Although Sept. 11 was the biggest story of the year, there were other big stories on the municipal level: new mayors, investigations, new library plans and even a new zip code.
For a change, bizarre political rumors ricocheting around the county proved true this past September. County Executive Robert Janiszewski sent a letter to the county offices Sept. 6 resigning suddenly. Janiszewski was not on site and was rumored to be in the witness relocation program.
Since then, it has been learned that Janiszewski was allegedly caught in an FBI sting last year and became a cooperating witness this year to help federal agents catch local politicians and bigwigs in illegal acts. Sources say Janiszewski’s car was wired. Janiszewski sometimes conducted business in his car between appearances.
There have not yet been indictments or arrests due to the probe, although the offices of a major Hoboken-based developer were raided, apparently in connection with the probe. FBI officials will not comment on the probe, as a matter of policy.
The North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue department, which includes fire departments from Union City, West New York, Weehawken, North Bergen and Guttenberg, had to take criticism in May and then redeemed itself later in the year.
A five-alarm fire broke out on Mother’s Day on 29th Street in Union City, which destroyed four residences and left 32 families homeless. After word got out that the firemen from the 29th Street firehouse, located directly across the street from the fire scene, had been out grocery shopping at the time, the department was scrutinized for use of their time while on duty.
Although the state public safety officials and the recorded 911 calls showed that the firefighters responded within four minutes of the initial call, critics still claimed that it took firefighters 30 to 40 minutes to respond.
However, just four months later, the firefighters of North Hudson Regional responded in full force to the tragedy at the World Trade Center. More than 60 firefighters responded to Ground Zero to help New York City firefighters, police officers and other volunteers dig through the rubble.
Recently, the firefighters responded to a series a five-alarm fires in Union City on Dec. 2, which were called in 45 minutes of each other and took place within an eight-block radius of each other. These fires left 110 people, including 34 children, homeless. All three of these fires were deemed suspicious in nature. A K-9 from the Bergen County K-9 unit found possible arsenic on the site of two of the fires. The Union City Police Department and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office are still investigating. Earlier that night, the department also fought a five-alarm fire on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen.
David Delle Donna, a 43-year-old construction engineer and father of two, was elected mayor of Guttenberg in November, defeating challenger James Geron by a two-to-one margin. Delle Donna, who had previously served two terms as a township councilman, collected 1,339 votes to Geron’s 766. He won all six of the town’s voting districts. All three of Delle Donna’s running mates were swept into the Township Council as well. Delle Donna takes office Jan. 1.
Long-time 6th Ward Councilman and local businessman David Roberts beat two-term incumbent Mayor Anthony Russo by a decisive 1,305-vote margin in a May 8 landslide to become mayor. Roberts’ running mates for three at-large seats on the City Council also cruised to victory. Incumbent Councilman-at-Large Anthony Soares, 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr., and political newcomer Carol Marsh joined Roberts at his July 1 inauguration. In a special November election, Roberts backed Christopher Campos and A. Nino Giacchi, who won easily to give Roberts and solid majority on the City Council.
It was another rough year for the Hoboken Parking Authority. The 324-car garage at 916 Garden St. remained a thorn in its side. The automated garage is two years behind schedule, and at the end of August the insurance company that holds the performance bond on the building took over the project from the HPA. From Sept. 10, the surety has 180 working days to finish the project, which would put the completion some time in April.
There was also a shift of power in the HPA’s inner politics. In a last minute appointment, former Mayor Anthony Russo selected two new members to sit on the seven-person board. An incensed Mayor David Roberts then appointed two members of his own to sit. It took a judge’s ruling to clear the way for Robert’s to finally appoint his picks of Alan Cohen and Daniel DeCavaignac. Since that time, Cohen and the HPA’s former chairman, Donald Pellicano, have engaged in verbal jousting at almost every meeting.
In the southwest part of town, there was controversy at the Hoboken Housing Authority projects. For there to be a legal meeting of the Board of Commissioners, there had to be four out for the seven members present. That didn’t happen for almost six months between April and September.
Then when they did finally meet in September, tensions ran over. More than a 120 people witnessed an emotionally charged session that ended with a confrontation between City Councilman Christopher Campos and a security guard. Campos is a vocal critic of HHA Executive Director E. Troy Washington, who oversees the 1,353 federally subsidized low-income units. In November, at nearly the exact moment that Campos was being sworn in for a two-year term at City Hall, the HHA commissioners voted to give Washington a new five-year contract.
Glenn D. Cunningham became the first African-American mayor of Jersey City on July 1. The former council president (from 1985-1989), Cunningham ran for city’s top position after a stint as a U.S. Marshall. Defeating Tom DeGise, the incumbent council president, 53 percent to 43 percent, his victory was seen as a victory over outgoing mayor Bret Schundler.
