The completion of a new tourism website for the city of Hoboken, meant to give a boost to local businesses following Hurricane Sandy and prior to the February 2014 Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, is being delayed because a co-owner of the firm contracted to build the site is running for City Council.
Two Hoboken businessmen, one of whom is opposing allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer in the upcoming November election, say the city is refusing to honor a contract worth tens of thousands to build the website, EnjoyHoboken.com.
Joe Mindak and Kevin Cale, who together run the downtown design firm Tisha Creative, went before the City Council two weeks ago claiming that the tourism site was progressing smoothly until Mindak declared his candidacy for at-large council – on a ticket put together by one of Zimmer’s challengers, state Assemblyman Ruben Ramos.
“We’d been working on logos, slogans, everything, and it’d be going very smoothly with the city. We were going in for weekly meetings, collaborating on different ideas,” said Cale in an interview last week. “And then Joe declared his candidacy for City Council, and boom, everything went quiet.”
The city has acknowledged that the issue stems from the election. The city would either like to turn the work over to another firm, or wait until after the election to revisit the issue with the current firm.
The city said their concerns are related to “pay to play” campaign financing regulations. “Pay-to-play” is the practice of giving money to a political candidate in hopes of securing a job or contract once that candidate wins office. Over the last few years, the state and individual cities have enacted reforms saying that if a firm donates more than a few hundred dollars to a municipal political candidate, and the candidate wins, that firm can’t then be hired by the city in the next few years.
However, it is unclear how this would relate to Mindak’s situation. He could theoretically donate money to himself, making him ineligible to continue doing work for the city if he took office next year. However, Mindak noted that the contract with the city expires this December, before he’d ever take office.
Mindak’s attorney said the city is getting ahead of itself.
“I would analogize it to something along the lines of not allowing people to park because of the possibility that someone might break a parking law,” said the attorney, Richard Mackiewicz Jr.
Tisha has offered to turn over the work they’ve done so far to the city in return for partial payment, but they say that the amount the city has offered is insufficient.
The most recent correspondence between Tisha and the city indicates a standstill over what Cale and Mindak believe they are owed, and the city’s insistence that the work must be turned over to them before any payment can be made.
Mindak said last week, “This is something that we were doing for the city’s well being, and we didn’t want to make it an issue, but we didn’t really have other options.”
He also noted that time is of the essence, considering the Super Bowl happens in early February.
In a letter to the city, Mindak and Cale said that if an agreement is not reached soon, they will have to use “another forum,” apparently leading the city to think they are threatening litigation. But Cale said they meant speaking before the council when using the term “another forum.”
The council unanimously voted for Tisha’s contract with the city, valued at $37,500, at a meeting in December of 2012.
Cale and Mindak said the number is approximately half of what they’d normally charge for such a job, but felt an obligation to help the city in Sandy’s wake.
Mindak said that the city has made an offer of around $15,000 for the 200 or so hours Tisha has completed on the project. The firm says it should be given significantly more than that.
Zimmer said that due to the potential for litigation, she could not speak extensively on the issue. But she said the issue was created by Mindak’s choosing to run for office.
“Mr. Mindak’s council candidacy created the situation where he would be in the dual capacity as a city vendor and a candidate for office. It is his candidacy that created the conflict in pay-to-play issues that needed to be considered and addressed,” she said. “If one of the city’s outside attorneys were to announce a candidacy for City Council, I don’t think anyone would question whether it would become inappropriate for that lawyer to continue representing the city of Hoboken.”
That situation might be a political conflict of interest issue rather than pay to play. But, the city said that there are other potential problems.
In late March, following Mindak’s campaign announcement, he and Mackiewicz attended a meeting with the city’s attorneys at the mayor’s request. The city’s counselors, Mellissa Longo and Alicia Proko, outlined three potential issues with the city’s contract with Tisha, according to a letter from Mackiewicz to the city dated April 4.
The first issue is the possibility of pay-to-play violations. The second was the issue of who would maintain control of the website while Mindak was a candidate. If the web’s designers maintained control, the city said, they could give certain local businesses priority over others on the website, possibly in connection with donations to Mindak’s campaign.
The third issue, the letter states, is the illegality of any sitting elected official having a contract with the city.
But, Mindak would be sworn in in January of 2014, the month after the contract expires, should he win.
None of the city’s letters to Mackiewicz said that it’s illegal for a city vendor to seek elected office. In the past, some elected officials, including sitting at-large councilman Ravi Bhalla, an ally of Zimmer’s running against Mindak in November, had previously held city contracts.
Tisha has agreed to turn all passwords and access to the site over to the city, and Mindak maintained that he hasn’t donated any money to his own campaign.
But the city has asked that all work on the website stop until an agreement on payment can be settled. In the event of a settlement, the city would retain control of the work and complete the website with another vendor.
Will it get done?
The dispute leaves significant questions as to when the website, which is viewed by both the city and local business owners as an important step towards boosting the local economy, will be finished.
Zimmer said last week that she is “very interested” in completing it, and that the project will move forward if the parties agrees to a settlement. Otherwise, it will have to wait until after the election.
Cale said it is unfortunate that politics are getting in the way of an otherwise positive thing.
“You know, I voted for [Zimmer]. I used to walk to work with her,” he said. “I didn’t think that this would create such an issue. What it comes down to is that this was supposed to be a good thing for Hoboken and now it may not happen before the Super Bowl, which is really when the city should have it.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org