SPEAK UP!
Council change means public can talk first; council debates parks and more
by Stephen LaMarca
Reporter Staff Writer
Jun 24, 2012 | 870 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Council President Ravi Bhalla’s resolution to change the procedure of council meetings passed in a 5-4 vote Wednesday.
Council President Ravi Bhalla’s resolution to change the procedure of council meetings passed in a 5-4 vote Wednesday.
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Wednesday’s City Council meeting – which was filled with more than the usual amount of heated exchanges – appropriately took place on the first day of a late June heat wave.

Although the most contentious moments were regarding a Housing Authority appointment (see cover story), several other major issues were discussed.

Most noteworthy may be the coming changes to the format of the meetings. Residents will no longer have to wait five or six hours to speak about certain agenda items (note: the meeting ran so late that the public comments portion of Wednesday’s meeting technically took place on Thursday).

Sponsored by Council President Ravi Bhalla, a resolution was approved to move the public speaking portion from the tail end of the meeting to near the beginning. The measure takes effect at the next meeting.
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“New Jersey is the most built-out state in the nation. It’s very important that we keep every tool on the table.” – Councilman David Mello
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The resolution received five votes from the members of the council typically aligned with the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer: Bhalla, Jen Giattino, Peter Cunningham, David Mello, and Carol Marsh.

Residents will be able to speak for up to five minutes on any topic near the beginning of the meeting, after the council finishes the part of the agenda reserved for final votes on ordinances that were already heard at a previous meeting. (New ordinances are heard at the end.)

Additionally, the passing of an amendment proposed by Giattino will allow speakers up to seven minutes at once if they want to address more than one resolution on the agenda.

Council President Ravi Bhalla will be allowed to stop the public portion after one hour, if deemed necessary.

Also under the resolution, the attendance of city directors at the meetings will no longer be mandatory. Instead, only the city clerk, deputy city clerk, corporation counsel (city attorney), and the business administrator will be required to attend all meetings, unless excused by the council president.

Some members of the council minority (the members not allied with the current administration) said they did not support the resolution because they felt that city directors should be required to attend meetings.

“I definitely do not agree with not having our directors at the meeting,” said Councilman Tim Occhipinti. “They should be here. They make well over 100 thousand dollars a year. I won’t be supporting it.”

“We’re putting a lot more on the business administrator now,” said Michael Russo.

Bhalla said that the administration will be tasked with making sure the directors are present when need be.

“It’s the responsibility of the administration to make sure directors or the business administrator are present to answer questions to the satisfaction of the council members,” said Bhalla.

Another change will be the stricter enforcement of a deadline to submit agenda items. Currently, according to a memo from Bhalla, the deadline to submit agenda items is at 4 p.m. on the Thursday preceding a council meeting. Bhalla, however, said that items have been submitted well past the deadline and made it onto the agenda. Under the new resolution, only items deemed "urgent in nature" will be heard at a council meeting if they are submitted past the deadline. Items deemed urgent must be accompanied by a written statement before they can be approved for the agenda by the mayor or the City Council.

“On the whole, I think this is a very good revision,” said People for Open Government President Alice Crozier, adding that the failure to enforce the deadline had led to a decrease in transparency in government. “When things are late and they arrive at the last minute, the public certainly never gets a chance to see them or supporting documents and to formulate a comment. I hope these deadlines will be enforced.”

Other changes with the resolution include barring council members from making any additional statements or remarks during the vote, and disallowing a no-confidence vote of the council to remove the council president from his or her chair.

Additional eminent domain authorized

An ordinance was adopted that will authorize eminent domain as a negotiation tool for the process of acquiring property in the 3rd and 5th wards for park land. The ordinance received votes in favor from each member of the council majority.

The administration would like to acquire the former Henkel/Cognis chemical plant in the northwest section, and the former Pino towing yard.

“New Jersey is the most built-out state in the nation,” said Mello. It’s very important that we keep every tool on the table. Without [eminent domain authorization], prices will keep getting upped and upped.”

Resident Leah Healey said that the city should move forward in a timely manner while the properties are still vacant.

“Both of these properties that you are seeking to acquire are vacant,” said Healey. “That could change.”

Glenn Pantel, an attorney for one of the involved property owners, said that there have not been sit-down discussions over the possible acquisition of the land.

“We’d like to engage in that dialogue with the city,” said Pantel, later adding, “We don’t think that at this point, the city has to rely on condemnation.”

Council minority member Michael Russo said that the city should attempt negotiations before authorizing eminent domain.

“It is my understanding here tonight that before this council is a vote to impose the heavy hand of government on someone who we never even had a conversation with,” said Russo.

The ordinance is part of an ongoing measure to acquire park land. An ordinance had been adopted in a 5-4 vote at the June 6 meeting that enabled the council to utilize eminent domain to acquire a roughly one-acre stretch of park land in the southwest (4th Ward).

Other matters

A resolution was passed amending an existing contract with Remington and Vernick Engineers in the amount of $71,900 as part of an ongoing effort to redesign 1600 Park and Hoboken Cove. The amended contract will finance additional remediation at the sites.

A bond ordinance that would have been primarily used to expand the city’s shuttle system failed to receive the necessary six votes for adoption.

The $497,000 bond would have been used to buy five new Hop shuttle buses and a “bucket truck” to help with the repair and installation of traffic signals. There are currently three Hop shuttle buses that travel along different routes throughout the city. The shuttles service three routes, which are indicated by the red, blue, and green signs that decorate each bus. Currently, the shuttles only travel weekdays and charge a $1 fare. The red route also operates as a daytime shuttle for senior citizens, who can ride free of charge.

A resolution was passed designating portions of the southwest ward as an “area in need of rehabilitation.” Those specific portions of town, which had previously been under study as a redevelopment area, will not be subject to eminent domain under the rehabilitation initiative. This initiative does not include the roughly 1-acre park that the council authorized eminent domain for earlier this month.

Stephen LaMarca may be reached at slamarca@hudsonreporter.com.

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