The Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) Board of Commissioners—the volunteer commission that oversees the city’s low-income public housing—voted Monday night to terminate its contract with the agency’s paid executive director, Carmelo Garcia. The 5-2 vote was taken during a charged and contentious special meeting at City Hall.
Several people were ejected from the meeting, both supporters of Garcia and his critics who support Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
The board voted to terminate Garcia but pay him $56,000 for the four months’ of notice they were supposed to give him. They also voted to install the agency’s consultant Richard Fox as acting director.
If the firing holds up, it will mark the culmination of a multi-year conflict between Garcia, who is also an assemblyman, and the housing board, a majority of which are allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
In a statement, Zimmer denied any involvement in the move to fire Garcia, saying that “the decisions of the board reflect the independent judgment of each board member.” She noted that her only appointee to the board, Jean Rodriguez, voted against Garcia’s termination.
Various facets of the termination process and the meeting itself were challenged by attendees as being illegal under New Jersey state law, federal law, and the Constitution. Garcia’s personal lawyer, Louis Zayas, who was not present at the meeting, has vowed to challenge his client’s termination in court.
$56K payout cushions kick to the curb
Garcia’s contract, a copy of which was provided to the Hoboken Reporter, outlines four ways in which it can be terminated: by mutual agreement; by Garcia if the HHA breaches his contract; by the authority for cause with a written notice detailing charges 30 days in advance; and by the HHA unilaterally “upon not less than 120 days notice.”
The resolution passed on Monday cites the 120 day provision as its justification to fire Garcia “for reasons other than for cause.” It instructs the Housing Authority CFO Emil Kotherithara to cut Garcia a check for his next 120 days of salary—approximately $56,000 based on his pay grade schedule.
On Wednesday evening, HHA Chairwoman Dana Wefer said Kotherithara was out of the office and had not prepared the check yet. According to her, this has not prevented a “smooth transition” to Richard Fox’s acting directorship. As of Wednesday, she said, Garcia was no longer serving as director and Fox held a meeting with the full HHA staff to pinpoint emergent issues in need of immediate action.
All over but the shouting
Although the resolution terminating Garcia’s contract did not cite a specific cause for his firing, Wefer questioned the validity of his contract under state law during Monday’s meeting.
In the New Jersey statutes governing public housing authorities, she said, five-year contracts for public housing executive directors can only be awarded to those who have five prior years of experience as a executive director or served as one as of April 2005. When Garcia was granted a five-year contract in 2010, he had served as acting executive director of the HHA for less than two years. As such, Wefer called the contract “unlawful on its face."
Garcia contested this assertion, stating that his contract had been approved by the state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner, and would not have lasted so long had it been so manifestly illegal.
But the legality of Garcia’s contract was not the real reason Wefer decided to seek Garcia’s termination. Since taking over as board chair in May, Wefer has closely scrutinized Garcia’s business practices, alleging that Garcia granted $3.5 million in no-bid contracts for work on HHA buildings 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.
“They don’t even consider downtown part of Hoboken”—Joe McDonald
Another key point of contention has been Garcia’s sole contractual power to appoint professionals, including lawyers, for the Authority. In May, the board appointed a special counsel to investigate the Authority’s procurement practices without going out to bid. Wefer argued that the move was justified because allowing Garcia to pick the lawyer investigating himself would create a conflict of interest.
After the special counsel’s procurement was deemed unjustified by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Wefer cancelled the contract. At the last regular meeting on July 10, the board created a committee to review procurements and sought bids for a new special investigator.
Wefer said it was only after that meeting, when Garcia’s office produced a request for bids for the special counsel that did not reflect the board’s intentions, that she decided she had no choice but to seek his termination.
Garcia’s supporters question this timeline, arguing that Garcia’s elimination was a foregone conclusion once purported Zimmer allies gained control of the board. “The actions of the chairwoman, who is a “reformer” or “Zimmer supporter,” has demonstrated she has a political vendetta and a political agenda to fulfill,” said Barbara Reyes, president of the HHA Resident Advisory Board. Wefer, James Sanford, and David Denning were appointed to the housing board this year by a City Council controlled by Zimmer allies. With a majority of those considered Zimmer allies on the board secured, Wefer was elected chair in May.
Commissioner Judith Burrell, a former resident of the Housing Authority, endured jeers from Garcia supporters calling her a traitor after voting for Garcia’s termination. Burrell’s rationale for voting against Garcia was succinct. “We needed a change,” she said, saying that for every person at the meeting who was for Garcia, there was another Hobokenite not in attendance who was against him.
