Only moments after a ceremonial swearing-in on Wednesday, new 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo pledged to cut salaries of the city’s top directors and hinted at future political alliances.
In a meeting that included a surprise appearance by Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, Russo proposed three pieces of legislation, including one for a 5 percent decrease of the salaries of the mayor, city directors and City Council. He added that he hoped that if the measure passes, it can save the jobs of two of the seven employees who were laid off in the past week. But the administration of Mayor David Roberts said the last-minute resolutions were nothing more than orchestrated political grandstanding.
Ironically, in the mid-1990s, it was Russo’s father, former Mayor Anthony Russo, who introduced large salary increases for the city’s directors and mayor. The ordinance approving retroactive pay for these positions was later repealed after a public outcry.
One of the most interesting occurrences at the City Council meeting was that Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham made an appearance in support of Michael Russo. He was flanked by Deputy Jersey City Mayor Eugene Drayton, who for years had served as chair of the Hoboken Housing Authority, and former Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann.
During the meeting, Russo stopped the meeting to recognize the attendance of Cunningham.
In a later interview, Cunningham expressed his motivation behind visiting Hoboken. “I’m here to show my support for Michael Russo, and [I] believe that he is going to make a very good city councilman,” said Cunningham. “I think he is going to be the mayor of Hoboken one day.”
Cunningham and Russo are on a different political side than current Mayor David Roberts, and Roberts is an ally of Cunningham’s nemesis, Rep. Robert Menendez. There has been a struggle between Cunningham forces and Menendez forces for control of Hudson County government for some time. Currently, the county executive’s seat is filled with a Menendez ally, Tom DeGise, although Cunningham would like to change that.
Fourth Ward Councilman Christopher Campos said that it was questionable timing for Cunningham to attend a Hoboken meeting. He pointed out that earlier that night, Cunningham’s debt restructuring plan was rejected by the Jersey City Council. Cunningham has since threatened layoffs in his city (for more, see www.jerseycityreporter.com).
“I find it almost comical that he found time to attend a Hoboken City Council meeting on the same night that his debt restructuring plan was shot down,” Campos said. “One would think that he had more pressing issues to be dealing with.”
Mayor Roberts added Cunningham shouldn’t “escape to Hoboken” when he has his own problems at home.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Cunningham posed for pictures with the recently sworn-in Russo.
“I was honored that [Cunningham] came to support me,” said Russo. He added that a good relationship with the Jersey City mayor, who is also a state senator, could be a “very good asset” in the future.
As for Cunningham’s allusion to Russo’s possible run against Roberts in 2005, Russo said that those types of assumptions are premature and he is focusing solely on doing his new job as the 3rd Ward’s councilperson.
Laid off, or fired?
The legislation that Russo introduced during the meeting cutting salaries would equal around $40,000 if it were to pass.
“The measure would not hurt any of these people, and can be the start of saving money as a city,” said Russo. “Seven people lost their jobs right before the holidays. Let’s see if we can hire at least two of them back.”
Municipal employees’ union representative Joseph Grossi also pleaded to save the seven jobs.
“These people didn’t need to be let go,” said Grossi. “They are on the low end of the salary scale with a combined salary of only $175,000. Find the money to bring them back to work.”
But City Business Administrator Robert Drasheff said the employees were laid off because “they were not performing.”
Russo then questioned if the former employees were laid off or fired. If they were fired, civil service requires due process.
“They can’t have it both ways,” said Russo.
Drasheff responded Thursday that according the layoff plan that was submitted the state Department of Personnel months ago, the city is allow to “remove unproductive” employees for “efficiency reasons.”
The Roberts-backed members on the council said that the legislation, which was presented at the last minute, was an orchestrated political ploy to gain positive headlines.
“It’s ever so clear that this was a political stunt to garner some attention on his first night on the council,” said Roberts. He added that fact that Russo did not present the legislation to the opposition council members before the meeting proves that it was a choreographed act.
Roberts added that he believes that Russo is contradicting himself. He said on one hand Russo wants to save two jobs with the 5 percent salary cut, but on the other, he spoke out against a recent restructuring of the city’s debt.
“More than 120 employees would have lost their jobs if that didn’t go through,” he said.
Russo responded that a 5 percent salary cut and the restructuring of the debt are two very different issues. “They have nothing to do with each other,” said Russo. “What this is about is saving the jobs of people that are about to have a dreary holiday season.”
City Council President Ruben Ramos Jr. added that if Russo has serious legislation, then he should meet in committee and not present “dramatic changes at the 11th hour.”
“Some people like the drama, political theater,” said Ramos. “He was just grandstanding.”
Russo responded that this was his first meeting on the council, so presenting the resolution at a subcommittee meeting was not an option.
After some heated discussion on the topic, it was tabled and sent to the Revenue and Finance Subcommittee. “Allow us to review this in good faith,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Richard Del Boccio.
Conflict with lawyers?
Another resolution that Russo presented would terminate the services of the law firm of Pojanowski and Trawinski, which provides service and special council to the city. Russo feels that the firm had a conflict of interest. While working for the city, the firm also was hired by Roberts’ political organization Hoboken United, which is currently affiliated with five current City Council members.
Attorney Joseph Pojanowski represented Hoboken United against Michael Russo in litigation over absentee ballots in last month’s special election. Russo believes that providing legal counsel to City Council members who will vote on its contracts is a conflict of interest.
“Every time his name comes up,” said Russo, “there are going to be concerns about conflict of interest. I personally have no faith in this firm.”
In July, when Pojanowski was hired by Hoboken United, this issue came up and city attorney Joseph Sherman gave his legal opinion that there was no conflict. (Sherman is not with the firm.)
“I believe we visited this issue in July,” said Sherman, “and there was no conflict.”
After a discussion on the topic, it was tabled on the recommendation of Campos so that it could be further reviewed.
Russo requests budget reports
The third piece of legislation that Russo introduced was a request for a budget report before each meeting from the city administrator.
“Basically, this gives us a tool to see how much the city is spending, and where we are spending it,” said Russo.
The measure passed with the condition that the business administrator can deliver all the materials listed in the measures in a timely fashion.