In the past, Mayor Dawn Zimmer was often able to push her agenda through, since most of the council members were her supporters. After a heated election during which three council members ran against each other for mayor on Nov. 7, some residents think Bhalla may have a tougher time.
Bhalla ran against current Council President Jen Giattino, who was backed by Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher and Councilman Peter Cunningham. Giattino has declined to join Bhalla’s transition team, and Fisher and Cunningham have expressed dismay, in separate letters after the election, about the “ugliness” during the campaigns.
The other former mayoral candidates have joined Bhalla on his transition team – business owner Karen Nason, activist Ronald Bautista, Freeholder Anthony Romano, and Councilman Michael DeFusco. But DeFusco has already criticized some of Bhalla’s moves, and issued a press release criticizing Bhalla’s choosing of lawyer John Allen as his chief of staff. Allen ran as a councilman on Bhalla’s ticket, but lost.
“The council dynamic isn’t very good for the mayor-elect,” said former Councilman Tony Soares, who supported DeFusco in the election. “He is going to have to work with them to cooperate on their agenda over the next two to four years. He wasn’t given a majority.”
Bhalla won 32.7 percent of the votes on Nov. 7, with 41.2 percent of registered voters turning out for the mayoral election.
Soares said he thinks the council will have to try to cooperate, and not work against the new mayor, in order to move Hoboken forward.
“I think Ruben [Ramos] and Michael DeFusco work well [with each other] and Jen [Giattino] and Fisher are together,” he said. “Bhalla has allies on the council with [Councilman Jim] Doyle and [Councilwoman-Elect] Emily Jabbour [who will be sworn in on Jan. 3]. But honestly, now the council is divided and they will all have to try and work together.”
One political insider who wished to remain anonymous said he believed either Councilman Ruben Ramos or Councilman Peter Cunningham will be the next council president, depending on who holds a majority on the council. Rumors have swirled that Councilman Ramos may want the position, but some say Cunningham can draw Fisher, Giattino, and others.
Councilmembers weigh in
In separate interviews, Councilmen Ruben Ramos, Jim Doyle, Michael Russo, and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher commented on the council dynamic in the new year.
DeFusco, Cunningham, and Giattino did not answer two phone calls for comment by press time.
“Everyone tries to do what’s best for Hoboken at the end of the day,” said Fisher, speaking about the council dynamic come January. “People on the council work well together. In the past we have had 7-2 or 9-0 on most votes, and my guess is that will continue.”
When it came to who might be president Fisher said that it’s a bit early to tell.
“It’s definitely a topic on people’s minds right now,” said Fisher. “But my understanding is it is a bit early.”
Doyle said, “Typically there is a majority and a minority. It is not typically divided into three poles.”
However, he noted, reformers on the council might be fractured after the election.
“While I see disagreements going forward as to approaches, as long as everyone genuinely has Hoboken’s best interests as the overall objective, I am confident we will all work together and be fine,” said Doyle. “I know we are genuinely people who put Hoboken above personal aspirations.”
Councilman Michael Russo said no discussions have started amongst himself and other council members as to who might fill the position of council president during the Jan. 3 reorganization meeting
“There is no real faction in the city that has a majority of the council,” said Russo. “I think Mayor-Elect Bhalla will have to work with individual council members to move the city forward. “
“It’s an interesting time,” said Russo. “I think the truest leaders will emerge among the members of the council by being able to put differences aside and work for the betterment of the city…Right now people are a little upset about the heated election on all sides, but I think eventually when we get down to brass tacks, we will see who gets it done.”
He said he would like to see a president who is fair, rational, and understands that there will be difficult decisions. He added that he would like a president “who won’t bow to political pressure.”
Who fits the bill? He believes all of his council colleagues share those qualities. “I think one more than others, but until I find out if that person it interested, I won’t comment,” he said.
Russo said he believes Bhalla will have some difficulty, “but every mayor does, even when they have a base of support in the majority.”
He said, “Dawn got a lot of things passed, but there were a lot of backroom conversations or off-record conversations with council members [about agenda items] that were just as difficult, whether those people supported her or not.”
Ramos said, “We need to look at every agenda item as 0-0 and work on building a consensus if it’s a good idea. We need to move away from the idea of a council majority or minority.”
“If Mayor-Elect Bhalla has a good idea that I agree with, I’ll try and make it happen. If Councilwoman Fisher has a good idea or I have a good idea, I’ll try and make it happen,” said Ramos. “I work with everyone on issues and that’s what the public expects from us. None of this is personal. There was a lot of negativity during the campaign from different directions, but I don’t anticipate anyone putting hurt feelings or anything else before moving a good idea for Hoboken forward.”
He said he wants the next council president to be an individual who brings people together, who hears ideas, and acts as a conduit between the mayor and the council.
When asked if he wants to be the next council president, he said, “I never count my chickens before they hatch.”
One future agenda item that may prove divisive is the city’s negotiations and proposed agreement with Suez over managing the city’s water and aging infrastructure. The agreement proposed by Zimmer’s administration and backed by Bhalla, caused a lot of debate during the mayoral election, as some council members wanted to try and pursue other providers and questioned an unpaid debt.
Will work with everyone
Bhalla said he will work with everyone on the council for the betterment of Hoboken.
When asked who he thought might be the next council president, he said, “Your guess is as good as mine at this point. “
He said he believes a council president needs to “be diligent with respect to his or her duties and cooperative with the administration to identify opportunities for legislation to move Hoboken forward.”
He said he envisions the role of the council president with not only “running a tight ship” but working with the business administrator, council colleagues, the mayor, and department directors to “identify legislation that’s ripe or ready to be brought before the council as a whole.”
When asked if he believes if the council is divided more than before, he said, “I know the council members are first and foremost committed to advancing the interests of the city of Hoboken. As far as majorities on the council, it’s my hope we can move past divisiveness to see where we can work together on a governmental level. I know each councilmember has their own issues that are important to them so I would like to identify what those priorities are and be helpful in advancing their priorities. I don’t see it as having a majority or control of the council. My concern is about understanding priorities and having a constructive working relationship with the council.”
He said that if a time comes in which one of his priorities is not supported by an individual on the council or a majority, “Then it’s incumbent on me to generate support on the council for that priority to be successful.”
Bhalla said that he thinks that he and the council are united in that they all share a common love for Hoboken.
“In regard to repairing relationships or getting over raw feelings, I think its important to realize it’s in the best interest of the community at large for us to turn the page and look toward the future,” said Bhalla.
Bhalla’s swearing in ceremony will be held on Jan. 1 at 2 p.m. The location has yet to be announced. The council reorganization meeting will take place Jan. 3 at City Hall at 7 p.m., according to Deputy City Clerk Jerry Lore.
Officials would not confirm which high-level politicians may be attending the swearing ins, although rumors have swirled about Gov. Elect Phil Murphy attending the Jan. 1 event. Murphy is set to be sworn in on Jan. 16.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.