City Council bumped up
Recap of 12/3/2007 Council Meeting:
It was the most heated and emotionally charged council meeting since Chris Campos left his seat in June. Councilperson-on-councilperson arguments, public-on-councilperson skirmishes, and lots of debate about who should represent the council on the Hoboken Housing Authority board, what constitutes a conflict of interest, and whether the appointment of an outside investigator is needed to look into what is happening in the Police Department. Plus, moving forward on development of the NJ Transit rail yards, more discussion of the big wet kiss Toll Brothers got to help pay for the waterfront walkway at Maxwell Place, and Mayor David Roberts wants you to pay more for a taxi ride.
Read on for the exclusive Hoboken411 recap:
Big Bucks for Toll Brothers
The good news is there will be more waterfront walkway improvements at Maxwell Place. The bad news is instead of developer Toll Brothers paying for it, you as a federal taxpayer are picking up most of the tab. As 411 has reported before, Toll was required to provide public access to the riverfront as part of the approvals for the massive project. Like many large development companies, Toll gives money to politicians. One of those politicians is U.S. Senator Bob Menendez. When Menendez was still in Congress he inserted an $8.4 million “earmark” to pay for much of Toll’s share of the walkway.
Jim Doyle spoke up during public comment on the resolutions to award a contract for $11.5 million to Trevcon Construction of Liberty Corner to build the walkway. He asked if Toll was picking up the additional $3 million over and above the federal grant was being picked up Toll or city taxpayers. The answer was Toll would pick up the additional cost. Doyle noted how parks and good government activists have cried foul about the federal grant, saying since Toll has been “killing ‘em in Hoboken” they should use some of this windfall to fund some other parks projects in Hoboken.
Fifth ward Councilman Peter Cunningham asked Corporation Counsel Steve Kleinman about administration progress in getting givebacks from Toll, and his response was “you can’t force Toll to give you more money.” Sixth ward Councilman Nino Giacchi said there needs to be a strategy created to go to Toll and convince them to give back. Council President Theresa Castellano said the parks and recreation committee was working on it. Second ward Councilwoman Beth Mason asked to be involved in any committee meetings that involve discussions of Maxwell Place, which is in her ward. Castellano said Mason could have her seat in the Parks Committee meeting, since more than four council members in a committee meeting would need to be publicly noticed as an official meeting of a quorum of the council, and the council president is a member of every committee.
The two resolutions related to funding the project and awarding the contract, as well as a third “authorizing additional temporary emergency appropriations until such time a formal budget is adopted” passed 6-3 with Mason, Cunningham, and Fourth ward Councilwoman Dawn Zimmer voting no each time.
Parking Permit Increase Withdrawn
Resolution 8 was Mayor David Roberts’ effort to raise the resident parking permit fee form $15 to $20 a year. This keeps getting bumped while the budget remains in flux. An ordinance raising the fees at city parking garages was also tabled.
NJ Transit Redevelopment Debate
City Director of Community Development Fred Bado asked the council to approve a $155,000 contract for FXFOWLE Architects and Planners to prepare a redevelopment plan for NJ Transit’s Hoboken Terminal and Yard. NJ Transit is rumored to want to build several high rise buildings, and has hired LCOR to redevelop the property. Bado stressed that NJ Transit was looking to work with Hoboken on the project, allowing the council and public to be involved. Still, residents are weary about Mayor David Roberts’ statements that seem to be in line with NJ Transit’s vision for a high-rise Hoboken.
Bado was also asked about the various concepts that the Mayor and some members of the council have referred to over the years which have not been made public. Bado said they were “just concepts” and not what has been or will be decided. Zimmer asked Bado what density the master plan calls for in the terminal area. He danced around the issue a bit, saying there was no specific information, however Hoboken411 checked the document and found this paragraph titled “Avoid overdevelopment” regarding the terminal area on Page 148:
The emphasis is on historic preservation, economic development and pedestrians. Urban renewal-style ideas such as massive buildings or rail yard development are not supported. Such development would add to traffic congestion without compensating for improvements to the city’s quality of life.