Promising a holistic approach to crime prevention, as well as better schools and a tax-abatement policy that benefits the entire city, Cunningham’s victory restored a Democrat to Hudson County’s most populated municipality. Since taking the oath of office, Cunningham has been given some trying tests of leadership. After less than a week in office, a July 4th brawl left a Jersey City cop dead. And before reaching his first 100 days, Cunningham was forced to respond to the events of Sept. 11.
Celebrating Independence Day with some friends in his old neighborhood, Officer Domenick Infantes was not expecting a confrontation. But after requesting that next-door neighbors quit lighting illegal fireworks, a brawl ensued that left him on life support. He passed away the next day.
Infantes was a seven-year veteran of the Jersey City Police Department and recognized as a rare treasure in the community. Thousands of police officers from across the nation attended his funeral at St. Alyosius Church, where he had been married two months earlier.
Former mayor Bret Schundler earned a reputation for upsetting his political opponents at the last minute. As a Republican, he caught the democratic machine by surprise when he won the special election for mayor in Jersey City in 1992. He won the re-election by a landslide, the first Jersey City mayor to win a consecutive term in 30 years.
When he decided to run for governor this past year, he was seen as the underdog in his own party. But grabbing the conservative vote in the primary gave him another upset victory over party frontrunner Bob Franks. Bolstering views that seemed to right for New Jersey’s moderate electorate, Schundler found it difficult to gain support from his own party. In addition, a broken friendship cost him the endorsement of a key player – Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco. In the end, even the city that elected him twice opted to go for the more traditional choice of Hudson County, and ultimately led to the James McGreevey’s victory.
The Assisi animal shelter in Jersey City, which also serves West New York and Secaucus, saw controversy at the end of the year. The shelter’s director, Tom Hart, was terminated suddenly by a new board of directors. Hart had adopted out more than 800 pets during his one-year tenure, but was criticized for having a “no-kill” policy that meant that healthy pets would remain there indefinitely until they were adopted. Some said that this left animal control officers with nowhere to bring new stray pets. In fact, it was revealed that Jersey City animal control officers had started using a separate facility as an animal shelter and euthanizing dogs. Board members claimed that Hart had spent too much money at the shelter over the year, but he said that much of it had gone to fight enduring legal battles from his predecessors. The shelter had previously been the site of state investigations and citations. A county health official has said that he believes that the shelter should be regionalized. At some point, the facility is to begin euthanizing dogs and cats who have been left there for seven days or longer.
The township of North Bergen was shocked to learn in December that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had raided Town Hall, as well as the offices of the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority, and some private homes, including the Bloomfield residence of Township Administrator Joseph Auriemma, as part of a search and seizure of records.
The investigation is apparently focused on the contracts and work done by a township electrical and air conditioning contractor, according to local sources, but no charges have been introduced yet. It is also believed not to be related to the investigation surrounding former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski.
Albert Manzo, the former chairman of the North Bergen Planning Board, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in October for taking a $2,500 bribe last year to favor a proposed development that never materialized.
Manzo received his sentence in U.S. Federal Court in Newark and was immediately turned over to U.S. Marshals for incarceration. He was ordered to pay $3,000 in fines as part of the sentence, which was handed down by U.S. District Court Judge William Bassler. Manzo was charged with taking a bribe from a prospective developer in exchange for his vote to approve the project at the Planning Board meeting in May, 2000. However, it turned out that the development project was not a real one and was part of a sting operation set up by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark.
The North Bergen Board of Education was rocked by two cases involving teachers who have since been terminated. In January, former physical education teacher and assistant basketball coach David Bellani was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a minor, after it was learned that two first grade students at McKinley School told North Bergen police that Bellani tied them up and bound them with masking tape and one young boy’s sweater.
Although criminal charges were later dismissed against Bellani, he was relieved of his teaching position because of the incident. Two months later, while tenured special needs teacher Debbie Noone sat in her classroom in North Bergen High School, a 14-year-old girl allegedly performed oral sex on a teenage male classmate, while two other boys were fondling and kissing her breasts. Although criminal charges were not brought against Noone, she was also dismissed.
In a move that was criticized by opponents of the Secaucus administration, State Sen. Ray Lesniak – also employed as a special attorney for Secaucus – submitted legislation that changed the terms of office for the mayor and council from two to four years. The state senate passed the bill before most people in Secaucus were aware of it, and it passed the state assembly in June, just in time for the governor to sign it into law by primary day. In 1996, local voters had rejected such a change, but this year they had the change thrust on them for the November ballot despite previous opposition. Democratic Mayor Dennis Elwell and Councilmen Christopher Marra and John Reilly ran unopposed. Because the change was revealed so late in the election cycle, opposition candidates – who might have emerged to do battle for a four-year term – did not have time to file.
