Incumbent Mayor James Davis is being challenged by former Assemblyman and firefighter Jason O’Donnell and physician and private attorney Dr. Mitchell Brown.
Many residents are not yet in the full swing of the campaign season, as their attention has been drawn to national news and surviving the winter weather.
“You know I’m voting, but I don’t know for who yet. I haven’t done my due diligence,” said a 40-year-old 25th Street resident last week.
Who’s in the race
Davis will campaign on his record, while O’Donnell has been challenging both the mayor’s record and his character – a central theme in the O’Donnell campaign, whose slogan is, “character and commitment.”
Dr. Brown, a physician and attorney with a longtime private practice in midtown on Broadway, is running on a message of stabilizing the tax base, supporting the elderly with better social programs, and adequately funding schools and childcare, even if it means smaller police and fire budgets.
Brown announced his candidacy two weeks ago and has been largely outside of the political fray. All three candidates identify as Democrats, but the elections are nonpartisan.
“This matter is not just about lewd and embarrassing behavior.” – Sharma Montgomery
In recent weeks, the O’Donnell campaign has criticized the mayor for spending $17,000 on furniture at City Hall, and for too often using tax abatements and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) in redevelopment plans. The campaign has also criticized the Davis administration for withholding details of a police brutality settlement that stemmed from a 2013 incident of police brutality, a case that had occurred before Mayor Davis was in office. (The details of the suit came out only after a year-long court battle with a daily newspaper.) The O’Donnell campaign also criticized an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit from a former City Hall employee against Davis that involved lewd text messages.
Davis has defended these various criticisms.
Regarding his development policies, in a column on March 14, he wrote about “smart development.” He wrote, “Smart development means recapturing land that has been dormant for generations and returning it to the tax rolls…Smart development also means getting the developer to invest not just in their building but in our city. That has been done under my watch.”
PILOTs allow developers to avoid the fluctuations of overall taxes (determined by county, school, and city budgets) and make payments directly to a city. These allow towns to lure new developers, but some say they are overused.
O’Donnell argues that by paying money directly to the city instead of to public schools, it’s harder for the tax base to support public school budgets.
The school district now gets 5 percent of PILOT payments, since the City Council passed an ordinance last spring.
Davis, and the five council candidates running on his ticket, argue that the properties that have abatements and PILOTs are likely to attract less people with school-age children who’d use the district.
O’Donnell earlier this month issued a press releases criticizing Councilman-at-large Juan Perez, who is running on Davis’s council ticket, of “flip-flopping” regarding tax abatements. The release had attached a four-year-old Hudson County TV interview in which Perez criticized the use of abatements.
Davis touted his record on development. During his one term in office, the empty space on the former Military Ocean Terminal Base has been sold and developed, park redevelopment and construction have kept pace with the rest of county, and businesses like Costco and Starbucks are coming in, all good things, he said.
He’s also recently announced plans for an affordable housing complex on Oak Street using money from the sale of an abandoned building that once stood. And a new luxury residential development on 19 East 19th Street now is under construction.
A commuter ferry from the former Military Ocean Terminal Base is also closer to reality after the City of Bayonne and the Port Authority of NY and NJ signed a nonbinding term sheet that should pave the way to negotiations to build the terminal on the southern end of the base.
Allegations that Davis sent lewd text messages to a former City Hall employee, which could constitute sexual harassment, were made by former employee, Stacie Percella, last spring (https://tinyurl.com/y83drnrz). Davis has called the messages “playful banter,” and has ignored calls from Percella at several council meetings to resign.
City Council candidates Sharma Montgomery and Maria Enriquez-Rada, both running on O’Donnell’s ticket, issued a joint statement last week calling the mayor’s behavior “lewd and embarrassing,” and said he is using “taxpayer money to fund his defense against poor judgment in his personal life.”
In campaign season, otherwise regular ordinances, contracts, and projects end up hotly debated.
In March, a parking ordinance was introduced at the City Council meeting to require residents to apply for permits to park in front of their driveways.
The initial ordinance required a $50 annual permit fee, which sounded some alarm in Bayonne, where residents already park in front of their driveways, and where they believe the rules are selectively enforced.
The public (and O’Donnell) criticized the measure at the council meeting and online. The day after the meeting, the City Council dropped the matter of the fee.
Online, local political issues and messages have devolved into attacks that would not likely happen in person. This may turn some away from civic engagement. But the issues are likely to be discussed with more frequency next month. The Community News will also host a debate, to be taped and posted at hudsonreporter.com.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.