Normally, when it comes to professional service contracts and choosing which bid is best, a board can turn to its attorney to advise it.
But what happens when the contract in question deals with who should serve as legal representation?
That’s what has happened at the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) over the past two months. The HHA operates the city’s approximately 1,300 unit federally subsidized low-income housing complexes in the southwest corner of town. Confusion and contention reigned supreme as the seven-member volunteer board tried to decide who would serve as its legal counsel without the aid of affirmed legal counsel in the last few months.
During the HHA’s March meeting, several HHA board members suggested that the board seek out new lawyers. For the past three years, the law firm of Miller and Galdieri had represented the authority.
The board voted at that meeting to create a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a one-year legal services contract.
Out of the firms that submitted proposals, two were very close: Miller and Galdieri of Jersey City, and Weiner, Lesniak of Parsippany. Both submitted comparable bids. Since Miller and Galdieri were one of the competitors for the contract, the HHA was without legal representation when it came to analyzing the two bids.
Without advice from any legal counsel, the board selected the firm of Weiner, Lesniak to represent it. The next day, Miller and Galdieri sued the HHA.
Again, the HHA was trapped. Weiner, Lesniak could not represent the HHA because they had an interest in the lawsuit.
HHA Executive Director E. Troy Washington, who made it clear from the beginning of the process that it was his choice to retain Miller and Galdieri, hired Jersey City lawyer Paul Hanlon as special counsel to represent the HHA in the lawsuit.
Miller and Galdieri have, in the past, contributed to the political campaigns of Mayor David Roberts’ opponent, Mayor Anthony Russo. Weiner, Lesniak is a politically-connected firm with Democratic ties throughout the state. Weiner, Lesniak has, as one of its attorneys, former HHA attorney and former Union City mayor Rudy Garcia, an ally of former Mayor Anthony Russo. Garcia was forced to step down as HHA attorney in the 1990s after a ruling came to light that assemblymen could not serve as lawyers to public housing authorities.
Washington made the decision to hire Hanlon unilaterally, without board approval. At the April 17 meeting of the HHA, Washington said that he had no choice but to hire representation because there was not a scheduled board meeting before the case was supposed to be argued before State Superior Court Judge Arthur D’Italia.
At that April 17 meeting, the board unanimously appointed the law firm of Hill, Wallack to serve as special legal counsel if there was any future litigation regarding the selection the HHA attorney. Hill, Wallack was selected despite the fact that Paul Hanlon had already argued twice before Judge D’Italia.
On April 19, Judge D’Italia issued his ruling. In it, he said that Executive Director Washington and the board should take one section of the RFP and complete an analysis to determine which bid is lower.
Spectators at 220 Adams could feel the tension in the air at Wednesday night’s HHA meeting. Seated at one end of the HHA table was Andrew McDonald from Hill, Wallack. Seated at the other was Joseph Ranieri of Weiner, Lesniak. Standing as a member of the public only feet away from the table was Spencer Miller of Miller and Galdieri.
Washington suggested that the board go into closed session to discuss the contract, but before a motion could be made, Commissioner Bill Noonan asked McDonald how the board should proceed.
“I’m here to steer you over the muddy water of competing interests,” said McDonald. “That’s why I find it deeply disappointing that [Hill, Wallack] did not receive notice of this meeting.”
According to McDonald, Washington never sent notice to Hill, Wallack. The only way that the firm learned about the meeting was through Noonan, who originally proposed that the firm serve as special counsel.
Washington shot back that because D’Italia had already ruled, the litigation was over and the services of Hill, Wallack were no longer needed.
“It’s a final judgment,” said Washington. “The judge said what he wanted, and now it is up to us to move forward.”
McDonald wholly disagreed and advised the board to go into closed session, minus Washington. He said that because of Washington’s failure to notify Hill, Wallack and Weiner, Lesniak about the meeting, he was no longer an impartial observer and should be left out of any further discussion.
Washington disagreed. “You are boldly wrong and totally incorrect,” said the executive director.
Despite his objection, the board voted to go into closed session without its executive director, but with McDonald of Hill, Wallack.
The closed session lasted about 20 minutes. The commissioners discussed two separate analyses of the data. Both dealt with nonrecurring litigation, the section of the bid that Judge D’Italia told the HHA to analyze. One was from Washington, who did a three-year analysis of Miller and Galdieri’s billing history. Washington provided the analysis to the commissioners before the meeting started.
The commissioners also reviewed a 12-month analysis of Miller and Galdieri’s billing history provided by Commissioner Noonan. Washington’s analysis said that Miller and Galdieri was a better deal, Noonan’s said just the opposite.
“Judge D’Italia said that past history is a fair evaluation of the future,” said Noonan. He then proceeded to list the nonrecurring litigation from the past year as billed by Miller and Galdieri. “It is clear from these numbers that Miller and Galdieri are more expensive,” he said.
Washington disagreed and said that a 12-month period is not long enough and that a three-year period should have been taken to smooth out any irregularities. “When you [use the average of three years] Miller and Galdieri do come out better across the board,” he said.
The board voted 5-2 to hire Weiner, Lesniak.
After the vote, Spencer Miller spoke during the public portion of the meeting. He made it very clear that the matter will once again find its way back to Judge D’Italia’s courtroom. He gave some reasons.
According to Miller, the HHA should never have let Hill, Wallack participate in the closed session. “You polluted the quality of the closed session,” said Miller. “[Hill, Wallack] was dismissed after the judge’s final ruling. It’s improper to take a third party attorney who is not retained [by the HHA] into closed session.”
Miller also contended that Ranieri of Weiner, Lesniak should not have been sitting at the HHA table before the matter was voted on’ and supported Washington’s claim that a three-year analysis of past bills is a more accurate judge of qualifications.