Hoboken Housing Authority Commissioner Dana Wefer, who briefly toyed with running for governor earlier this year, is planning to move out of town and said a tearful goodbye Thursday night to the other members of the HHA board. The board is a seven-member volunteer body that helps oversee the 1,383 units of federally subsidized low income housing on the west side of town. They are managed by a full-time staff and also overseen by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
The board is an important one, as it has influence over the safety and quality of life of thousands of the city’s poorest residents. Some people have seen getting on the board as a way to also influence the many voters in that area of town.
Over the past few decades, the board has suffered from various leadership changes, financial issues, and a few scandals.
Two years ago, the board hired a permanent executive director, Mark Recko.
The board is made up of seven commissioners. Five are appointed by the Hoboken City council, one is appointed by the mayor, and one is appointed by the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
Wefer, a former chair of the board, had informed the Hoboken City Council in a June email of her resignation. The council is in charge of appointing a new commissioner to fill her seat.
“The process is that, once we get word that she is vacating her seat, we usually determine exactly what date the seat will be open; look at the current roster of applicants at the City Clerk’s office, and pick among them; or if none of the current applicants are satisfactory, we try to recruit residents to apply for the position, so we can appoint a good and qualified person to the position,” said Councilman Ravi Bhalla in an interview in March about the process.
The City Clerk keeps the applications for two years. Applications can be found at the City Clerk’s office and online at http://hobokennj.gov/boards/. Any Hoboken resident can apply.
Councilman and board member David Mello said he and other council people have reached out to members of the community they feel will be a good fit. “I as a councilman have reached out to a few friends and neighbors,” he said.
Mello said that although the council had hoped to have someone to appoint by the next council meeting, he doesn’t believe that that will be the case. He said that there will be more division on the council because three of the nine council members are running for mayor.
“I believe it will be harder to get things done and get the five votes we need,” he said.
A history of turnover
Currently the board is operating one commissioner short as Judith Burrell, a state appointee to the board, has not yet been replaced.
“You may know that the HHA is already short one board member because the DCA [Department of Community Affairs] has not yet appointed someone to take the place of former commissioner Judith Burrell,” said Wefer in her letter to the council. “As such, it is vital that my seat be filled expeditiously to ensure that the HHA board is able to continue the work it is doing to lift the authority out of troubled status and improve housing for its residents.”
In 2014 then Executive Director Carmelo Garcia was fired and is still in litigation with the board and city over his termination.
Following Garcia there were several interim executive directors including Robert DiVincent, Richard Fox, and Emil Kotherithara, before Recko was hired in Sept. 2015.
When asked how the residents of the HHA could expect stability from an institution who has had several changes in leadership, Wefer said “I would not leave the board if I felt it was unstable. I have put my life on hold for this.”
Wefer was appointed to the board in 2014 by the Hoboken City Council. Her five-year term is not due to expire until May of 2018.
Wefer said she is concerned the Hoboken politics may get in the way of what is best for the housing authority.
“I think that when Dawn Zimmer was running for reelection everyone thought that this was going to be a boring year, and now all of a sudden, all hell has broken loose,” said Wefer. “The housing authority has always suffered because of Hoboken politics. It’s been a victim of politics so this has made me wary of leaving out of an election year.”
She said in the past executive directors were a “patronage” and not hired based on qualifications.
She said that having a political board makes it harder for the director to do his job. She said directors “need to not only be a capable property manager of decrepit housing that is falling apart because of not a lot of funding, they need to be able to navigate a labyrinth of federal and state regulations, and they need to be able to withstand political pressures…in the past the job of executive director has been treated as a patronage position, and when you do that, you are affecting the housing of 3,000 people and their lives. You don’t play politics with people’s lives.”
She said she is most proud of the board’s hire of HHA’s Executive Director Marc Recko.
“He is so knowledgeable and transparent,” she said. “He has worked closely with the board, and he has over 30 years of experience. He is what the residents of the Hoboken Housing Authority deserve.”
Wefer, a 10-year Hoboken resident, said she would miss the residents and the connections she has made.
To her replacement, she said, “My advice is to remember that your duty is to the Hoboken Housing Authority and its residents. You are charged with its oversight, and you can’t be afraid to ask tough questions.”
Last year, after the election of Donald Trump, Wefer held a local meeting for a new group called NJ Awakens to help put forth better leadership in state politics. Soon after that, Wefer ran as a Republican for governor, and held a meeting of the group related to her candidacy.
But she eventually dropped the bid.
She explained last week that the group still exists and now it’s statewide. She said that it will put forth Republican candidates for other offices.
“My theory is that the best way to move forward is to take over the Republican party from the inside,” she said. “The whole idea was to battle the Republicans…by making changes within the Republican Party.”
Wefer said the organization has been working to get several progressive Republicans elected within the state Assembly and congress as “reform republicans.”
Flowers and progress
Wefer said in an interview that she and her family have decided to move because they live in a one-bedroom apartment with a toddler and can’t afford a two bedroom in Hoboken.
She said they are looking in Essex and Bergen counties and have not found a home yet.
During the meeting Chair David Denning, Vice Chair LaTrenda Ross, and Executive Director Marc Recko presented Wefer with a bouquet of flowers and a vase etched with her years of service to the board.
“Dana joined the board at a very difficult time,” Denning said. “The board wasn’t getting information it needed… and she stood up to a lot of pressure and roadblocks in her way.”
“As the most senior member of this board I feel like Dana and I have been through a battle together,” said Councilman and Commissioner Mello.
“I really feel like we have all been through something together,” said Wefer tearfully. “Serving on the housing authority has been a formative experience…It has changed the way I have seen the world and thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.