A resolution to (again) appoint James Doyle to Hoboken City Council was passed Wednesday night by a vote of 5-4. However, Doyle was not sworn in or seated, as the vote has to be interpreted by a Superior Court judge.
It was back in October that the council majority aligned with Mayor Dawn Zimmer first voted to appoint Doyle to the vacant seat, after Councilwoman-At-Large Carol Marsh resigned. But the four anti-Zimmer council members took the matter to court and got it overturned.
A Superior Court judge has since ordered that all council members revote – but not with the intention of immediately restoring Doyle to the seat.
The resolution to vote on Doyle was tabled at the beginning of Wednesday night’s meeting, as Councilwoman Beth Mason was set to arrive late. The resolution was finally voted on halfway through the meeting after the arrival of both Councilwoman Mason, and later, Mayor Dawn Zimmer. The vote still needs to be interpreted by Judge Peter Bariso, the same Superior Court judge who has rejected the appointment from October.
Mason and Councilman Michael Russo, who are against the appointment, abstained during the vote. The question of whether an abstention is a no vote or a non-vote has been debated since October. City attorney Mellissa Longo said that in her opinion, the case law shows that abstentions are recognized as “no” votes when a certain number of votes are needed. In the case of Doyle, a majority of five votes were needed to appoint him.
“What you are doing is practically fraud.” – David Liebler
Judge Bariso is leaving the docket open in order to hear those who may contest Wednesday’s vote before Doyle can be seated.
Fees, fees and more fees
Legal fees comprised the majority of the agenda Wednesday night. Longo provided the council with a 12 page memo explaining every single contract through the first quarter. Still, a few contracts caused major debate.
A contract for the politically connected firm of Weiner Lesniak in the not to exceed the amount of $230,000 for land use lawsuits was the first to stir the council. Especially when another resolution sought to pay another law firm for a land use lawsuit. Councilman Tim Occhipinti suggested hiring an in-house attorney at a high salary who specializes in land use, but was told it was not feasible for one person to do the job.
The second contract also elicited commotion, for another reason. The $35,000 contract to hire attorney Edward Buzak was for a land use lawsuit involving a stretch of land known as “block 12.” The city has worked to acquire block 12 for the creation of a southwest Hoboken park.
This piece of private property was allegedly appraised for $10 million at one point and then $2 million at another point by the same appraiser. Now the city is trying to acquire it through eminent domain for $2 million from the private owner. A member of the public, David Liebler, called this “fraud.” He specifically blamed Mayor Zimmer.
“What you are doing is practically fraud,” said Liebler. “The use of eminent domain for something like a park, I have no words. Mayor Zimmer did not even sit down and try to negotiate. You can’t have the same appraiser go from $10 million to $2 million. That’s like me going to your house and saying it’s worth $500,000 and then $300,000.”
Members of the council argued about how an appraisal works for a situation like this. Councilwoman Jen Giattino said, “Appraisals are not set one way. There are many different ways that a property can be appraised.”
Councilman Mike Russo rebutted, “When you appraise a property, you appraise a property. If [people] are going to say that the appraiser was asked to do it one way then was asked to do it another, then that calls the appraiser into question.”
From a motion to commotion
Around an hour into the meeting, Councilwoman Beth Mason arrived and voted against a legal contract on the agenda (resolution 8). Later in the meeting, Mason asked for a motion to change her vote. It was unclear whether her motion needed to be seconded.
Ultimately, a revote on the contract was permitted and the resolution passed. However, immediately after, Councilman Russo and Councilwoman Mason tried to also make a motion to revote on resolution number 6, the eminent domain contract for Buzak, which Mason had not been present to vote on. The council minority believed Mason was entitled to a vote until the end of the night. Other members of council believed she could only make a motion to revote on resolutions she actually voted on, and not ones that she was absent for.
Longo gave an opinion that the resolutions Mason was not present for had already passed. The vote on the contract for Buzak and eminent domain was not reopened.
Rent control ruffles residents
Three members of the tenant advocacy group Hoboken Fair Housing Association (HFHA) stressed their discontent with the city during the public portion of the meeting. The city has been sued over a recent public question on the November ballot. The question, which sought to do away with rent control both permanently and temporarily depending on the building, was a victory for HFHA, thereby keeping rent control. However, the Mile Square Taxpayer Association (MSTA) – a landlords’ and property owners’ group – only lost the measure by 52 votes.
Now, the MSTA’s attorney has alleged that 92 votes were not counted or were denied due to flooding.
HFHA tried to intervene in the court proceeding last week and was perturbed to find that the city was not present in the courtroom.
“Was the city not informed to be there on January 11? Why didn’t anyone represent the taxpayers? I am disgusted beyond belief,” said Mary Ondrejka.
Resident David Liebler also spoke again at the meeting. He accused Councilman Ravi Bhalla, who is up for reelection next November, of obtaining a $125,000 contract with the city of Newark the day after donating $2,400 to Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s campaign. The matter was discussed almost three years ago in a Star Ledger article. Liebler also told Bhalla he should write a letter to the city of Hoboken apologizing.
“You talk about wheeling so directly, but in Hudson County you are just as guilty if not worse,” said Liebler.
Bhalla said Liebler was wrong and that he had admitted to mistakes in the past.
“Three years ago, when I did not comply, I had the guts to admit it,” Bhalla said. “I am not going to write a letter to the city of Hoboken.”
Bhalla also said that Liebler was bringing up very old allegations.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.