The first significant expansion of schools in Secaucus since the building of Secaucus High School occurred in 2001. Huber Street elementary school opened the doors to its new wing in September. Construction on Clarendon elementary school has been ongoing since February with completion expected early in 2002. The added space has also allowed Secaucus to shift its student population so that the same amount of students are attending each of the two schools. The expansion – as well as the threat of additional development – has pushed the school board into talk about increased expansion for the Middle School-High School complex.
Despite breaking ground in January for a new public library, Secaucus officials failed to open the doors to the new facility in November as expected. Local inspectors cited numerous mistakes in the limited amount of work done on the project over the first year. Construction on the library fell further and further behind until the bonding company fired the contractor and hired a new contractor to rip up the existing foundation more or less starting from scratch. A new grand opening is predicted for July, 2002. Town officials claim construction will not cost the town any more than the original $2.9 million contract. But the delay has frustrated some library officials who claim plans for expansion have been in the works for more than a decade.
Union City Mayor Brian Stack wasted no time getting the state financial team to work on the city’s finances. Union City qualified for the state’s Distressed Cities Program, which provides funding to struggling cities. After Stack took office in October 2000, he announced that the city was left with a $15 million structural deficit and a $2 million cash deficit.
The state allotted $2.5 million in Distressed Cities Aid for the 2001 fiscal year budget. The state also played an integral role in hiring the city’s new chief financial officer. In the city’s first budget introduced during Stack’s administration in April, taxpayers saw a $70 decrease in the tax rate per $100,000 of property owned. This decrease came after the city held a hiring freeze and also decreased overtime hours for city employees. This budget also completely paid off the cash deficit.
This year, Union City Mayor Brian Stack and the Board of Commissioners have been working to improve the quality of life in the city. The board has introduced, but has not yet passed, an ordinance that would close all bars and restaurants in the city at 2 a.m., one hour earlier than they close now. This summer, Stack began organizing a volunteer effort to clean the city’s streets. And the Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance supported by the UEZ Development Corporation to will make it mandatory for all business owners to sweep the area outside their business before 11 a.m.
With heavy financial struggles and with the anticipation of a new centralized library and media center, the Union City library was facing the possibility of closing one of its branches earlier in the year. In May, the Library Board of Trustees was $109,000 short of balancing its $684,265 budget. In order to help keep both libraries open without making substantial layoffs, the city agreed to give the library an additional $114,000. The library has also established a Friends of the Library organization that has held many fundraisers this year to help the library with its financial struggles.
The township of Weehawken was devastated by the events of the World Trade Center tragedy. Three residents, Robert Vicario, Eric Evans and Chris Gray, perished in the terrorist attacks. One resident, Donald Jodice, harrowingly escaped danger, getting out of the 88th floor of Tower One, with little harm. His tale of escape gripped many township residents.
Many members of the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue were among the first volunteers to head to Ground Zero to help search for survivors. Hamilton Plaza on Boulevard East became a prayer sanctuary, with thousands of candles and messages being placed at the site as a memorial for those who died.
The ongoing battles between the Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront and the Roseland Properties, Inc. over the proposed $500 million waterfront development project seemed to go in favor of the developer. Roseland received all the final approvals to begin construction on the first phase of the project, some 42 brownstone townhouses, as well as the permits to build the second, more extensive phase, including office space, more residential units and a hotel.
Meanwhile, the FWW had one lawsuit dismissed in U.S. Federal Court in Newark, while the group withdrew another lawsuit trying to block the project. As it stands now, it looks as if all systems are go for the completion of the entire project within the next 10 years.
In July, it became official. Weehawken got its own zip code – 07086.
It is a number solely established for use and identification for Weehawken. For more than 40 years, Weehawken shared the 07087 zip code with Union City, but the need for separation became greater with the advent of the Internet.
West New York
On Dec. 10, the state assembly’s 44-member Democratic caucus voted unanimously to appoint West New York Mayor and Assemblyman Albio Sires to the position of speaker of the assembly. This position pushes Sires, who is only beginning his second term as assemblyman, to the third most powerful position in New Jersey. Speaker of the assembly is third only to the positions of governor and state senate president. Sires feels confident that he will be able to do a great deal to improve Hudson County and the state. Among the matters on his current agenda is finding money to improve the Jersey City Armory Building, which is currently in disrepair.
This year has been a reconstruction year in West New York. Following the streetscape project on Bergenline Avenue in 2000, West New York completed two more streetscape projects as well as renovating the town’s parks. There were sidewalk renovations, lighting fixtures and amenities added to the area from 60th to 67th streets on Park Avenue and Boulevard East. In addition, the $1.09 million renovation to Washington Park on 66th Street was completed this year. The renovation included two volleyball courts, two new play areas with rubberized floors and sprinkler systems.