While Hoboken residents elect nine members of the City Council every few years as well as nine members of the Hoboken Board of Education, citizens don’t get to vote on the boards who determine how high buildings can rise, whether a business can sell its liquor license to another, or even whether your landlord can charge you more rent after fixing up the building.
But starting this week, a city ordinance goes into effect that makes the public more aware of openings on city boards. This way, they can compete for a post or speak for or against a resident who is up for re-appointment.
On Sept. 3, the City Council voted 9-0 to enact the “Citizen Service Act,” which will provide better notice to residents about vacancies and changes on these boards. The ordinance goes into effect this Tuesday, Sept. 30, because city ordinances go into effect 20 days after newspapers publish the results of a vote.
In the past, people who were appointed to boards typically got there by talking to the mayor or a council member, or by being recommended by a political figure in the city. Positions were never advertised, so residents without political connections had no way of knowing about them.
Now, the city will have to advertise open positions in on the city website (www.hobokennj.org) and via the City Clerk’s office, although as of last week, the city wasn’t sure exactly how the clerk will advertise or post the information.
Beth Mason, the 2nd Ward councilwoman and sponsor of the ordinance, said last week that – especially in the current financial climate at the city, state, and national levels – residents may more inclined to get involved in the city’s functions.
Mason said, “I get asked on the street all the time, ‘What can I do?’ And the first thing I ask is, ‘What are you interested in?’ ” She said most people don’t know the different ways to get involved.
Some are paid
Of the city’s 10 boards, only City Council members are paid. They earn $24,130 per year, except for the council president, who earns $26,541 per year. They also receive health benefits and longevity pay.
There is one other local board that offers health benefits: the regional sewerage authority, which contains four members from Hoboken (see below).
The other boards in the city require members to volunteer their time, sometimes for meetings that last four or five hours per night. The only payment is the chance to have input into changes in your hometown, and perhaps more political visibility.
Dominick Lisa, who serves on the Housing Authority and chairs the Zoning Board, said he volunteers because “I wanted to do some civic duty. I was screwed up when I was younger. If I can help people out, that’s what I’m here to do. Politically it never helped me. I don’t have a hidden agenda. I like to try to help people.”
The 10 city boards
The 10 city boards are:
City Council – Nine paid members elected to four-year terms. Three of the council spots are up for re-election this coming May, the same time the mayor is up. The other six council seats were elected last May and are up again in 2011. Council members vote on budgets, ordinances, redevelopment plans, spending items, and revenues.
Board of Education – The nine members preside over the operations of six public schools and a $56.3 million budget. They serve three-year terms. Each April, three of the seats are up for election.
Hoboken Housing Authority – Seven members, five-year terms. They oversee policy for the federally funded 1,383 units of public housing in the southwest area of Hoboken. There are varying manners of appointment: One is appointed by the state, one by the mayor with council approval, and five by a council vote (one of the seven must be a council member and another must live in the projects). See below for information regarding upcoming vacancies.
Planning Board – The board carries out the long-term planning for the city, choosing to approve or deny site plans for development projects, as well as working out details of redevelopment areas (which also must be approved by the City Council). When they approve a development project, they can set “conditions” on the developer so that the project is more favorable to the city.
The board has a total of nine members and two alternates. Seven of the members and the two alternates are appointed by the mayor without council approval (they show up on council agendas as a communication from the mayor). One City Council member is nominated and approved by the council. The mayor himself also has a voting seat on the board, or can send a stand-in if he chooses.
There are specific requirements for certain seats on the Planning Board – for instance, one member must be an architect, another a city director, and another must be a planner.
Zoning Board of Adjustments – The board has seven members who serve four-year terms and two alternates who serve two-year terms. All are appointed by the mayor. Like the Planning Board, the Zoning Board can vote to approve or deny development projects. However, the Zoning Board is different from the Planning Board in that it decides whether construction projects are allowed to deviate from existing zoning guidelines. Usually, the developer appears with his experts and makes the case for why he should get a “variance,” or permission to exceed guidelines such as density, height, parking spots, etc. Usually, they must prove that there is a public benefit before the board votes to give them a variance.
