Anyone who thought members of the current City Council lacked the backbone to stand up to the administration of Mayor Steven Fulop may have been stunned by the turn of events Wednesday night as three of the mayor’s allies broke from the administration and cast their votes with the council’s two independents.
The vote – in a bizarre turn of events – first defeated then later tabled a controversial attempt by the administration to merge several city departments.
The sweeping ordinance called for the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD), Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEM) to be combined under a newly created Department of Public Safety. The ordinance also would have merged the Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA) with the Department of Public Works (DPW). Another portion of this same ordinance would have also folded the Office of Veterans Affairs, the city’s Department of Senior Affairs, and the Division of Cultural Affairs into the Resident Response Center.
While the broad measure was easily introduced by the City Council last month, the ordinance was controversial from the outset.
Members of the JCPD and Fire Department were unhappy with being combined into one public safety department, and Ward C City Councilman Richard Boggiano, a retired member of the JCPD, insisted that similar mergers have failed in the past.
The vote represented the first time any members of the council who are allied with Mayor Fulop split with the administration.
Since the ordinance was introduced, new concerns have been raised about whether the Resident Response Center – formerly known as the Mayor’s Action Bureau – is the best place for city agencies that deal with seniors, veterans’ affairs, and cultural affairs.
In a public hearing on the measure, former At-large City Councilwoman Viola Richardson warned against approval, saying, “There is just too much stuff packed into this one ordinance for you to really understand what’s going on here. Do not vote for this.”
A defeat – and then a reversal, of sorts
Moments later, a divided council took Richardson’s advice and rejected the measure by a vote of 4 to 5. Council members Candice Osborne (Ward E), Frank Gajewski (Ward A), Diane Coleman (Ward F), and Council President Rolando Lavarro Jr. voted in favor of the ordinance.
At-large Councilwoman Joyce Watterman, At-large Councilman Daniel Rivera, Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal (Ward B), Richard Boggiano (Ward C), and Michael Yun (Ward D) voted against the ordinance, thus sending it down in defeat.
The vote represented the first time any members of the council who are allied with Mayor Fulop split with the administration. Lavarro, Ramchal, Coleman, Osborne, Gajewski, Watterman, and Rivera all ran on Fulop’s slate last spring.
Following the vote, Fulop’s Chief of Staff Muhammed Akil and Corporation Counsel Jeremy Farrell left council chambers for extended periods of time, as did Lavarro, Rivera, and Ramchal after they received text messages and phone calls while on the dais.
Nearly two hours after the vote was taken, Farrell returned and asked the council to “reconsider” its vote on the merger ordinance. Clearly under external pressure to do so, Rivera made a motion to re-open the vote and table the ordinance – a motion that was backed by Ramchal.
After a second round of voting, the measure was tabled by a vote of 9 to 0, a move that was greeted by jeers and snickering from some residents in attendance.
Mergers to be revisited, but in what form?
Farrell indicated to the council and public that the various department mergers that were included in the tabled ordinance would be split up into different ordinances and brought back at a future council session.
By late last week, however, some council members were being told that the administration plans to re-introduce the same ordinance that was rejected last week – without changes – and sources say that Fulop’s foot soldiers are putting heavy pressure on Rivera and Ramchal to change their votes the next time around.
From the council’s perspective, the least controversial merger being proposed by the administration is the combining of the JCPD, Fire Department, and OEM within the new Department of Public Safety, which a majority of the council members support. This proposal, were it to be separated out in its own ordinance, would almost certainly have enough council votes to pass. Knowing this, the administration is trying to use this measure to gain affirmative votes for its more controversial proposals, according to one source.
“Fulop is saying we don’t want to hold up the safety director, we need to get that moving, and separating the [mergers] will hold things up,” this source stated late last week.
Were the administration’s various merger proposals to be separated, some of them could be in jeopardy of being voted down again. The merger between the DPW and JCIA, and their civil service/non-civil service employees, remains a thorny issue, for example.
The collapsing of the Office of Senior Affairs, Veterans Affairs, and the Division of Cultural Affairs into the Resident Response Center is an emerging concern now as well.
Members of the council, specifically Boggiano and Ramchal, suspect the Resident Response Center, which is part of the mayor’s office, is being structured as a buffer that could ultimately distance council members from their constituents.
“If one of my constituents has a complaint about something, I want to know about it,” said Boggiano. “By having all these departments within the Resident Response Center, how am I supposed to know when there are complaints in my ward?”
“When my constituents call me about something, and I follow up with the department heads, I’m being told, ‘Well, have [the resident] call the Resident Response Center,” Ramchal said. “Since when are council members not allowed to call department directors [directly] to help resolve a problem?”
Some members of the City Council and arts community are also concerned about the impact that shifting the Division of Cultural Affairs into the Resident Response Center will have on the city’s arts programming.
Art House Productions founder and Executive Director Christine Goodman, who was not at the City Council meeting, took to Facebook Wednesday evening to defend the work of the Cultural Affairs staff.
“I personally know the people who work in Cultural Affairs and I can attest to the fact that they work very, very hard for this city,” wrote Goodman. “They are not ‘fat cats.’ I want to point out that $180,000 for operations is a huge issue. There [need] to be more grants and fundraising efforts for Cultural Affairs so they can better support the needs of our artistic community.”
Bill Sorvino, founder of the annual Golden Door International Film Festival, later posted, “I agree, Christine. Cultural Affairs makes so much happen on their budget. I can’t really see how pushing it into another (oddly titled) division helps the city in its advancement of tourism.”
Lavarro’s first big test?
On July 1, when his colleagues unanimously voted him council president, At-large Councilman Lavarro said his role on the governing body would be to help “build consensus.”
“I think we’re all on the same page as far as direction, the direction we want to see the city go in,” Lavarro said in July. “But we have some different ideas among us about how best to get there. So, my role as council president is really to get all the ideas out there and then build support on the council for the best ideas and strategies. And that will mean working with the council members to compromise and work through differences when we have them.”
Thus far, the council members have been unified on most votes, with occasional dissention coming from Boggiano and Yun, who ran for their council seats independently and who are not part of Fulop’s bloc of votes on the council.
The merger vote proves, however, that even Fulop’s allies are willing to break with the administration when they deem it necessary. As one of Fulop’s biggest allies, Lavarro may now be facing his first test at building consensus and maintaining unity among the Fulop seven.
A number of other potentially dicey votes loom on the horizon for the council, including an executive order from the mayor regarding changes in how the city approves tax abatements for developments.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.