A long battle for control of the city’s public housing board, the last of the city’s power bases not controlled by allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, may reach fever pitch on Thursday when the mayor’s allies will likely elect one of their own to chair the board at its annual reorganization meeting.
The Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) oversees the governance of the city’s 1,300-plus federally subsidized units for low-income and elderly residents, located in the southwestern and western sections of the city. The HHA is run by a paid staff and director, but they are overseen by a seven-member volunteer board of commissioners, each of whom is appointed by the mayor, the City Council, or the governor’s office.
“The only thing I can do is the right thing and hope people recognize that.” – Housing board member Dana Wefer
Current Chairman Rob Davis III, a resident of the city’s public housing, is widely seen as a supporter of Carmelo Garcia, the paid executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority. Garcia has been at odds with Zimmer for some time and is currently suing her, claiming she and her allies have intimidated him and threatened his employment. An early version of the suit was thrown out, but he has since re-filed a slightly modified version.
Two new board members, appointed by Zimmer’s supporters on the City Council in January, are likely to tip the scales against Davis and Garcia at the board’s meeting this Thursday. Dana Wefer and James Sanford, the new appointees, give Zimmer’s supporters a 5-4 board majority. Last week, Wefer said that she is planning to nominate someone to take Davis’ position and has heard that she will be nominated vice-chair. She also said that she would accept a nomination for chairman, should she be nominated.
Davis, meanwhile, said that he fully expects to lose the post on Thursday.
“I do expect it,” he said. “They have the votes on their side and as we’ve seen before, they know who they want to install, [Councilman-at-Large David] Mello or Wefer. They have the votes to do it.”
Who’s taking over?
It is possible that Mello, another Zimmer ally who has served on the housing board for almost two years, could receive Wefer’s nomination. Wefer would not say who she is planning to nominate. Mello did not return a phone call for comment.
Last year’s reorganization meeting ended in cheers and jeers as former Chairman Jake Stuiver, a Zimmer supporter, was ousted in a surprise vote. The meetings are regularly attended by vocal public housing residents, who typically ridicule Mello and Wefer, and Thursday is unlikely to be an exception. But the reorganization is mandated by federal law, said Davis.
“The best I can tell them is to respect the process,” he said. “I served my year, and unfortunately this vote is going to seem one-sided, but we have to respect the process.”
Wefer said that her decisions as a board member are always in the best interest of the Housing Authority’s residents.
“The only thing I can do is the right thing and hope people recognize that,” she said.
Mello and Wefer have both attempted to oust Davis through pocket resolutions over the last few months that would change the board’s bylaws to allow an election prior to the reorganization meeting.
At a meeting in mid-March and at one in January, Wefer and Mello introduced resolutions to oust Davis. At the board’s regular meeting on March 13, newly-appointed commissioner Dana Wefer tried to push through a resolution that would give the board the option of electing a new chair and vice-chair whenever a new composition of the board was in session.
The board’s lawyer, widely seen as an ally of Garcia who Zimmer allies have attempted to replace several times, said that the resolutions had not been presented legally and that any votes on them would not count.
The issues faced
The struggle for control of the housing board has focused mainly on three issues.
The largest is Vision 20/20, a controversial plan that would demolish several of the HHA’s aging buildings and replace them with mixed use buildings that resemble the rest of Hoboken. Garcia is the primary proponent of the plan, but Zimmer and her allies on the board have said they were not given enough information on it, so they have opposed it.
Wefer indicated last week that she is willing to take another look at Vision 20/20, while Garcia has said that the process is currently at a standstill. City Council members who have voted against supporting the project, including Mello, have cited a lack of information about oversight of the millions of dollars in contracts that could be awarded to complete the project.
Another issue is the leadership of Garcia himself. The director’s contract does not end until September 2015, but sources say that should Zimmer’s allies gain a majority next week, they will attempt to void his contract early. Garcia was elected to the state Assembly last November and has faced questions as to how he can serve the residents of an agency that has been troubled in the past, while still having time to go to Trenton.
Garcia declined to comment for this story, citing a bylaw that bars the executive director of a housing authority from publicly discussing the politics of the board.
Mello and Wefer have in the past also cited issues with the board’s legal counsel, Charles Daglian, and the manner in which certain contracts are bid out without what they say was enough due process.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com
Very few minorities in Hoboken’s leadership positions
The Hoboken public schools are made up of a population that is 61 percent Latino and 16 percent African-American, but the nine-member school board is 100 percent white. In fact, out of all the leadership positions in Hoboken, very few are filled by members of minority groups.
This week, the African-American chairman of Hoboken’s seven-member Housing Authority board, Rob Davis III, is likely to be replaced in that position by a Caucasian city council member, David Mello, who is an ally of Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Last year, the executive director of the housing board filed a lawsuit charging the mayor with “ethnic cleansing” – an extreme and, some say, unlikely charge. Still, the charge called attention to a possible trend: Not counting the Housing Authority board, there are no Latin-Americans filling the 37 major Hoboken board positions and City Hall directorships. Out of those posts, one is held by an African-American man, and an Indian-American council member is also on the Planning Board.
The Hoboken Housing Authority board oversees the city’s federally subsidized public housing, which contains a majority of the city’s black and Latin-American residents. It’s by far the most diverse board in town, with four members who are minorities – Davis, Eduardo Gonzalez, Jean Rodriguez and Judith Burrell.
But the last two commissioners who were named by the City Council to the housing board – Dana Wefer and James Sanford – are both white. Neither was publicly questioned by the City Council prior to the appointment, while Barbara Reyes, a Latina resident of the Housing Authority, was nominated multiple times last year and questioned by the council, and each time her appointment was blocked.
The rest of the city’s major boards fail to match the level of diversity on the housing board. The 11-member Planning Board (including alternates), with the lone exception of Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, a Zimmer ally who also serves on the City Council, is entirely white. The 11-member Zoning Board of Adjustment has Antonio Grana, who is of Spanish (although, a source on the board said, not Latin-American) descent. Both boards have one vacant slot.
The nine-member City Council is entirely white with the exception of Bhalla, whose parents came to the United States from India.
The six high-ranking department directors in City Hall are made up of five Caucasians and one African-American, Finance Director Solomon Steplight. The police and fire chiefs are also Caucasian.
According to the 2010 Census, Hoboken’s population is 82 percent white, 15.2 percent Latino, and 3.5 percent African-American.
Last week, Zimmer declined to comment on whether she had concerns about the diversity on the boards and within City Hall.
Appointments to the zoning and planning boards are determined by the mayor and the City Council. The vast majority of those appointments are left to the council, while the mayor can appoint one representative to each. The mayor is in charge of hiring city directors.
The school board is determined by the voters in November. For many years, it was traditional in Hoboken for the three-member Board of Education campaign slates, including from “reform” factions of Hoboken politics, to include at least one member of a minority group on the slate. Both slates that challenged the Zimmer-allied Kids First majority last November included a black or Latin-American candidate, but Kids First did not include any members of minority groups on their slate.
When Carmelo Garcia, the most recent Latino Hobokenite to serve on the Board of Education, stepped down in January to avoid conflicts with his new role as a state Assemblyman, he was replaced by the board with Monica Stromwall, who is white.