Seven to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night was a dynamic half-hour that will have a profound impact on Hoboken's low-income housing, its residents, and the taxpayers who fund it.
Simultaneous events with political ramifications were unfolding that night. In the city's southwest corner, the Hoboken Housing Authority was holding a special meeting where its controversial executive director, E. Troy Washington, was given a five-year contract to remain in his current position.
In the southeast part of town, at a regularly scheduled meeting of the City Council, newly elected 4th Ward Councilman Christopher Campos, a vocal critic of Washington, was getting sworn in for a two-year term. Thus, he was not able to go to the HHA meeting to protest.
In a very public battle, Campos and some of his allies have made charges of poor management and have lobbied for Washington's removal from his post. From Washington's end, he has produced a memo challenging Campos' residency in the HHA, a move that bolstered charges flung at the councilman by opponents during his council campaign.
Aside for the mayor, the 4th Ward councilman and the executive director are the most politically puissant positions in the 4th Ward, where the city's 1,353 federally subsidized low-income housing units lie. The Hoboken Housing Authority is, however, an autonomous body. It oversees the housing and follows policies set by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. But some members of the HHA board are appointed by City Hall.
At the Housing Authority
Wednesday night's HHA Board of Commissioners meeting was not regularly scheduled. Until recently, the meeting was supposed to be held Nov. 14. So it seemed a coincidence that it was suddenly rescheduled to coincide with an event that required council members to be across town at City Hall.
Before the meeting, Washington read a brief statement to satisfy the state's Open Public Meetings act. He said that that advertisement on the meeting was provided to local papers and the city clerk's office on Oct. 31.
The last time that Washington's contract was on the agenda, council members Chris Campos and Ruben Ramos organized a large contingent of HHA residents to protest the new contract. Residents have for some time complained about poor and slow-moving construction work in the projects, among other matters.
At the last HHA meeting, Campos led the crowd in chants of "Troy must go" and attempted to stop the commissioners from going into closed session to discuss Washington's contract.
Wednesday night's meeting lacked fireworks, and for such a hot topic, ran fairly smoothly. It was attended by less than 50 residents and onlookers, a sparse crowd for a usually heavily attended meeting.
At that meeting, correspondence from Campos and Ramos was read into the record by the city's Human Services Director, Carmelo Garcia, an ally of theirs.
"Your currently scheduled Hoboken Housing Authority meeting conflicts directly with the Hoboken City Council meeting," read Garcia. "As you are also aware, the meeting for the Hoboken Housing Authority was changed from the originally scheduled date of Nov. 14 to Nov. 7, without due cause. Your poor planning and failure to give due consideration to this matter has forced us to not be in attendance of your Housing Authority meeting. Your thoughtless decision ultimately impacts those people we both have been appointed to serve, the people of the 4th Ward."
Washington said the date was changed because of scheduling conflicts. Three of the commissioners are going to be attending the conference of municipal workers in Atlantic City next week and would not be able to attend. The commissioners declined to adjourn the meeting because of the councilman's concerns.
The meeting went on as planned, and the commissioners spent 40 minutes deliberating over the contract. When they emerged from the closed session (a normal practice for personnel decisions), the seven-person board announced that they would extend his contract for five years, the maximum allowed by law.
Commissioners Nellie Moyeno (a former councilwoman), Arlette Braxton, Jean Rodiguez, and Lynda Walker voted in favor of the contract. Commissioners Jessica Andreula, Billy Noonan, and Angel Alicea voted against it.
The exact terms of the contract have not yet been disclosed, but it has been widely rumored that the HHA will pay for the law school classes that Washington has been taking. He also is rumored to have the unlimited use of a HHA car in addition to a salary that has been approaching six figures.
"I feel like a 100 pound weight has been lifted off my back," said a relieved Washington after the meeting. "It feels good that the right thing was done. I feel inspired to give a 120 percent of my efforts to make the Housing Authority a better place for everyone to live."
Washington recently turned down a director's position that he was offered at the Asbury Park Housing Authority.
Despite the complaints from critics, some feel that Washington, who has served for two years, deserves another chance to make change at the HHA.
Washington was hired away from the private sector almost four years ago and started at the HHA as comptroller. He was promoted after the director who hired him left. Washington hails originally from Atlantic City and is one of the few visible officials in town who has not gotten involved in political campaigns.
Commissioner Nellie Moyeno, who, incidentally, had run unsuccessfully against Campos for the 4th Ward seat, said she based her decision on a survey of residents that the HHA performed several months ago. It was an effort she spearheaded, and the results came back in favor of Washington.
"I very likely will lose my job because of this decision, but I'm doing what I feel is right in my head for the residents," said Moyeno, who works for a city parking contractor and was hinting that she might expect political retribution. "Mr. Washington brings in excellent credentials and is a an asset to the community."
Commissioner Arlette Braxton declined to comment on the reasons for her affirmative vote. Commissioner Lynda Walker, a former critic of Washington, said that she voted for the contract because she thought his work had improved.
As for Moyeno, not everyone thought her actions were noble.
Commissioner Alicea blasted his fellow commissioners. "This is direct retaliation against the new administration," he said. "Five years is entirely too long. We as commissioners should be more responsible to the residents and go on a worldwide search and explore our options and the pool of candidates instead of giving out a new five-year contract without question."
Echoing those sentiments was Commissioner Billy Noonan. "I'm disappointed in the results of last night's meeting," he said Thursday. "To issue a five-year contract is inconceivable. Nellie was clearly defeated soundly [for 4th Ward], so I don't think she has the vote of the people on this matter. I don't have a problem working with [Washington], but to give him a five-year contract is just not prudent."
Washington's critics believe the new contract was a political move on the part of Moyeno. Washington supporters Braxton and Rodiguez remained quiet throughout the discussion of Washington's contract and did not comment on their motivations for voting in favor of the executive director.
"This is outright political retribution, simple as that," said Campos Thursday. "She knew that she was beaten and now she is using this contract as a thorn in the side of the administration. [Moyeno] and the commissioners who voted for the contract acted with true malice. We were elected by an overwhelming by the people and the fact that [the commissioners] are ignoring that mandate is irresponsible."
Washington said there was nothing sneaky about the scheduling of the meeting.
"First of all, I don't really follow the City Council, so I don't know when their meetings are," he said. "This was not a strategic move. It was simply a case of picking a time when all of our commissioners could attend. We had many residents present, so if they were against it or had something to say, they were more than free to say something."
Campos and Ramos think it is more than just capriciousness to offer a five-year contract and are currently exploring every option to overturn the vote. Thursday, they presented correspondence from Diane Johnson, the state coordinator of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The letter dated Sept. 21 states, "This is in response to your letter dated August 27, 2001 regarding your complaint of serious personnel and management issues at the HHA. However, please be advised that all personnel matters to either remove an executive director from office or to enact disciplinary measures rests entirely with the Board of Commissioners of the HHA. Due to the serious personnel and management issues identified in your letter, as well as similar complaints received by this office, we have decided to schedule an on-site monitoring review of the HHA for the first quarter of the fiscal year beginning Oct .1. Upon completion of the management review, we will require the HHA to prepare a plan of corrective action to address all deficiencies identified."
Councilman Ramos said Thursday that this letter and investigation alone are enough reason not to give a new contract to Washington.
"If he was doing a good job, we would be the first ones to support him," Ramos said. "But the fact is, he is doing a terrible, terrible job, and that is why the action of the Board of Commissioners is so reprehensible."