Tenants speak out against board
Unlike regular housing board meetings, which are held in the community rooms of HHA buildings, the special board meeting on Monday was held in the council chambers at City Hall. The HHA Resident Advisory Board organized a march from 221 Jackson St. to City Hall in support of Garcia.
At least 250 residents of the housing projects marched up Third Street to City Hall, carrying signs and shouting slogans such as “we can, we will, watch us,” and “this is our home.” Upon arriving at City Hall, the residents, along with a smattering of Housing Authority officials, press, and other attendees, easily filled the council chambers to capacity, leaving scores of disappointed public housing residents and others outside in the foyer.
After the meeting began, members of the public began chanting loudly in favor of allowing those left outside to enter, chanting “Let them in” and “It’s not fair.”
Hoboken Police Chief Edelmiro Garcia warned that the meeting might have to be closed due to public safety. Subsequently, a man in a white polo shirt was ejected by police after, according to sources, he taunted, then put his cellphone in the face of, Garcia’s wife. The man is a Zimmer supporter who frequently makes posts against Zimmer’s critics on the internet.
Soon after the incident, the meeting went into recess and the council chambers were evacuated.
Ninety minutes after its scheduled start, the meeting began again and was successfully completed, though members of the public continued to chant and yell, sometimes for minutes at a time. An elderly woman who supported Garcia was asked to leave by police after yelling repeatedly at the dais.
Existential fears abound
Many residents interviewed by the Reporter expressed a belief that Mayor Zimmer’s ultimate goal was not to remove Director Garcia but to remove the housing projects altogether.
“This is our home,” said HHA resident Rosalind Delacruz. “This is where we have stability. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“The fear of the residents is that today it will be our executive director, tomorrow it’s going to be the maintenance department, and further along it’s going to be the residents of the Housing Authority,” said Reyes.
Reyes did not rule out the possibility that removing the housing projects was Zimmer’s ultimate goal.
“You have to keep in mind, Hoboken is only a square mile,” she said, “so how much affordable housing do you really need to have under state statute?”
None of those quoted could point to a specific policy or statement by Zimmer that indicated her ultimate plans, although one person cited Vision 20/20, which is a public housing redevelopment proposed by Garcia. They said their opinion was inferred from Zimmer’s lack of concern for the housing projects.
“They don’t even consider downtown part of Hoboken, even though it’s the center of town,” said resident Joe McDonald.
On Wednesday, Wefer said she had no intention of ending public housing in Hoboken. “I am a liberal Democrat who believes in social safety nets and social programs,” she said.
Lawsuits appear likely
At the beginning of the meeting, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, a one-time ally and now antagonist of Zimmer, made a point of order challenging the meeting as in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) because the public was not fully present and the meeting’s agenda had not been fully announced.
The OPMA states that “all meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public at all times.” Anyone can challenge a meeting in violation of the OPMA within 45 days and potentially get its decisions nullified.
Garcia objected to the resolution for his termination, stating that he had never received a “Rice notice” informing him that his employment would be discussed at Monday’s meeting. 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.
Wefer alleged that she sent a Rice notice to the HHA offices on July 24. According to a certified mail return receipt provided to the Reporter, the Rice notice was signed for by an HHA employee on July 25. However, a written statement from Garcia requested in the Rice notice was never returned. Garcia maintained that he never saw the notice, but elected during the meeting to have the discussion of his contract in public session.
Garcia also requested that the meeting be postponed until his personal representation Louis Zayas could be present. Garcia said Zayas was on a family vacation, and a receptionist at his office later confirmed that he would be out of the office until Aug. 10.
Last week, Zayas said, “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.”
Zimmer’s administration has already settled two cases with employees they terminated, and has to pay $1 million to a third, although they are appealing. (See story, page 3.)
Garcia sued Zimmer’s administration last year, saying that they discriminated against him and were on a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the city. The suit was dismissed for lack of evidence, but he was allowed to re-submit an altered version. He refilled the suit in January with the “ethnic cleansing” language removed.
Garcia was one of the few people of Puerto Rican heritage remaining in a power position in the city.
Board consultant steps in
The housing board appointed Richard Fox, its management and operations consultant, to serve as acting executive director. According to Wefer, Fox has 35 years of experience in public housing, and previously served as the executive director of agencies in Atlantic City and Stamford, Conn.
At a meeting next week, said Wefer, the HHA board will consider a resolution to hire Robert DiVincent to replace Fox after two weeks and run the agency until a dedicated full-time director can be found. DiVincent currently serves as the executive director of the West New York and Weehawken Housing Authorities, and he served as the interim director of the HHA briefly before Garcia, then his deputy director, took over in 2009.
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.