State regulations prevent any one person from sitting on both the Zoning and Planning boards.
Rent Control Board – This board hears appeals from tenants and landlords concerning the legality of certain rents and rent increases. All seven members and two alternates are appointed by the mayor without council approval. They serve four-year terms concurrent with the mayor’s time in office. Right now, the board is one member short, and also lacks one of the two alternates.
Shade Tree Commission – Any changes to planted trees in Hoboken, or any planting of new trees, is governed by the five-member, mayor-appointed board and the two alternates.
Historic Preservation Commission – The seven-member, mayor-appointed board and two alternates consider any changes made to historic zones in Hoboken, including Washington Street, parts of Hudson and River streets, and Court Street. This includes, for example, determining if a storefront or sign on a new shop conforms to the historic guidelines of the district it’s in.
Library Board of Trustees – Operations of the public library are overseen by this seven-member, mayor-appointed board. In addition to those seven members, both the mayor and schools superintendent have seats on the board.
Alcohol Beverage Control Board – Three members. This board votes on liquor license transfers and approvals. It also can hold hearings on problematic bars, voting to suspend their license for a time if a bar has too many violations. The mayor recommends candidates and the council must approve them.
Not quite city boards
Not included in the above are two regional boards that affect Hoboken:
Municipal Hospital Authority Board – The council votes on the mayor’s recommendation of six members of the 11-member board. The other five are state-mandated members with special qualifications. They vote on policy and budgets for the city-backed hospital.
North Hudson Sewerage Authority – A multi-jurisdictional board drawing from Hoboken, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York that deals with water treatment, waste removal, and flooding alleviation.
Each municipality provides two members to the board, except Hoboken, which has three members. The city of Weehawken actually appointed Hobokenite Frank Raia to the board, thus giving the Mile Square City a total of four members on the nine-member board. The board requires seven votes, or a super-majority, for a passing vote. Board members receive health benefits for their service.
Some boards are more political than others. The seven-member Hoboken Housing Authority board is seen as a way for someone to increase their political visibility in the projects, a heavy source of votes in the 3rd and 4th wards.
Recently, there was a controversy when two people were vying for one seat on the board.
The controversy started when Hector Claveria, a young Hoboken businessman with relatives in the projects, saw a recent City Council meeting on TV. At the meeting, they were discussing the reappointment of Angel Alicea to the board. Claveria thought he might be interested in the seat too.
“I get asked on the street all the time, ‘What can I do?’ And the first thing I ask is, ‘What are you interested in?’ “
– Beth Mason
Several of the boards have slots opening up, although the people in those seats may ask to be re-appointed.
In the Housing Authority, the governor’s representative will be up for re-appointment in November. Right now, that person is Dominic Lisa, who also chairs the Zoning Board. Lisa was appointed to the housing board by then-Gov. Richard Codey, who knew Lisa personally through his work with drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
“Because of my background, I’m helping grandchildren of grandparents that I [once] helped,” Lisa said of his work on the housing board.
When the governor’s seat comes up, the governor tends to defer to local politicians, most likely the mayor or a local state legislator, if no applicant presents himself or herself. So in effect, this appointment can still come from City Hall.
Also on the housing board, another seat is up for council appointment next May. That seat belongs to vocal board member Perry Belfiore, who also was recently appointed by the mayor to the Planning Board.
Three seats (including one alternate) on the Planning Board and two seats on the Zoning Board will expire on Dec. 31, as will one on the Historic Preservation Commission.
Since there is a mayoral election scheduled for next May 12, that person will have a hand in choosing people for various mayor-appointed board seats that expire June 30, 2009. The mayor takes office the next day.
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