City officials battle ethics allegations
Also at meeting: Council opposes ICE contract, talks dog park
by Marilyn Baer
Reporter Staff Writer
Aug 12, 2018 | 3082 views | 0 0 comments | 139 139 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The council approved a new temporary dog park on the corner of Park Avenue and 15th Street.
The council approved a new temporary dog park on the corner of Park Avenue and 15th Street.
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Ethics complaints against town officials were a hot topic at a five-hour Hoboken City Council meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 1. At the meeting, a resident who has already lodged a local complaint against three council people said he had filed another with the town clerk, and the nine-member council voted 7-2 to terminate lawyers who have been defending the mayor over an alleged violation that’s been going back and forth in court for eight years.

Also at the meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution urging the county to cancel its recently approved $10 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), approved a dog park at 1500 Park Ave., and officially designated a block of Adams Street as a two-way street (see sidebars).

Resident files ethics complaints

At the meeting, resident Michael Donnelly filed an ethics complaint with the City Clerk against Councilman Michael DeFusco. He said he was bringing up the matter in anticipation of the council creating a municipal ethics board, which they have discussed at recent meetings.

Donnelly’s complaint stems from finance contributions made by labor unions and political action committees to DeFusco’s mayoral campaign last year. Donnelly argued that DeFusco received funds in excess of the city’s political contribution limits and pay-to-play limits.

DeFusco responded to Donnelly, stating that he can “throw whatever you like at me,” but that he was unaware of any charges against him as he had not received any official notice from the city clerk alerting him to improprieties.

This follows a previous complaint filed by Donnelley on July 11 against DeFusco, Councilwoman Jen Giattino, and Councilman Ruben Ramos for alleged campaign or other violations.

In a previous complaint filed with the city clerk, he states Ramos also received funds in excess of the $500 limit, according to state ELEC reports filed in February of 2018.

The complaint filed in July also states that Giattino, who is a licensed real-estate agent, should have recused herself from creating or voting on rent control ordinances as this is a “conflict of interest.” Most recently, Giattino sponsored an ordinance during the Aug 1. meeting, which the council passed, that protected tenants from receiving a tax surcharge during the term of a lease. Instead those surcharges are imposed only at the beginning of a lease or during a lease renewal.

Council terminates legal contract

The council voted 7-2 at Wednesday’s meeting to cancel a contract for a law firm that had been representing Mayor Ravi Bhalla in his appeal of an alleged ethics violation going back eight years, to when he was a councilman.

The ethics complaint was originally filed against Bhalla by resident Perry Belfiore in 2010 after then-Councilman Bhalla voted on city contract for an attorney with whom Bhalla shared a lease for an office in Hoboken.

The matter has been adjudicated back and forth, with judges ruling for and against Bhalla. In September 2013, a summary decision by administrative law Judge James Geraghty found that Bhalla’s joint lease -- and shared receptionist -- with attorney Paul Condon did not create a conflict of interest that precluded Bhalla from voting to renew Condon’s contract with the city in 2010.

However, in November of 2017 the state Local Finance Board issued notice of a violation stating that the shared space with a professional appointed by the council is not a substantial conflict, but, “cosigning a lease agreement is considered a shared business relationship and would appear to constitute a direct/indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair one’s objectivity.”

According to city spokesperson Santiago Melli-Huber, there are currently two appeals pending on the 2017 notice: “one in the Office of Administrative Law, where it was thrown out the first time in 2014, and one in the Appellate Division, where it was thrown out the second time in 2016.”

When the council voted 7-2 to cancel the contract with the Buzak Law Group of Montville, who has been representing Bhalla, the resolution estimated that $10,000 had been spent to appeal the alleged ethics violation.

DeFusco and Ramos released a joint statement the following day stating that the vote protected taxpayers by preventing Bhalla from “continuing to use city resources to defend himself against a personal ethical violation,” and that the council is “a watchdog on the administration.”

