The city will not be able to pay legal bills for special attorneys for many controversial projects, according to the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, after the City Council failed in a special meeting on Wednesday to gather enough votes for emergency budget appropriations.
The $750,000 in appropriations needed six votes, or a supermajority, to pass – but with only five of the nine council members allied with Zimmer, the measure went down by a vote of 5-3. Councilwoman Beth Mason was absent.
Zimmer had called the meeting after the measure had already been voted down at a meeting the previous week. The temporary bills included the city’s proposed legal battle against the Monarch at Shipyard project, a plan to erect two 11-story residential towers at 15th and Hudson streets.
The city is currently in the process of appealing the State Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to approve the development. On Wednesday night, the county’s Planning Board denied the application. The city Planning Board will also hear it at some point in the future.
Normally, in the months before the city is able to pass an annual budget, groups of bills can be approved at each meeting via temporary appropriations. But unforeseen events, such as matters of litigation or retroactive pay, need to be paid by emergency appropriations, which require six votes.
In order to stress the importance of the legal battles, the Zimmer administration included 29 additional resolutions on the agenda. The resolutions, which were only supposed to be reviewed should the emergency budget appropriations be denied, each called for the cessation of funding for different legal matters.
The list included a land use suit, as well as Arezzo v. City of Hoboken, an employment suit against the city by the former construction code officer.
Some members of the council, such as Tim Occhipinti, a frequent opponent of Zimmer, said the money should not be approved until absolutely necessary.
Zimmer issued a statement in response to the council’s vote.
“Tonight the City Council minority refused to fund to fight the Monarch project, defend the city against litigation, and pay our firefighters for overtime due to the recent fire,” Zimmer said. “This refusal is an irresponsible breach of their fiduciary duty to the city of Hoboken.”
Words are exchanged
Councilman Michael Russo and city attorney Mark Tabakin exchanged words at the meeting over the urgency of the city’s legal bills.
“Out of all these lawsuits that are here before us,” said Russo, “what is absolutely imminent that we need to pass tonight?”
Tabakin said he had spoken with the special attorneys about this. “You’re not going to have enough money to do February bills and March bills,” said Tabakin.
Russo contended that Tabakin was basing his facts on estimates from attorneys, rather than actual figures.
“In reality, if you didn’t call them [the attorneys] and ask them how much money it was going to cost, you in fact did not do your job,” said Russo.
Later in the meeting, he said to Tabakin, “I don’t pretend to be an attorney but apparently you do.”
“Why don’t you come to me and talk to me before [instead of] ambushing me at a meeting,” said Tabakin.
Russo also said the bills should not be accounted for until after they are submitted – not before.
“I don’t know why this administration continues to come to this council to ask for emergency appropriations,” continued Russo, “based on what they think is going to happen rather than the facts that are in front of them.”
“It’s a mathematical equation that was done,” said Tabakin. “The reason we’re coming in front of you for this emergency appropriation is because it’s the right thing to do.”
Occhipinti said he did not believe the special meeting was necessary.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we’re back here this week,” said Occhipinti. “It seems that our mayor loves the special meetings, which costs our taxpayers money. We were pretty straightforward with our votes last Wednesday when the [ temporary appropriations] budget was dropped in our lap.”
At the meeting, resident Scott Siegel echoed the sentiments of Tabakin. “The city has to be able to defend itself,” contended Siegel.
“It’s time to literally put our money where our mouth is.” – Ravi Bhalla
After the emergency appropriations were voted down, the council looked at the long list of specific legal battles.
Resident David Liebler spoke briefly about the number of lawsuits in which the city is involved.
“I’m pretty impressed Mayor Zimmer put this [agenda] out,” said Liebler. “This shows what you’re faced with. This shows how bad the situation is.”
Russo said he intends to support the city’s legal battles in general, despite voting no on the emergency budget appropriation.
“I believe that we do have enough money to fund all of the cases until the end of March,” said Russo.
Each of the 29 resolutions actually called for the city to cease funding for a particular case.
Russo – along with the rest of the council – voted down those resolutions, which meant they agreed in principle to continue funding their legal representation. However, Zimmer said the city does not have the money without a successful vote on the emergency appropriations.
The council also spoke of the importance of fighting the Monarch project.
“This is a situation where the city is taking a proactive stance in fighting this project,” said Councilman Peter Cunningham, a Zimmer ally. “The administration wants to hire counsel that is considered the best that New Jersey has to offer. [Now] we’re not going to be able to pay this guy.”
After the council unanimously decided to vote down the resolutions denying funds, Council President Ravi Bhalla called a new vote on the emergency budget appropriation.
“It’s time to literally put our money where our mouth is,” Bhalla said. “We have an obligation to the taxpayers.”
“You can take this vote one time, five times, or ten times; I’m still going to be a no on this,” said Occhipinti, adding, “It’s a little immature for you to keep bringing this back time and time again.”
Occhipinti added, “To say that they’ll stop [working] is being disingenuous. The attorneys will continue to represent us.”
Upon a second vote, the emergency budget appropriation once again received five votes, falling one short.
During the meeting, the council also passed a resolution awarding a $161,995 contract to Grassey Equipment Company for the purchase of a street sweeper.
Occhipinti and Russo questioned the status of a different street sweeper that had repeatedly broken down.
“These questions can’t be answered if our [city] directors aren’t present,” said Occhipinti.
“They don’t have a handle over their employees I guess,” said Russo, who then addressed Tabakin. “Please make sure the administration is aware that according to our bylaws, we do request, and demand actually, that all directors are here to answer questions.”
An additional resolution was passed awarding a contract to Foley, Inc. in the amount of $259,800 for the purchase of a wheel loader, which loads and transports construction materials.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org