“How are we going to move?”
Zimmer also asked if this could be coordinated with the Southwest Redevelopment area, noting between the Municipal Garage, NJ Transit, Southwest and other development southern Hoboken is going to be a giant construction zone. Zimmer asked “How are we going to move?” Bado downplayed that, saying it won’t be a massive amount of development at once. Zimmer also said moving ahead on allowing NJ Transit to move forward with the redevelopment plan would cause the city to lose leverage in getting cash out of transit for storm sewer and trunk line improvements to alleviate flooding. Bado also denied that was the case, saying Transit will move to fix contribute to the cause once they are allowed to move ahead with development, regardless of previous pledges of $10-20 million. Bado said there is “no leverage for the city without this process.”
Giacchi said he wants the $175,000 from NJ Transit up front in a trust fund to pay for the planner. Bado said Transit wanted to pay at the end of the process and he at least negotiated to get the bills paid on a monthly basis through reimbursement. Cunningham suggested the planner just send the bills to Transit. Mason asked who on the council had seen concepts offered by Transit and nobody owned up to it, although Councilmen-at-Large Peter Cammarano and Ruben Ramos had made statements in the past that has lead people to believe that had seen them. Bado did not deny that he had seen concepts, but also did not share them with the council or public.
Terry vs. Terry
Mason also asked if Transit could refuse to pay for the planner if the city starts doing something they don’t like. Mason moved to table the resolution, Zimmer seconded the motion, and it was supported by Cunningham, Giacchi, and Castellano, who represents the First Ward where the rail yard is located. Cammarano abstained because his law firm has NJ Transit as a client. Russo, Ramos, and Terry LaBruno voted against tabling the motion. When the motion passed LaBruno started shouting “We are the inactive Council! We do nothing!” Castellano banged her gavel in an attempt to halt LaBruno’s outburst. Quite a scene.
Municipal Garage Vote Withdrawn
Mayor Roberts has included a $4 million one-shot revenue item in his budget from the sale of the Municipal Garage. In order to get that cash and avoid an even bigger tax increase he needs to get it sold quickly, so he had a resolution to sell it on the agenda. Minutes before the meeting it was decided the council did not have enough information to vote on the sale to one of two bidders who participated in an RFP process.
Also, the administration did not run the proposals by the Observer Highway Redevelopment Advisory Committee before the council was asked to take action, which was out of order. The sale will come up again a week from Thursday. Despite what you may have read or heard elsewhere, this had nothing to do with the Mayor’s number of votes on the item, and it wasn’t pulled off the agenda until just before the meeting. The council is still expected to vote to sell the garage before the end of the month.
Hoboken Housing Authority Appointment
The City Council has the right to appoint a representative to the Hoboken Housing Authority board of directors to replace former councilman Chris Campos. Though this position has recently been held by the fourth ward councilperson, there is nothing in the law that states it must be the fourth ward councilperson. Turns out it doesn’t even have to be a councilperson. Some even say it shouldn’t be a councilperson because the goals of the council and HHA board can at times be at odds, and that being on both boards gives a person too much power. Others say only gluttons for punishment should put their names in consideration for the HHA board.
Third ward councilman Michael Russo was the first to ask his fellow council members for their support for the position, and the first to have a resolution with his name on it placed on a council agenda. There was no competing resolution offered to nominate Dawn Zimmer to the position, but the debate quickly became who was more suited to the job, Russo vs. Zimmer.
Public on Russo vs. Zimmer
Fox Hill Gardens senior citizen Marianne Camporeale was the first person to speak on the resolution, and used the same nasty tone against Zimmer that she did during her letters to the editor in support of Chris Campos, saying “I can’t believe Zimmer is qualified to be on the HHA board.” HHA Commissioner Perry Belfiore said the first meeting a prospective commissioner attends should not be the one they are sworn in at. Zimmer admitted she had been quite busy and has yet to attend an HHA board meeting. Belfiore also mentioned he didn’t recall longtime fourth ward council members Louis and Mary Francone ever serving on the HHA board.
