When Hoboken resident David Liebler began talking about legal matters involving the mayor’s husband at an Oct. 21 City Council meeting, Council President Ravi Bhalla had police escort him from the meeting. Now he has filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court of New Jersey to “restrain and enjoin defendants from further engaging in this outrageous behavior.”
Bhalla, who is himself an attorney, said that Liebler – a critic of the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer – was ejected for speaking about a “private citizen” and behaving “in a disorderly manner.”
Liebler filed the suit on Nov. 20 and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, counsel fees, and the costs of suit. He alleges that the expulsion violated his right to freedom of speech.
Perry Belfiore, a mayoral critic and former Board of Education member, was also ejected from the meeting after he began to speak on the same topic. He said last week that he is considering filing suit as well.
City Spokesman Juan Melli said the city of Hoboken was served with Liebler’s lawsuit, but that the mayor was not individually served.
Video of the ejections at the October meeting can be found at www.ustream.tv/recorded/75977949 near the 30 minute and one-hour mark.
Aftermath of ejections
Charles Gormally, Liebler’s attorney of Brach Eichler LLC of Roseland, says that during the designated public comments portion of the meeting, Liebler addressed several topics including bike safety, real estate projects, and budgetary issues.
Video of the ejections at the October 21 meeting can be found on the city website near the 30 minute and 1 hour mark.
Garcia is an administration critic who unsuccessfully ran for council last month. During his campaign, press outlets obtained numerous emails written by the mayor’s husband, Stan Grossbard, in reference to Garcia and his job while Garcia was head of the HHA. The emails were submitted as part of Garcia’s wrongful termination lawsuit and had been sent among Grossbard and two then-members of the housing board that oversaw him.
Mayor Zimmer declined to comment about the nature of the Liebler suit when asked to respond last week.
Toward the end of his five minutes, Liebler shifted his public comments into a specific subject: Stan Grossbard’s emails.
“He has never been elected,” Liebler said, “and you know what, all of the emails are … stop, stop, stop, why are you interrupting me? I want the record to show I have at least 45 seconds left … under the First Amendment, I can’t speak about a blog article…?”
Before he was able to finish, Bhalla had Liebler removed by police officers.
Gormally said last week, “It was very clear the council president was censoring speech in a place that should not occur. The mere mention of a descriptive term of a mayor’s husband was enough apparently to have the council president interrupt and ultimately have [Liebler] removed from council chambers during his public comment.”
In response to Bhalla’s contention that Liebler was “disorderly,” Gormally said that when Liebler was speaking, the situation only escalated because Bhalla interrupted.
Bhalla declined to comment directly on the pending litigation. However, a spokesperson for Bhalla, Ray Smith (a former staff writer for The Hoboken Reporter), said council meetings are not “an appropriate forum to launch political attacks on the spouses or family members of elected officials.”
In a statement sent to the Reporter via email, Smith said, “Council President Bhalla was performing his duties on the evening in question in strict accordance with the rules governing council meetings. This matter has nothing to do with free speech. It’s about certain members of the public abusing the City Council by trying to create a political circus at their meeting. Civil discourse on governmental affairs, not petty politics, should guide public discussions at City Council meetings.”
Liebler’s attorney has been involved in other Hoboken matters, notably representing clients in Hoboken in attempts to revise the city’s longstanding 1973 Rent Control Ordinance. When asked whether Liebler was funding the suit himself, Gormally cited attorney client privilege and declined to answer. He noted only that the lawsuit, if decided in Liebler’s favor, would be paid for by the city.
The City Council rules and procedures, provided by City Clerk Jerry Lore, are somewhat opaque on the matter of ejecting people from meetings. They largely provide guidelines for operating the comments portion.
“A speaker may address the City Council on any subject relevant to the affairs and interests of the City of Hoboken during the Public Portion on the agenda,” reads Rule 13. “Any speaker addressing the Council during this period will be limited to five (5) minutes unless the presiding officers in his or her discretion, decides that more time should be allotted to the speaker.”
A subsequent subsection of Rule 16 says that the members of the Police Department “shall carry out all appropriate orders and instructions given by the presiding officer for the purpose of maintaining order and decorum at any council meeting.”
While lacking knowledge on the particulars in the ejection at the October meeting, John “Jay” Coffey, the Bayonne Law Director, said council presidents are generally in charge of the meeting.
“The council has the right to conduct the meetings as it sees fit within its confines,” said Coffey. “If someone belies or slanders a public or private figure, that person is putting themselves at risk and I would think the council has ability to stop someone [in those cases].”
But Coffey added that it’s “sad” if situations rise to the level of someone being ejected.
This is not the first suit against the city by a member of the public who was removed from a council meeting, although the circumstances of the last one differed. In 1996, during the administration of Mayor Anthony Russo, the City Council ejected a Bayonne resident named Anthony Chiappone (who later became a Bayonne councilman) because he was videotaping the meeting, which was not a common practice at the time. He was there to help out a Hoboken taxpayer group that was critical of the administration. The situation differed in that Chiappone was actually arrested and taken to police headquarters. He sued the city and won.
In a letter to the council last week, Grossbard said he doesn’t have a problem with people mentioning him, within reason.
In a Dec. 1 emailed letter from Grossbard to Council President Ravi Bhalla (provided to the newspaper by Smith), he wrote, “Please be advised that I have no objection to members of the public using the public comment portion of City Council meetings to express their opinions about what they, rightly or wrongly, claim to perceive to be my role as a private citizen in Hoboken civic affairs.” However, he noted, “In the event any disparaging and defamatory comments are made that relate to my private non-civic affairs, I reserve all of my rights to appropriately address the matter.”
Earlier in the same October public meeting, Perry Belfiore was ejected following similar comments. Belfiore speaks around the 30-minute mark of the video.
At the meeting, he said, “Since I have been involved in politics, there has been a raging question: What is the extent to which a sitting mayor can intrude on a sovereign function of an independent body or board?”
The Hoboken Housing Authority is an independent agency overseen by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It oversees the city’s low-income housing. Before Garcia was terminated, he had been at odds with Zimmer’s allies.
Belfiore continued at the meeting, “Detractors of the mayor would say ‘None.’ Fans of the mayor would say ‘As far as she could go or he could go, and then some.’ The question has never been posed, ‘What of the mayor’s spouse?’ What rights does the mayor’s spouse have?’ ”
That was when Bhalla cut him off, saying he could not make comments about a “private citizen.”
Belfiore alleged that aside from being physically removed from the council chambers, he was forced to the ground by police officers outside the clerk’s office.
Belfiore, a construction manager, said he wants to know how the council president can eject someone from a meeting “that hasn’t broken any municipal, county or federal laws.”
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through,” he said.
Steven Rodas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.