In what Mayor Anthony Russo described during the proceedings as “the most chaotic City Council meeting I have ever attended,” local developer Frank Raia was appointed to the Hoboken Housing Authority board by a vote of 4-3 while Housing Authority resident and candidate for the position Lynda Walker could only sit and watch.
On the agenda at Wednesday’s City Council meeting were resolutions to appoint two candidates to a vacant position on the all-volunteer HHA board. The board oversees the agency that manages the city’s 1,353 units of federally-subsidized public housing in the southwest part of town. Raia was listed first on the agenda and the other candidate, Walker, a resident of the HHA, was listed fifth. Therefore, when Raia was voted on and appointed, there was no longer an open spot for Walker.
A question on the vote
There was a division on the City Council, as a cadre of three councilmen who oppose Mayor Anthony Russo wanted Walker, who has been active in Housing Authority issues, to be added to the board. Raia, on the other hand, has not been active on those issues but has many years of experience in developing subsidized housing. Raia was an opponent of Russo’s until a few years ago, when he began supporting him. Two years ago, the city gave Raia the right to develop a large section of formerly-blighted land in the city’s northwest corner in conjunction with the city’s northwest redevelopment plan.
In a plea to the council Wednesday night, 6th Ward Councilman David Roberts, who supported Walker for the open seat, suggested that both candidates be voted on at the same time. “We want both citizens on the same plane,” said Roberts. He added that if Raia was approved first, “[Walker’s] appointment would become a moot issue even before we get to vote on it.”
Councilman-at-large Tony Soares and 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr. also voiced their feelings that it would be unfair to go through with the vote as planned. “All we want is equal consideration,” said Soares. Raia’s nomination had been on the agenda of the previous meeting, but had been tabled. Walker’s nomination was new.
Despite the objections from the Soares faction, City Council President Nellie Moyeno went on with the vote as planed, and Raia was appointed.
As soon as the vote finished, the meeting became heated, with Walker’s supporters yelling at Moyeno.
Moyeno pounded the gavel for silence. She then said that members of the public could speak.
Hoboken resident Alan Cohen, who does not usually speak at the meetings, was moved enough to comment. “It seems a little silly to be speaking now,” he said. “After all, the resolution has already passed.”
Cohen and other vocal supporters in attendance believed that had they been given the opportunity to speak, they might have been able to persuade.
“Mrs. Walker does understand the struggle of the people of the Housing Authority,” said Carmelo Garcia of Hoboken. “She lives there and Mr. Raia does not.”
Moyeno defended the selection by pointing out Raia’s history. “Mr. Raia has a record of developing and caring for individuals in need and providing affordable housing to the county,” said Moyeno.
After the meeting, Public Information Officer Michael Korman pointed out that Raia had been nominated at a prior meeting and that the issue had been shelved until this meeting. Because he was nominated at previous date and before Walker, procedure requires that he be voted on first, Korman said.
“You can’t just change the voting procedures on a whim like that,” said Korman. “There are procedures that describe how this kind of appointment should be made, and those rules were followed.”
Was not sold
In the days leading up to the meeting, 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos began a petition drive to gain support for Walker. “I can’t remember the last time we went so vigorously out to the community,” said Ramos.
Walker did not understand why the council did not take these signatures into account. “How can I be overlooked when I went out and got 300 hundred signatures in just two days,” said Walker. “I can’t believe the City Council goes and ignores all of these people.”
However, not everyone believes this petition was obtained in the most truthful and ethical manner.
“I must say, I don’t think it is coincidental,” said Mayor Russo after the vote on Raia, “That the [petition] group included councilmen Soares, Roberts and Ramos. All of who are the minority members of this council. They are the ones that went out and got signatures for an appointment to the Housing Authority. It is very atypical and smells of politics.”
Russo then pulled out a memorandum which was distributed to the residents of the HHA and written by E. Troy Washington, who is the executive director of the HHA. The memorandum stated that some of the people circulating the petition had been misleading residents by telling them that the HHA had been sold. In the memorandum, Washington tells residents that this is misinformation and that the HHA in fact has not been sold and will not be sold.
The memorandum goes on to give a stern warning to residents. “Please be mindful and careful in dealing with these individuals,” it reads, “and more importantly, be cautious of their motives to get you to sign petitions under false pretenses.”
Ramos flatly denied that there was any false information given to residents while compiling the petition. “The only thing the petition says is that by signing you are lending support to Lynda Walker and her bid to be appointed to the HHA,” Ramos said. “That’s it.” Ramos then read directly from the petition, “By signing this petition you will be lending your name in support of Lynda Walker and her appointment to the Hoboken Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.”
Mayor Russo agreed that was all that was printed on the petition itself, but believed that false statements were verbalized to residents.
Councilmen Soares said that not only were those claims not true, but that he also believes that the memorandum itself was a fabrication by someone who would want to sabotage Walker’s chances of being appointed. “This memo is a total fabrication,” Soares said. “Look at the print. It’s not even on official letterhead.” When contacted the next day, E. Troy Washington said that the memorandum was in fact his. He said that residents started calling him about the petition drive.
“I was getting calls from residents and I was finding out that many of them were getting bad information,” said Washington. “I wrote the memo. I believe that what it says is honest and I just wanted to end any bad information that was going around.”
Also at the meeting, more than a dozen residents of the Marine View residential building attended, and six voiced their concerns that the new building on the southern waterfront is being built larger than what they had been told. They believe that the residential building, being constructed by the Applied Companies, is bigger and looks nothing like the plans and diagrams that they were given several years ago when plans for the building were being approved.
During the meeting, Russo responded by saying, “The new development on the southern waterfront does not exceed the 125 foot envelope in the original plan. There have been no variances to build higher and I even believe that they have lowered the number of units from 580 to 525. There have been some changes that go along with construction, but I assure you that the building being built is completely within the envelope that they were allowed.”
The mayor also pointed out that the environmental group the Sierra Club, in their 50-state study recently recognized the southern waterfront development as an example of smart growth.
The residents also showed concerns over some health issues due to the construction. Marine View resident Jean Forest expressed concern over the possible carbon monoxide increase in the area and several parents said that their families have been sick more often, possibly due to the new building. They believe that a possible reason for the illnesses is dust and dirt from the construction site.
Mayor Russo said that if there are any health violations or if there is proof that the construction is causing any illnesses the city will do everything within its scope to fix the problem.