HOBOKEN – The appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey on Friday ruled that Jim Doyle, the man Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer chose to fill a vacated seat on the city council last fall but who has yet to attend a meeting, could not legally join the council. The decision marks the end of one of the city’s longest-lasting political showdowns in recent memory, but leaves unanswered serious questions about the productivity of the city’s legislative body for the remainder of its current session, which will end following upcoming November elections.
The appellate court’s ruling reversed a previous decision regarding several council votes that would have appointed Doyle. The previous decision had defined the abstentions of Zimmer’s opponents on the council – Second Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason and Third Ward Councilman Michael Russo – as votes against Doyle. On Friday, the appellate court said none of the votes were legitimate because a tie-breaking vote was unnecessary. The tie-breaker was not needed because the abstentions by Russo and Mason had not been considered as votes against Doyle.
The Doyle saga began when former Councilwoman-at-Large Carol Marsh resigned from her seat in October, resulting in an eight-member council, split evenly along pro- and anti-Zimmer lines. From October to December, Zimmer’s faction – consisting of Council President Peter Cunningham, Council Vice President Jen Giattino, Councilmen-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla, and David Mello--attempted on three occasions to seat Doyle via tie-breaking votes by Zimmer.
The anti-Zimmer faction, led by Mason and Russo but also consisting of First Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano and Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, sued Zimmer and her allies on the council over the appointment, arguing that their abstentions should not count as votes against Doyle (thus allowing Zimmer the go-ahead to break the tie). Instead, the abstentions should not be counted as votes at all, according to the anti-Zimmer faction. At subsequent meetings in October, Russo and Mason were either absent from the meetings or abstained from the vote, leading Zimmer’s allies to consider the votes as 4-4 ties.
The appellate division sided with Mason and Russo, citing the 1876 legal statute “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which the city employs to govern its legislative proceedings. In “Robert’s Rules,” an abstention is defined as “an oxymoron, an abstention being a refusal to vote. To abstain means to refrain from voting, and, as a consequence, there can be no such thing as an ‘abstention vote.’”
Under “Robert’s Rules,” none of Zimmer’s tie-breaking votes were legal because none were 4-4 ties. Due to the abstentions, all would have been either four in favor, two against, one abstention or one absence, or four in favor, two against, and two abstaining.
The decision bodes poorly for Mayor Zimmer, who hoped to seat an ally on the council prior to naming a running mate in the upcoming November mayoral and council elections, but also for the city itself, which has been the victim of a political standstill due to continued stagnancy in the council chambers since Marsh stepped down. Countless important votes have ended in 4-4 ties, including those dealing with Hurricane Sandy relief and the city’s budget, which was only recently adopted after months of deliberation.
On Friday, Zimmer said that despite the ruling, her opponents’ tactics were not in the best interests of the city.
“The appellate division ruled that it’s legal to obstruct an appointment, and [that decision] will leave the city council deadlocked for 15 months,” she said, referring to the time period between last October and Jan. 1, 2014, when new council members will be sworn in. “While the court said it’s legally permissible, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do for the city.”
Mason issued a press release Friday morning condemning Zimmer and her allies for using what she called “scare tactics” to mislead the public, and defended herself against claims that suing the city resulted in a deadlocked council.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. My position has always been simple, I will support the Mayor when she is right and oppose her when she is wrong,” she said. “The political bosses in City Hall may not like it, but my loyalty has and always will belong to the people not to them.”
Marsh’s still-vacant at-Large council seat will be up for grabs in the November council election. Zimmer is expected to name a candidate for the seat to her slate, but no opposition candidates have yet been announced. – Dean DeChiaro