A member of the Planning Board does not live in Jersey City, the city board’s attorney confirmed last week.
Whether or not Carmelo Sita should be serving on that board is a matter that may have to be determined by a Hudson County Superior Court judge, and raises questions of why a non-resident would be allowed to sit on a city board. Throw into the mix that he is serving an expired term, along with several other members, and the case becomes particularly thorny for Jersey City.
The matter may also have implications for a suit filed by Hoboken and some resident groups against Jersey City.
“He doesn’t reside in Jersey City,” admitted Planning Board Attorney William Netchert in an interview last week.
Sita declined comment on his residency last week.
The mayor’s office, which appointed Sita to the seat in July of 1994, said they were unaware that he does not live here.
“He disclosed that he was a resident of the city,” said Tom Gallagher, Mayor Bret Schundler’s chief of staff. “He never informed us that he wasn’t. If we had known that, perhaps we would have taken constructive action.”
According to Union County voter registration records, Sita is registered to vote in Mountainside, N.J. Sita registered there in October of this year.
Gallagher said that he had not spoken with the Planning Board on the matter, and would need to do so before making any decisions.
The information on Sita’s residency came to light two weeks ago during proceedings at a pre-trial hearing in a case involving a high-rise development – Millennium Towers. The city of Hoboken and several Jersey City community groups hope to overturn Planning Board approval for a redevelopment plan and block the construction of a 43-story dual high rise slated for the corner of Jersey Avenue and 18th Street, not far from the Hoboken border.
Part of the suit claims that Sita had a conflict of interest as a Planning Board member affiliated with the building trade union. During hearings on the redevelopment plan this spring that enabled the Millennium Towers proposal, the council chambers overflowed with laborers waving placards and wearing T-shirts reading “Millennium Towers Means Jobs.” The Hudson County District Council of Laborers, the suit read, “lists its business address at the same address Mr. Sita lists his residence 3218 Kennedy Boulevard Jersey City New Jersey (sic).”
It is not clear whether Sita ever lived there, or when he may have moved to his current home in Mountainside, but Zoning Department director Anthony Lambiase was certain of one thing. “If an existing apartment is there,” he said, “it’s illegal.”
Netchert said that Sita had severed his relationship with the union in April of 1999, eliminating any conflict, he argued.
Sita, 57, who voted at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting on several projects, including 100 Monitor St. and the Grove Street II Station Redevelopment Plan, said last week that he has no intention of resigning his position.
Sita grew up in the Greenville section of the city, and is the owner of CJ Sita Associates, a real estate consulting firm located in Secaucus.
Mayor Bret Schundler first announced Sita’s appointment to the board in a signed letter to the City Council dated July 5, 1994: “Kindly be advised that I have appointed Carmelo J. Sita, of 3218 Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, New Jersey to serve as a member to the Jersey City Planning Board …”
The city will likely argue that Sita, a mayor’s appointee to the board, should not be singled out, since the law prior to 1998 was not clear on residency requirements, said Netchert.
But the attorneys representing Hoboken and community groups Coalition for a Better Waterfront and Riverview Neighborhood Association argue that the law prior to 1998 is clear that Planning Board members must also be residents.
“It’s surprising to me,” said Hugh McCluskey, an attorney who represents Hoboken in the case. He said it was hard to understand that a city of 230,000 would retain a non-resident as a member of one of its boards.
The law is not so clear cut, though, said William M. Cox, an attorney and expert in New Jersey land use. The author of the legal reference book, “Zoning and Land Use Administration” said the law had been silent on the matter up until 1998.
“Until that amendment was enacted,” he said from his Newton, N.J. office last week, “there was no specific requirement” that a member of the board also needed to be a resident of the city. “Most mayors,” he noted, “are not going to appoint people from other municipalities.”
Superior Court Judge Jose Fuentes, who is hearing the Millennium Towers case, may decide this ultimate question.
Up until 1998, the law said that the Planning Board membership should consist of: the mayor or the mayor’s designee; a member of the governing body (like the council); another municipal official, and “other citizens of the municipality, to be appointed by the mayor…”
In September of 1998, however, that law was amended, and now reads, “All members of the Planning Board, except for the Class II members set forth below, shall be municipal residents.”
The city will likely argue that Sita’s status should not be affected based on that 1998 amendment.
When four years becomes six
Sita’s term expired in June of 1998. This fact may seem remarkable, but an inspection of remaining board members shows that William Bromirski (term expired June, 1997), Arthur Williams (term expired June 2000), and alternates Vincent Frank (expired December 1999) and Rev. Rudolph McCullers (expired December 1996) are working on borrowed time.
Appointments, according to the law, should last for four years. Members who are not reappointed are on “holdover status” until an appointment is made. But Cox said that this could present a problem.
“If he [the mayor] doesn’t appoint, then probably from a legal standpoint, he [Sita] is not a member, and has no legal authority,” he said. As for all the other holdovers, he said, “You could say the board was illegally constituted.”
The practice of keeping city board members on well after their terms have expired is a time-honored tradition, noted some city officials. The mayor has discretion to remove any board member at any time after their term has expired.
The court ordered the city to provide a “certification” for Sita by Dec. 15. This certification is essentially a signed statement by Sita with, as Planning Board Attorney William Netchert said, “respect to his status” as board member. A second board member, Jon Tooke, will also be signing a certification based on allegations that he had a separate conflict of interest in the matter.
The plaintiffs may request a deposition from both men.
Sita is also dealing with a federal suit that was filed this summer. Until his resignation in 1999, Sita had served as the administrator for four benefit plans for the Hudson County District Council. But the U.S. Labor Department in August filed suit against Sita for improperly using the plan’s money, including making loans to himself. Sita has denied the allegations.
The mayor’s office said they have asked members of other boards to step down in the past when it was determined they were not residents.
“Typically,” said Gallagher, “the city has a policy, and we try to have almost all of our board members be residents of the city.”
The disclosure opens many questions for the city. How will this affect the Millennium Towers suit? Will the mayor’s office ask for Sita’s resignation?
Hoboken attorney McCluskey echoed the sentiments of several people when asked how unusual the case is.
“It’s not usual, pal.”