Lenz and Russo get into it
Former acting City CFO Michael Lenz countered with an attack on Russo, asking why a “single councilman living in subsidized housing” (Church Towers, which is not run by HHA) was being considered for the position, while others are on waiting lists for affordable housing. Lenz said Russo owns a business and multiple properties, and called on him to “decline the appointment.”
Russo said he is selling his business, and has been devoting all his time to city business. He said he will make “less than $35,000 this year”, but will still pay an additional stipend like he did when he was making more. Russo said he only owned one percent of his family’s beach house in Belmar, and was selling his other properties, including a commercial condo that housed his physical therapy practice. He then challenged Lenz to outline his finances, including a question about whether Lenz’s wife had taken a job with Hudson County as part of Lenz’s recent association with the HCDO. Lenz denied that charge and Russo later apologized for bringing her into the discussion. Lenz insisted it sends the “wrong message” to appoint Russo. Others rose to support both Zimmer and Russo.
The Council Weighs In
Cunningham said he was surprised the appointment came up, and suggested there could have been a “more transparent process” to find a candidate who was “thoroughly vetted.” Zimmer said she has not been to HHA meetings, but will be there regardless of who is appointed to the board. She then charged that people told her they could not support her in the election, because they had already made a deal to get a better apartment in exchange for support from Chris Campos. This outraged Ramos, who said he was tired of hearing those charges, and if Zimmer is serious about them then she should take her case to the Attorney General or stop saying it.
LaBruno then noted that it has not, as some has not been “automatic” that the fourth ward councilperson be on the HHA board. She noted from 1993-95 second ward councilman Richard DelBoccio was on the HHA board. With no other names entered into nomination, the council voted 7-2 to appoint Russo, with Cunningham and Zimmer voting no.
First Reading on New Ordinances
The Salary Ordinance was tabled and sent to the Budget and Finance committee, with Mason asking why some employees were being paid more than the maximums the ordinance allows. The council did vote on first reading to approve ordinances updating the taxi, limo, and livery rules, including a proposed increase in the taxi fare from $4 to $5 (is that on Cammarano’s website?) Public hearings and final votes may be held on December 19th.
Stop Sign/Traffic Light Camera Update
During new business, Mason brought up some old business, noting Ramos had sent a letter asking about the who-what-why-when of how the city apparently purchased stop sign cameras before the council approved the ordinance that would allow the use of the cameras. Ramos said he did not hear back, and both Ramos and Mason asked for an answer as to why the money was expended before the council took action. In theory, no money can be spent without council authorization.
Business Administrator Dick England said the bill had not been paid, so the money has not been spent, but he also admitted the cameras were ordered, but not delivered. That means the city may be on the hook for them either way. Mason noted the ordinance the council passed may not even be legal in New Jersey, and said she was wanted to be sure the city did not “adjust” the length of yellow lights to shorten them to entrap more drivers. She said this sort of thing has been done in Bethesda, Maryland, and other places as a dishonest means to get more ticket revenue.
Mason on Conflicts, HPD Investigation
Mason also started what ended up being a very heated exchange about the way the city council handled the appointment of Bill Bergin to the post of Public Safety Director and has handled the investigation of issues in the Police Department. The second ward councilwoman started off her speech by noting she had attended a seminar on local government ethics last weekend, and that what she learned there caused her to call for the “rescission and re-examination” of the appointment of Bergin by unanimous vote of the council. She said “My concern is to preserve and insure the integrity of the selection process and maintain the public’s integrity in the process and prevent potential future claims that this council’s selection was somehow tainted by those voting on this appointment.”
Citing state and municipal law, as well as case law, Mason tried to convince her fellow council members that Councilwomen LaBruno, and Castellano as well as Councilman Russo should not have participated in the vote, and have therefore placed the vote in jeopardy of being used to throw out any actions or investigations made by Bergin in court should those charged with wrongdoing sue. Bergin oversees the Police and Fire Departments.
