This is the fourth in a series of articles on Hoboken’s upcoming May 10 City Council races.
Politicians from the city’s 4th Ward often complain about the treatment the southwestern corner of Hoboken receives. They say there’s not enough park space. They say that flooding is a problem. They say that the needs of the residents of the public housing projects are only heeded at election time.
The two candidates jockeying for the ward seat in the May 10 City Council election, like past politicians, promise quality of life improvements in the ward.
Incumbent Councilman Tim Occhipinti, 33, and resident Rami Pinchevsky, 30, are two of Hoboken’s youngest players on the city’s political scene. Occhipinti is defending his seat just seven months after he defeated former Councilman Michael Lenz in a November special election. He was recently named council vice president.
Both candidates are under 35.
Occhipinti is an information technology specialist at a firm in New York City. He moved to Hoboken three years ago. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where he studied government. He also founded a group of young professionals who volunteer around Hoboken.
Pinchevsky works as a pension actuary in Secaucus. He moved to Hoboken in 2002 after he graduated from Florida State University. Pinchevsky believes with his professional financial background he can help the council tackle the city’s $101 million budget.
Pinchevsky’s involvement in city politics began as a founding member of “Save Block 11” in late 2007. The group successfully called on the city to stop a developer from building on land designated as park space in the master plan. Pinchevsky said he went to the City Council, Zoning Board, and the Planning Board to protest, which piqued his interest in city politics. He was later appointed to the Planning Board in the summer of 2010.
“I realized there’s this level of corruption and incompetence in Hoboken,” Pinchevsky said. “I became frustrated that educated decisions weren’t being made.”
Occhipinti lost a council “at large” bid in 2009, but said he wanted to stay involved and serve the community. So, he founded Hoboken Volunteers, a non-profit organization that gives residents an opportunity to volunteer in the community.
Although Hoboken’s elections are non-partisan, meaning candidates do not identify with a specific political party, two parties have formed in Hoboken. There are those who often agree with the approach of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and those who generally oppose some of her objectives and instead side with Mason.
Although Occhipinti often votes against the mayor along with other members of the council majority, he said he has worked with Zimmer in the past.
“At the [mid-March] council meeting, I voted to approve the attorneys for redevelopment,” he said. “I am the chair of the economic development subcommittee and I didn’t want to hold up the projects.”
But, Occhipinti says, he also has to “hold the administration accountable.”
Pinchevsky has received the endorsement of Zimmer. But, Pinchevsky said he wouldn’t have any regrets about voting against the mayor if she didn’t “put the 4th Ward first.” The mayor also lives in the 4th Ward and has represented the ward on the council.
“I consider myself lucky to have her support, but my number one priorities are for the residents of the 4th Ward,” Pinchevsky said.
The budget and taxes
Pinchevsky feels he’s more qualified to deal with the city’s budget than Occhipinti.
“Taxes are such a big issue for residents, and we need someone that can tackle it and address it,” Pinchevsky said. “We need more than just a lip service line like we’re going to cut 20 percent across the board. I have an actual plan to address it.”
Pinchevsky said he would hope to cut back on the city’s debt service, as well as go after smaller expenses to chip away at the budget.
“I also want to improve technology in City Hall to make it cost efficient,” Pinchevsky said. He sees attacking the budget almost like “a game of chess.”
“You have to look 10 steps ahead,” he said. “If we’re going to reduce the budget it’s going to take a couple of years and we have to have a plan. I have the qualifications and experience to do that.”
Pinchevsky is in favor of the city holding onto the $5 million cash surplus.
“Every source of information says you should try to have a 10 percent surplus,” Pinchevsky said. “I think we should listen to that. It’s nice to say at election time that we should give it back, but what’s going to happen next year?”
Occhipinti believes the city should give the surplus back to the taxpayers.
“We need to give back as much as is fiscally responsible,” Occhipinti said. When pressed for a number, Occhipinti said “5 percent is too much” to keep, and that “more should be given back.”
“The role of government should be that it takes in what it needs to service its citizens and no more,” he said. “Government is not meant to have a rainy day fund. Take the surplus, and apply it to the tax levy.”
Parks and development
Many politicians representing the 4th Ward have promised park space in the past, and both candidates are making that same promise this year.
The city is currently waiting for the results of a redevelopment study for a portion of the city’s southwest, which would determine whether or not the area is in need of redevelopment. Redevelopment is the process by which a city takes underused or outdated land, changes the zoning requirements, and finds a developer to build according to a new plan.
Regardless of the result of the study, both candidates have visions for their ward, and their visions are quite similar.
“I would like to see restaurants, balanced development, and especially a park,” Occhipinti said. “The park is the center focal piece. We need to make the southwest a destination. But the centerpiece of any redevelopment has to be the park.”
Pinchevsky shares the sentiment: “I want to make the 4th Ward a destination which focuses around a southwest park. We need responsible and diverse development to bring businesses.”
Occhipinti said he would not vote for new park space until the 4th Ward is the recipient.
Since taking office, Occhipinti said he has focused on the problems specific to his ward. “It’s about getting a new stop sign because parents tell me it’s like the Wild West crossing the street in some areas,” Occhipinti said. “I’m out there with my iPhone, and if I see a problem, I take a picture, e-mail it to a director, put it on Facebook, and hold them accountable.”
The city-wide issue that is most frustrating for Occhipinti is the lack of urgency to repair the Sinatra Park soccer field. The field is on the waterfront and not in his ward, but it’s used by people all over the city.
“We’re another year and a half away from Sinatra Park being completed,” he said. “That project wasn’t a priority as soon as it went into the water. No doubt about it, somebody dropped the ball.”
Although Occhipinti has only been on the job for a few months, he said he’s proud of what he’s done.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in five months,” he said. “We want to keep that going for another four years.”
Pinchevsky said he is frustrated with flooding, adding that his own car has been flooded out twice since he’s moved to Hoboken.
But he’s also looking to fix the bigger issues.
Pinchevsky said he would want more three- to four-bedroom residential units, shopping, bakeries, boutiques, and restaurants in the ward.
“Every council member has mentioned that they want Hoboken to be less transient, but they don’t do anything about it,” Pinchevsky said. “One of my first pushes would be to make a zoning ordinance which says we can set the parameters to require three- and four-bedroom housing on new projects.”
Pinchevsky, whose Housing Authority kickball team recently won a championship, said he enjoys being involved in the community.
Representing such a diverse ward presents opportunity, according to Pinchevsky.
“I’d represent such an eclectic group of constituents and I’m really excited about the idea of doing that,” he said.
What do they say about each other?
In the November election, suspicions were raised by the Lenz campaign and later by the Hudson County Board of Elections about a high number of vote-by-mail ballots in Occhipinti’s victory. Occhipinti had approximately 550 campaign workers in the election, and according to one report, a large percentage of the workers voted by mail for Occhipinti. The case was forwarded from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office to the New Jersey State Attorney General in November. A spokesperson in the Attorney General’s office did not return a call seeking an update last week. No charges have been filed.
Council President Mason, through personal contributions from her family and her political action committee, donated $13,400 to Occhipinti in November. Mason’s critics have complained about this.
Pinchevsky has criticized Occhipinti about the vote-by-mail situation, but Occhipinti calls the charge a “campaign tactic used to smear [his] name” and said there is “no evidence of any wrongdoing on anyone’s part.”
Pinchevsky said he is “not all that impressed” with the job Occhipinti has done since November, and said he “gave [Occhipinti] a chance” before he announced his candidacy.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com