Even as a police officer escorted a resident out of the City Council chambers for refusing to relinquish the podium after her time expired at the Feb. 26 meeting, Council President Rolando Lavarro bickered with two maverick council members, calling them “obstructionists.”
Councilman Michael Yun argued that the resident should be granted more time to speak, but Lavarro said Yun was undermining the authority of the council president.
“You should be supporting the rule of order,” Lavarro said.
Lavarro attempted to make peace by the end of the Feb. 26 meeting. But hostilities between majority and minority members of the City Council intensified in disputes over dissolving the Parking Authority and the possible increase of mobile food vendors in various Special Improvement Districts (SID) in the city.
Lavarro called Yun and Councilman Richard Boggiano “obstructionists” after they complained about being left out of decision-making on key issues.
The majority of the council sides with Mayor Steve Fulop, but two members tend to be independent.
In the midst of a public hearing on an ordinance that would abolish the Parking Authority and assign its duties to the police department under the Department of Public Safety, Boggiano complained that he and Yun had not been provided objective facts regarding the impact of the dissolution and that they have been excluded from decision making process.
“You may march to the beat of your own drummer, but I run the meetings.” – Rolando Lavarro
Yun and Boggiano were elected last year, but not as members of Mayor Steven Fulop’s ticket. They have become an alternative voice on the council to what they see as a pre-planned Fulop agenda which the rest of the council supports.
Fulop and his allies on the council are committed to abolishing the Parking Authority. Boggiano and Yun have questioned whether that is a good idea. The ordinance was ultimately referred back to committee for further study.
Lavarro said that Yun and Boggiano were obstructing the process, which is why they were excluded.
“We have a right to disagree,” Boggiano said. “Don’t say we’re obstructionists.”
“It’s the tenor of the conversation,” Lavarro said. “You need to show respect for fellow council members and the administration.” Lavarro said the two council members frequently disregarded the rules of order and interfered with the process of legislating.
“You may march to the beat of your own drummer, but I run the meetings,” Lavarro said. “I stand by what I said.”
Public is divided
Those speaking at the public hearing on the issue seemed as divided over the issue as the council.
Resident Yvonne Balcer said she was in favor of the change to the autonomous Parking Authority, saying that would hold that part of city government accountable.
The public, Balcer said, has no way right now to know if the Parking Authority is doing a good job.
“Like all autonomous agencies, they bond, bond, bond,” she said.
This is different with the city, she said. “I can hold you accountable.”
She said she would love to see the city’s redevelopment agency also abolished.
Resident Jason Burg also approved of the move, but wanted to know what would transpire with the senior employees from the agency and their pension conversion once the Department of Public Safety takes over.
“These are good questions,” Lavarro told Burg. “The council has a committee to look into those issues. We aren’t going to pass this tonight. But we’re going to table it while the committee reviews these issues.”
According to a report that was submitted to the council last month, the city would save about $1.6 million a year in overhead costs by making the move.
Former Deputy Mayor Kabili Tayari said he thought it is a good idea as well, but has concerns over Fulop’s moves to abolish other authorities such as the Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA).
“There is a danger to cost savings,” he said. “Are we looking at layoffs? These things should be answered before any vote is taken. After people are hurt, there is no taking it back. They need to know in advance.”
Councilman Khemraj Ramchal assured Tayari that there would be a committee to oversee the move to consolidate the JCIA with the Department of Public Works.
Kathleen Hunt, represented the United Industrial Workers Union, said she was glad to hear that the council was going to table the resolution, and offered to talk about the personnel issues.
Pat O’Melia, former public relations person for the Parking Authority, said the authority was not closed to the public and that people can raise questions at the monthly meetings.
He said the city had originally agreed to move city offices into the Central Avenue building purchased by the Parking Authority but opted to rent offices on Montgomery Street instead.
“Unlike other cities, there is no theft of coins in the Jersey City Parking Authority,” O’Melia said. “There are a lot of fail safes in place. This is a retail operation with direct contact with the public. More people interact with the Parking Authority than they do the courts. It may need to be tweaked, but it doesn’t need to be abolished.”
John Tarantula, vice chairman of the Parking Authority, also spoke in opposition to the move to abolish the agency.
He said the authority gets $1 million from the city annually, but brings in $12 million annually. He said the authority performs snow removal and other operations, and has a good staff of dedicated employees.
“A lot of things do not show up in your report,” he said. “We shuttle people. We have a positive cash flow and we cost taxpayers nothing. We pay for everything ourselves.”
The authority owns 14 parking lots, and he said the city would save money if they moved city agencies into the authority building as once proposed.
SID business owners protest
Lavarro ally Councilman Daniel Rivera also accused Yun of spreading misinformation about an ordinance that would revise some of the licensing fees on mobile food vendors.
Yun raised several questions about the prospect of the city allowing mobile vendors to operate in SIDs such as the one along Central Avenue in Jersey City Heights which would unfairly compete with fixed food establishments. Yun is a former president of that SID and operates a stationery store on Central Avenue.
Yun argued that traditional stores have higher overhead and also pay taxes that mobile vendors do not.
He said the same restrictions against mobile vendors currently in place for the Journal Square SID should apply to other SIDs around the city.
Councilwoman Candice Osborne and other city officials, however, said the ordinance that was up for public hearing only set fees for mobile vendors, and that placement of these vendors would be taken up at a later time.
A number of food store owners appeared to object to the ordinance apparently in the belief that the council intended to vote to approve it that night.
Lavarro told them that they had been misled, and Rivera blamed Yun for stirring them up.
But Yun apparently sounded the alarm for what would be a future battle, and brought out store owners early to raise objection to what is expected to be a drawn out and heated conflict when the ordinance allowing the vendors into the SIDs is introduced later in the spring.
Donald Smart, who represents the Journal Square SID, supported the Central Avenue merchants, saying the city should do more to protect the brick and mortar businesses and to discourage people from acquiring more than one mobile vendor license. He said many of the businesses in SIDs are mom and pop stores which should not face the unfair competition.
Yun has also asked for criminal background checks of potential mobile vendors as part of the licensing process. Although the city legal department agreed, they said this has to be done carefully.
Balcer agree with Yun.
“Certain people in certain fields should have a background check done,” she said.
Lavarro said he agreed, but said he has asked the legal department to come up with approval language.
“We do not want adversely affect others whose past crimes do not rise to a level of concern,” he said. “We do not want stop people from earning a living.”
Also at the meeting, the city addressed the usual popular issues of development and personnel. The resident who was escorted out was speaking about development issues. Residents are allotted five minutes toward the end of the meeting to speak about any issue. They can also speak for an unlimited period of time on specific ordinances earlier in the meeting.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.