The board that makes sure your toilets flush properly is about to look a little different.
Frank “Pupie” Raia, a wealthy Hoboken developer and North Hudson Sewerage Authority (NHSA) commissioner, was passed over for reappointment to the all-volunteer board in favor of former freeholder candidate Kurt Gardiner at the City Council meeting on Wednesday Jan. 20.
In front of a vehement crowd in the council chambers, three applicants were considered for the five-year term on the nine-commissioner board: Raia, Gardiner, and current NHSA Commissioner Brian Assadourian, who had applied to leave his two-year term in order to fill the five-year seat.
The NHSA deals with the sewage systems in Hoboken, Weehawken, and West New York.
Spots on the NHSA board used to come with medical benefits but no longer do for new commissioners. Raia has served on the authority since 1988, minus a two-year gap.
Second Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher nominated Gardiner – a strong supporter of Mayor Dawn Zimmer – for the position, with a second by Councilman Ravi Bhalla. Councilman David Mello then nominated Raia for the position instead, and was seconded by 5th Ward Councilman Peter Cunningham.
“[Raia] has experience, but I keep getting questions about what’s going on there.” – Kurt Gardiner
Cunningham usually supports Zimmer’s agenda, but it was unclear who the administration supported on Wednesday. For the last year, there rumors of various political deals involving Raia trading his support for future positions. In last year’s City Council race, Raia was the only candidate to take on Zimmer opponent Michael Russo for 3rd Ward council. Zimmer failed to put up a “reform” candidate against them both.
Raia vs. Gardiner
Before voting, Cunningham said he voted for Raia because of Raia’s “experience, relationships and success.” Raia has also served as a Hoboken councilman and school board president.
“Mr. Raia has sat on the commissioner board for a long time, but he has pulled in, I think, more funding [for Hoboken] relative to the other towns in North Hudson,” said Cunningham. He also noted that Raia helped lift the NHSA’s bond rating from an A- to an A.
Despite nominating Raia, Mello voted for Gardiner. Before the meeting’s end he said had to leave to deal with a family matter.
“I would’ve preferred Frank to be voted on first,” Mello told the Hoboken Reporter in the hallway before leaving City Hall. “We don’t have a precedent of doing that, but when somebody is an incumbent, particularly when they’ve held that seat for as long as he has, it would’ve been nice for him to have been voted on first….I would’ve definitely supported him in that vote.”
Mello said he voted in favor of Gardiner to send a clear message that he has “faith in him.”
“I think I’m going to bring transparency to the NHSA,” said Gardiner after he was appointed. He disputed claims from local politicos that Mayor Zimmer encouraged him to apply for the post.
He said of the NHSA, “They talk about capital plans but they do seem to be shrouded in this cloak of secrecy.”
Gardiner said he recently heard of the public’s concern about a proposed flood wall to be built on 12th and Garden Streets as part of one of the Rebuild by Design concepts. Although he has never served on the NHSA or another public city board, Gardiner said, “There’s a fair argument to be made about experience versus inexperience, but there’s a point where you have to go into a new direction and I think that’s what my vote represented. No disrespect to Frank Raia, he has experience, but I keep getting questions about what’s going on there [on the authority], and it is a bit of a black box.”
A noticeably less exuberant Raia exited the council chambers once the decision was made.
“I understand that the best person for the job didn’t get the job,” he said.
He named a number of reasons why he felt he was the better choice, starting from the moment he began on the NHSA when it was “in total disarray and the city was dumping raw sewage into the Hudson River.”
“I took over a plant that wasn’t in compliance for 30 years. I privatized the plant. I put it in full compliance by bringing in top engineers in the United States, built a secondary sewerage plant for the waterfront from West New York all the way to Hoboken,” he said, before pausing. “They’re losing their best commissioner.”
But the city’s political observers have long promoted a theory that Mayor Felix Roque of West New York will simply nominate Raia for that city’s open seat.
Raia has much wealth and influence at his disposal for political campaign help.
Commissioner draws flak
Commissioner Brian Assadourian, who has three years left in his term on the board, was criticized by a number of residents for applying for a different seat on a board he is already a part of.
Assadourian’s application says he submitted for the five-year seat on Jan. 15, while Raia submitted his on Dec. 18 and Gardiner on Jan. 10.
When asked on the application why he was interested in the position, Assadourian wrote, “I have served on this position for two years and would like to apply for the five-year term that is becoming available.”
But that explanation did not sit well with some at the meeting.
“This really strikes me as odd, because as someone who is on a board in the middle of a term, it would never ever occur to me to go apply when I’m not even half way done with my term,” said resident Cheryl Fallick during the meeting.
Resident Greg Bond, who spoke after Fallick, said Assadourian’s interest in the five-year seat was a “concern.”
“If any [council member is] interested in supporting him, I would really appreciate a nice cogent, simple argument for why this is necessary,” he said.
Although Bhalla seconded Gardiner’s nomination, he said his “personal preference” was Assadourian.
“The reason being because he’s been there for at least two years, and if we’re going to make an appointment that goes five years out – that appointment is more than the mayor, more than the council members – I felt it was the more judicious, the more cautious approach,” said Bhalla.
In response to Fallick and Bond, Bhalla likened his support for Assadourian to appointments to the Zoning Board of Adjustments. The Zoning Board, he said, has alternate members with two-year terms who, if their track record proves fruitful, are given the equivalent of a promotion in a longer term. His ideal situation would have been to place Assadourian in the five-year seat – since he has a “good track record” – and thus place Gardiner in Assadourian’s remaining three-year seat so he could “get his feet wet.”
Ultimately, though, he said the public had spoken and in their interest he would vote in favor of Gardiner.
He noted that the NHSA is known to hold meetings that last 20 minutes, which he feels indicates that more transparency is necessary. In addition, he added, the NHSA should have a more public presence in regard to the $230 million Rebuild by Design flood protection plans.
Tony Soares of Hoboken, who is currently on the NHSA with one year remaining, had initially signed up to speak for the resolution concerning the appointment but decided to pass when the nominees were announced.
After Gardiner’s appointment, Soares said, “The reason I was looking to speak was I didn’t like the little bit of games that were happening when they wanted to re-run an existing commissioner…tonight is how it should’ve been, between two people, not somebody that is already on the board and wanting for the same position like Mr. Assodourian.”
While he did not directly address the criticism, Assodourian said the day following the meeting, “I would like to thank Frank Raia for his many years of dedicated service as an NHSA Commissioner and very much look forward to working closely with Kurt Gardner to continue to address the sewerage and flooding issues that impact Hoboken and the surrounding region.”
For more on the appointment, read this week’s “Between The Lines” column by Al Sullivan.
Steven Rodas can be reached at email@example.com.