Wednesday night saw yet another contentious and well-attended Hoboken City Council meeting, with officials and members of the public arguing over salaries, mayoral board appointments, and especially over a new plan to deal with the city’s fast approaching loss of its municipal garage property on Observer Highway.
The city must find a new location for the garage by mid-August, and the city floated a plan at the meeting to close off a block of upper Clinton Street in order to let vehicles come in and out of a potential new facility. But residents and area businesses expressed concerns over the plan.
City Hall salaries questioned
Before getting to the garage issue, the council had a few financial issues to discuss and barbs to toss. The first contentious issue was whether to update the city’s “salary ordinance,” a long list of maximum and minimum salary ranges for specific positions. Some officials said that certain current City Hall employees are earning salaries that are not in line with the law.
Hoboken has not amended its salary ordinance since 2002. Paying people in excess of the allowable range is a violation of New Jersey state law. Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Lenz argued that the salaries in the ordinance needed to be updated for that reason, while other council members took issue with the wide range between minimum and maximum salaries set for certain positions to begin with.
Second Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, who is often at odds with Lenz and with the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, asked why the mayor’s office wanted to increase the salary ranges for some positions. She said there were jobs with suggested minimums of $20,000 per year and maximums of $98,000.
In addition, Mason questioned whether some job titles in the salary ordinance even needed to exist. “Do we need three ‘confidential aides to the mayor?” Mason asked.
Third Ward Councilman Michael Russo took a similar tack, saying, “There were positions in the salary ordinance that were never filled until just recently. Though Councilman Lenz is correct, we put ourselves in this position, and the public should know that.”
In the end, the council voted to add changes to the salary ordinance by a vote of 7-2, with only Mason and 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano voting against.
Nepotism in board appointments?
The next issue that sparked controversy was something the council had no power to vote on: an announcement from the mayor of a list of new appointees to certain boards. Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, who is one of the council members often critical of Zimmer’s administration, noted the presence of Councilman Ravi Bhalla’s brother on the Library Board and called it “nepotism,” saying, “If it was me, you’d have me hanging outside [in effigy]. You’d have a demonstration.”
The public wasn’t much kinder when it came time for the council to vote on.the board appointments over which they did have control, including the Hoboken Housing Authority board and the Zoning Board.
Lane Bajardi, a frequent critic of the current mayoral administration and the City Council, said that appointees are selected simply “to do the administration’s bidding” and were composed of “sycophants and campaign contributors”
Former mayoral candidate Patricia Waiters gave a passionate speech that elicited much applause, saying Hoboken could “clear our name” by appointing people of “dignity and integrity” to city boards.
New council leadership
Meanwhile, the council wasn’t through with picking leaders, as it was time to choose their own. Typically, the council presidency rotates each year. The council voted Wednesday to make Councilwoman-at-Large Carol Marsh the new Hoboken City Council president, with Ravi Bhalla as vice president. Councilman Peter Cunningham had served as council president since last year.
Controversy over closing a block for garage
The most vociferous discussion of the meeting was sparked by a resolution submitted by the mayor’s office “authorizing the temporary closure of Clinton Street between 15th and 16th Streets to vehicular traffic.” The change is meant to be temporary for the next three to five years, and is tied to the ongoing effort for Hoboken to deal with the likely relocation of its municipal garage from Observer Highway to a new location in August.
The municipal garage is a large facility where the city parks and repairs its vehicles and equipment. Through a series of complex financial transactions between 2005 and 2008 to inject revenue into a cash-strapped city, Hoboken ended up selling the municipal garage site to a developer without having secured a new site for the garage. The city is expected to complete the sale of the land to a developer on Aug. 13.
The city has come up with an idea to use a facility on Clinton Street for garage operations, but this was met on Wednesday night with resistance from some members of the public.
John J. Curley, an attorney representing the Burlington Coat Factory, said the closure would have a significant negative effect on the business and pointed out that the store has been in Hoboken for 25 years and has 30 employees. He also argued that under New Jersey law, such a street closure must be done by an ordinance and not merely by resolution.
He said the city could open itself up to damage claims against it by Burlington Coat Factory and other businesses that will be affected.
This led into a more freewheeling discussion of the entire municipal garage issue. Hoboken resident Stephanie Rose said the council still wasn’t really addressing the garage issue, saying there were “nothing but temporary solutions on the agenda. Where’s the permanent solution?”
She received much applause.
Donald Pellicano, long-time Hoboken resident and former chairman of the Hoboken Parking Authority gave an impassioned speech saying that the location is too close to a kidney dialysis center where he gets treatments. He asserted that not only would the street closure cut off easy access to the dialysis center by ambulance, but that the possible proximity of the garbage trucks and other vehicles would be dangerous for the patients.
Representatives of the mayor’s office stated that no garbage would be stored at the site, but still, nearly every member of the council showed concern over the dialysis center.
Councilman Russo grilled representatives of the mayor’s office over how this particular street closure was chosen over any other street in northern Hoboken. Sixth Ward Councilman Nino Giacchi agreed, saying that whilehe thought in concept the new proposal was an “innovative idea for accomplishing the immediate need of getting out of the [current] garage,” it appeared that the decision to close this particular street was “made in a vacuum.”
City Business Manager Arch Liston said an analysis was done on the feasibility of closing other streets to park the municipal vehicles there, but there were even greater problems with the other options.
In the end, language was added to the resolution stating that the city is committed to taking whatever steps are required to preserve the existing medical and retail uses of the street.
The resolution was approved by a vote of 7-2, with Castellano and Russo voting no.
The council then discussed and voted on a resolution submitted by the mayor’s office to authorize “temporary appropriations” for the next three months to buy time for a full budget to be made. The new budget would start this past July and extend through Dec. 31. After that, the city is planning to pass calendar year budgets, rather than fiscal year budgets.
Many council members voiced concerns that allowing the mayor’s office to take longer to submit a budget to the council will give council members less time to cut it.
Councilman Russo spoke of a cycle in which “We front-load and fund things we might not necessarily want to spend on, and then we’re in a position where in order to make cuts we have to cut funds to senior centers” or make other cuts which are “hot button issues.”
In the end – despite objections being raised by nearly every council member – the members reluctantly voted 7-2 for a resolution to approve the temporary appropriations, with Castellano and Mason opposed.
Cop saved Moe’s life
The meeting took a collegial, feel-good turn as long-time local political activist Maurice “Moe” DeGennaro was given time to officially present an “Outstanding Achievement Award” to Hoboken Police Officer Brett L. Globke, who was instrumental in helping DeGennaro get prompt medical attention during a recent serious medical emergency he suffered.
Hoboken Chief of Police Anthony Falco first joked, “When I heard what Brett did, I was going to bring him up on charges” but went on to say that “To achieve praise from a citizen is the pinnacle” of what a police officer can hope to achieve.
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