyers for the Authority. The board can reject candidates presented by Garcia but cannot name their own.
The March resolution to fire Garcia was ultimately tabled for 90 days and never reconsidered after the Zimmer-allied faction lost control of the board’s chairmanship that May.
With respect to the new attempt to terminate Garcia’s contract, Zayas said he was exploring all options, including filing a new lawsuit against the Housing Authority board and the city.
Housing projects lose extra police presence
The battle for control of the Hoboken Housing Authority may culminate on Monday if the Housing Board votes to fire Executive Director Carmelo Garcia, but whoever controls the agency when the smoke has cleared will have other significant issues to address.
Among them is the security situation in the housing projects. In March, Garcia moved to annul the Housing Authority’s $540,000 contract with the Hoboken Police Department, which allowed for extra security. The HHA board voted to allow Garcia to end the contract. Garcia said the Housing Authority could no longer afford to pay the Police Department after HUD changed its rules to prohibit its capital funding from being used for protective services.
Housing board chair Dana Wefer suggested last week that the budget pressure that necessitated the end of the police contract was a result of Executive Director Garcia’s business practices.
“If we took care of the procurement issues, maybe we’d have the money to pay the police,” she said.
Garcia and Wefer have since met with representatives from the Police Department and Zimmer administration to seek an alternate arrangement, but nothing has been agreed to yet.
Meanwhile, residents have complained of a lack of responsiveness from police to calls from the project buildings since the contract ended.
The Housing Authority has had shared service agreements with the Police Department for many years. In September 2010, it signed a new deal to add five additional police officers who would have otherwise been laid off due to a city budget shortfall. According to the June 17, 2014 table of organization, the Public Housing Direct Patrol Bureau was assigned three supervisors and seven patrol officers. When the contract subsided, said Chief Garcia, all of these personnel were reassigned to other divisions.
According to Zimmer spokesman Juan Melli, adjustments were made to the 2014 city budget prior to its final approval to account for the loss of funding from the Housing Authority. These included “decreases in anticipated revenue, increases in spending on the police budget, and attrition of some positions.”
Interim Police Chief Edelmiro Garcia said the Police Department had recently lost a number of officers due to retirement.
Wefer said she was assured by Chief Garcia that Hoboken police will still patrol the Authority grounds and buildings, offering the same baseline level of responsiveness that all Hoboken residents enjoy. Theoretically, the only activity that the Police Department would not engage in are the vertical sweeps of buildings explicitly provided for in the Housing Authority contract.
However, some residents report that Hoboken police are unwilling to respond to calls now that their contract with the Housing Authority has ended. Elizabeth Perez, who lives in Andrew Jackson Gardens, said large groups have begun loitering around the housing projects, gambling, smoking marijuana, and playing loud music.
She said she called the police at 3 a.m. on a recent Thursday, only to be told that “there was nothing they could do because [the loiterers] were residents.”
This past Sunday afternoon, Perez said, there was an altercation in the parking lot of Andrew Jackson Gardens in which one person “was pushing other people against cars.” Perez said the police responded after 30 minutes but never got out of their vehicles to halt the fight.
Chief Garcia said that his officers continue to respond to calls from the Housing Authority “just like we respond to any concerned citizen.” He said that after the HHA contract ended, he added additional patrols in the southwestern district of the city to ensure continued security in the area.
Director Garcia said a lack of responsiveness from the Police Department was a factor in his decision to end the contract with the city. In addition, he said building sweeps will still be provided by the eight officers who live in housing authority buildings and log hours patrolling the premises through a separate program. The Housing Authority, said Director Garcia, has “reached the point where we can have regular policing like the rest of the city.”
At a meeting between city and housing authority officials before the contract ended, Melli said Chief Garcia “suggested that the [Housing Authority] consider creating a neighborhood watch program” to cover the above baseline services once performed by the Housing Authority police bureau. The city has offered its help in achieving such an arrangement.