LaBruno’s husband is a Battalion Chief in the HFD and her brother-in-law is the Police Chief. Castellano’s husband and Russo’s brother are in the HPD.
Mason said the law states they should not vote on the appointment because of the appearance of a conflict of interest, and the fact that they did vote may put the city in jeopardy of losing a case against those found to have done something wrong in the HPD. Mason asked for the Bergin appointment to be rescinded, and a selection process launched that includes an “individual independent of Hoboken.”
Kleinman Attacks Mason
Corporation Counsel Steve Kleinman is not a voting, policy-making member of the city council. That doesn’t stop him from openly criticizing council members, even though that is not his role. Instead of offering a legal opinion of the three laws Mason cited in her argument, Kleinman called her resolution “out of order” and referred to it as “a stunt”, adding “It’s unfortunate Mrs. Mason has chosen to make this a political issue instead of a legal one.” Kleinman also questioned whether the council “could rescind advice and consent” on an appointment, but Russo said the council could terminate a director with six votes. Kleinman said he didn’t know (and he is the guy hired to give the city legal advice.) Peter Cunningham seconded the motion.
LaBruno on the warpath
LaBruno then attacked Mason, saying “I was so disgusted by your insinuation that the people of Hoboken can’t do internal investigations. Our DNA has been questioned.” LaBruno noted she had questions about Bergin, because he “had problems with my brother in law.” LaBruno also said she once went six years without talking to the Police Chief. She also said she asked Kleinman before she voted on Bergin’s appointment if she had a conflict, and he said she didn’t. Russo then said he thought this was “ridiculous”, but asked the attorney nevertheless to go to a court to get a declarative judgment on the issue to settle it.
No outside investigation now
Mason also offered the resolution that asking the U.S. Attorney to appoint a retired judge from outside Hudson County to investigate the HPD (seen here on Hoboken411.) Zimmer also noted she wanted someone from the “outside” to make sure the names of those officers cleared of wrongdoing are “totally cleared” an that no one will question their innocence after the fact. Mason’s resolution to reconsider the Bergin appointment on the conflict issues failed 6-3, and the motion to call for an outside investigation failed to get a second and was not voted on. It may be reconsidered after the city and county prosecutor’s investigations are complete sometime after January 15th.
LaBruno wants Public Portion moved
LaBruno then made a motion to move the “public portion” of the meeting to the beginning instead of the end. After brief debate and no public comment the motion passed, and the new public portion will begin at 7pm at the next regularly schedule council meeting. No word yet on whether there will still be a “public portion” at the end of the meeting, or if that will be tossed.
Didn’t want to think about Hoboken politics this weekend, but the City Council meeting has been re-scheduled for tonight, December 3rd at 7pm as to not conflict with Hanukkah.
The city is known to pull these stunts, even though they knew there’d be a problem with the Holiday way in advance. As a result, several ordinances and a resolution won’t be ready until the meeting. Inexcusable.
Very briefly, below are some items of interest (I might post more about this later):
- Keepin’ it in the family: Councilman Michael Russo to be appointed to the Hoboken Housing Authority for a four year term.
- More bonding, but (maybe) less potholes?: Millions to be acquired for “various road improvements”.
- Hoboken may sink eventually: Almost a year ago the NJ Transit Rail Yards were considered “an area in need of improvement”, now the city wants to pay $155,000 for a planner to create glossy renderings of the high-rises that will be built to plug the budget gaps.
- A, B, C: A whole ordinance to alphabetize and classify the hundreds of city jobs.
- Making “Amends” or more money?: Yup, the latter. Several comprehensive changes to the City Code (Internet Explorer only), raising rates on parking, updating the taxi code and others.
- Many contracts awarded: From pest control, electrical and HVAC, along with $11.5 million for “waterfront walkway improvements”.