Tense moments at council meeting

Controversial Zoning Board member to stay; rent control changes head to ballot

The City Council approved a new director, rejected an attempt to remove a Zoning Board member, and stripped the longtime residency requirement for city employees in a meeting that quickly turned heated on Wednesday evening.
The council voted down a resolution to remove Nancy Pincus, a Zoning Board member who blogs under the Internet name “Grafix Avenger,” from her unpaid post on the board.
Pincus, who supports Mayor Dawn Zimmer, often takes aim on her personal blog at Zimmer’s opponents, including Councilman Tim Occhipinti and Councilwoman Beth Mason. Occhipinti and Mason sponsored the resolution to remove her from the Zoning Board.

“We need to be fair, and we need to be even handed.” – Councilman David Mello
Several of Pincus’ posts have aroused their ire in the last year. Most recently, Pincus posted on her blog what her supporters call a series of satirical “Letters to the FBI,” obliquely referring to an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged e-mail tampering in City Hall. The tampering was rumored to have been done by Zimmer’s opponents, because the mayor’s administration called in the FBI. In one recent satirical letter on her blog, Pincus said she wanted to become an FBI agent and knew who to arrest in Hoboken. She made references to visiting the homes of certain council members – without naming them, but listing streets – and spoke about how she wanted a gun as an agent.
“I think I’d do a great job,” she wrote on the blog. “First of all, I’ve always wanted to shoot someone. I’d get a gun, right? Well, I’d definitely use it. Alot [sic]. Maybe every day. Bang, bang! Take that!”
Pincus also joked in the letter about having falafel with FBI agents, asking if they like theirs with hot sauce.
Pincus confirmed that since the post went up, Hoboken Police Department detectives visited her home to interview her. She said that they questioned her for about an hour, and that the visit scared her daughter.
The police visit came after Occhipinti complained to police about the post that mentioned shooting a gun.
At Wednesday’s meeting, city attorney Mark Tabakin said that he was told there were no pending legal investigations into what Pincus wrote on her blog.
Pincus submitted a letter asking that her situation be discussed in council executive session, according to Tabakin. After a seemingly heated closed session – yelling could be heard from the outside hallway – the council voted 5-3 against the resolution to oust Pincus.
Mason ultimately did not vote on the issue. She tried to speak on the matter before and during the vote, but was told by Tabakin that since Pincus requested that all discussion be done in closed session, she should not speak publicly on the issue.
Mason and her allies said their comments had been suppressed during the closed session.
“The public has a right to know why I’m voting the way I’m voting,” Mason said.
Council President Ravinder Bhalla asked Tabakin if the city would be exposed to legal liability “by Councilwoman Mason opening her mouth.”
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano said, “We just argued about First Amendment. Nancy Pincus has freedom of speech to say that she wants to shoot somebody, but we can’t make a statement about her statement?”
Mason did not register a vote on the issue due to the commotion. Bhalla asked City Clerk James Farina to continue to call for the vote. Mason refused to say yes or no, demanding that she be allowed an explanation.
She stood up and walked to the public microphone in front of the council to read a statement as a member of the public. Her attempt to speak was denied, and Bhalla quickly took a vote to adjourn the meeting.

Rent control amendments headed to ballot

The council took no action on the controversial issue of rent control, which means that the fate of three changes to the law will likely be up to the people to decide by way of a November referendum.
Rent control applies to apartments built in Hoboken before 1987, and limits the amount that landlords can raise rents on an annual basis. In March, the council unanimously made three changes to tighten the city’s 1973 rent control ordinance. But some tenants believe the changes were largely unfair.
The major change limited the amount of back rent that a tenant can win in court due to an illegal overcharge from a landlord. Landlords claim that sloppy record keeping on the city’s part makes it difficult today to determine what the legal rent was. The law previously allowed tenants to collect back rent for the duration of a violation once it has been proven, up to triple damages. The new change limits the reimbursement to two years of back rent.
Another change makes it easier for landlords to apply for a vacancy decontrol, a 25 percent rent increase implemented if a tenant moves out. A third change requires landlords to inform tenants of their rights.
Tenant advocates took to the streets to collect petitions, and after court battles that stretched from March until August, the Hoboken city clerk’s office was ordered by a Hudson County judge to approve the three changes for a referendum, suspending the ordinance.
Thus, the measure could either be repealed by the City Council or placed on the ballot for the public to decide.
Since the council did not repeal the changes – which came after two years of deliberations by a council subcommittee – the public can vote this November on them.
The council has until Sept. 14 to repeal the ordinance, according to the city.
Ron Simoncini is a spokesperson for the Mile Square Taxpayers Association, a group of landlords in the city who were pushing for changes to the law.
“Let’s see what the people really think about rent control,” Simoncini said at the meeting. “It’s time.”
Dan Tumpson, a tenant advocate who helped gather the signatures for referendum, said at the meeting that he believes the council should repeal the legislation.
Bhalla said, “I don’t have any intention to repeal what I worked a year and a half to accomplish.”
An expensive and intense campaign is expected from both sides heading toward Election Day. The state Election Law Enforcement Commission does not limit expenses for referendum campaigns.
Meanwhile, in a special council meeting held last Saturday, the council repealed a recent ordinance that would move municipal elections from May to November. Zimmer’s allies had voted for the change, but her opponents gathered petitions so that it would be forced onto the ballot this November.
Councilman Peter Cunningham, a sponsor of the ordinance to move Election Day, said the council is repealing the change because the public has asked them to do so (via the petitions). He said it differs from the rent control issue because the council spent almost two years discussing the rent control changes, while the Election Day change is a relatively new issue. He added that the council voted unanimously on rent control, while they were divided on the November election issue.

New director appointed

Jon Tooke, a former Jersey City Police Officer with FBI experience, was appointed as the director of public safety by a 7-2 vote. Tooke will be paid $110,000 annually.
Tooke replaces Angel Alicea, who resigned after he told Zimmer that he had two meetings with Solomon Dwek, an FBI informant in the federal sting operation that brought down former Mayor Peter Cammarano in 2009.
Mason voted against the resolution. She said her vote was partly because an audit released in 2010 indicated that the position was no longer necessary.
Occhipinti also voted against the appointment. However, Mason and Occhipinti were against the audit in 2010, and were major opponents of the mayor’s plan to lay off police officers, as the audit suggested.

Residency requirement rescinded

The council narrowly voted to repeal a longtime requirement saying most city employees – except for those in certain specialized positions – had to live in town.
Resident Scott Siegel said at the meeting that he was in favor of the vote because now the city can expand the pool of candidates from which it draws for open positions.
However, Councilman Michael Russo, who is an opponent of the mayor and often appeals to the “born and raised” crowd in Hoboken, staunchly opposed the repeal of the law.
“I am sick and tired of hearing that we deserve the best and the brightest and they can’t be found in Hoboken,” Russo said. “We certainly can find them in Hoboken…this protects the citizens who we are elected to protect.”
Cunningham, an ally of the mayor, said the city would always give preference to Hoboken residents.
“We need to be fair, and we need to be even handed,” said Councilman David Mello, who voted to repeal the law.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com

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