According to Melli-Huber, “A press release put out by a campaign spokesperson does not change the fact that the meritless ethics complaint in question was adjudicated twice and thrown out, with Judge Geraghty, in his decision, calling the filer of the complaint a ‘bigoted, malicious crackpot with a personal grudge against Bhalla’.”

He added, “This act of political grandstanding sets a bad precedent, as elected officials should have the ability to do their jobs without fear of frivolous lawsuits.”

The city generally does pay for representation for officials sued in connection with their actions on the job. The resolution attempted to relieve the city of this duty by claiming Bhalla was not forthcoming enough in the matter.

Other business

Also at the meeting, resident Brian Murray asked the council about a new traffic pattern near Eleventh and Adams streets, which the council later approved.

The resolution states that the circulation patterns at the intersection of Eleventh and Adams streets “currently present hazards for all modes of transportation,” and that the department of transportation and parking recommend striping and signage in the area.

He said he was concerned about getting to work on the west side of town from his home on the east side.

The council responded that passing the resolution was a matter of bookkeeping as the 1000 block of Adams Street is already used as a two-way street, and the resolution simply designates it as such legally.

The 1000 block of Adams Street can be a bit confusing, as it dead ends against JFK Stadium. Some vehicles use it in both directions flowing south and north. The rest of Adams Street remains one way and flows north.

Council opposes County’s ICE contract

The Hoboken City Council unanimously approved a last-minute resolution on Wednesday urging the county Board of Freeholders to terminate their recently renewed $10 million, 10-year contact with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On July 12 the freeholders renewed the ICE contract in a 5-2 vote. It allows federal immigration officials to house immigrant detainees at the county jail in Kearny.

Many of the 800 detainees held at the jail are not there because of crimes or immigration violations, but because they’re being detained by ICE for confirmation or legal status or other matters. The jail also has approximately 400 traditional prisoners held on criminal charges.

Under the new contract, the county will receive $120 per day per detainee held at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny. This is a $10 increase from the previous contract.

Councilwoman Emily Jabbour proposed the resolution that states that the county did not provide the public with any “meaningful open dialogue” about the contract before it was voted on at the last-minute at a 1 p.m. weekday meeting.

The resolution also cites six deaths that had occurred at the Hudson County Correction facility in the past two years, including four suicides. It also mentions visits and detainee interviews conducted by nonprofit Human Rights First that labeled the facility “inhumane.”

New dog run, and return of the dog DNA testing

At the meeting, the council passed a resolution for a temporary dog park on a portion of the lawn at 1500 Park Ave. near the city’s north border.

Six of the neighboring residential buildings allow tenants to keep dogs, the resolution says, yet there is no “convenient” dog park.

An adjacent field will be separated by a fence. It’s used during the school year by Elysian Charter School, at 1460 Garden St., and Hoboken Montessori at 158 Fourteenth St. for outside recreational activities.

The president of Elysian Charter School, Eduardo Gonzalez, spoke against the temporary dog run, stating that space is already limited on the field and that other dog runs are in the area. He said the area will transform into a space littered with dog waste.

There is a dog run underneath the viaduct at 13th and Jefferson streets, several blocks west, and another at 1600 Park Ave., which is often run down.

Resident Laura Miani spoke in favor of the dog run, stating that there needs to be more places in town for dogs. She said 20 percent of the field is not enough space.

Councilman Peter Cunningham said the biggest issue is enforcement, as people do not pick up after their dogs. He said at the next council meeting, he would like to see a resolution or contract to have dog waste DNA tested.

Councilman Michael Russo said the council should be ashamed that they are approving another dog park before an exclusive park for children with disabilities. Russo had suggested this during the last council meeting in July and stated that he feels that certain special interest groups such as dog owners are being “pandered to” while disabled children are ignored.

He said parents should have an exclusive park where disabled children can play without worrying that they will be “trampled on.” But this has not been placed on the agenda.

Marilyn Baer can be reached at marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.

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