Tensions flare during Hoboken mayoral debate

Six candidates exchange barbs in Reporter forum
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The six candidates running for mayor exchanged barbs with each other while answering questions about issues from parking to political intimidation at the Hoboken Reporter’s offices on Tuesday.
The mayoral debate will be posted on hudsonreporter.com early this week.
Among the surprises: A candidate talked about his past as an undocumented immigrant, another promised to make Hoboken more like a sanctuary city; there were suggestions of partly subsidizing ferry service, and toward the end, a candidate fired a four-letter word at a current councilman.
The six running for mayor are Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Council President Jen Giattino, Councilman Michael DeFusco, Freeholder Anthony Romano, business owner Karen Nason, and activist Ronald Bautista. To read about more of their background and what separates them, see our prior cover story: http://tinyurl.com/hobokenmayoral.
The election will take place on Nov. 7. Residents can also vote for up to three councilpeople-at-large (some of whom are allied with mayoral candidates) and three Board of Education members.
The last day to register to vote is Oct. 17. The City Clerk’s office will be open late that evening.
Here are a few highlights (or lowlights) of the debate, which will appear in full on hudsonreporter.com early this week.

Parking and traffic

The candidates were asked about parking and traffic, and several blamed the current administration for problems with the Washington Street redesign.
Bhalla, who has been on the council for eight years, said that among other plans, he’d look to partly subsidize the ferry service to and from Manhattan, as each ride currently costs $9.50. He said he would like there to be more NJ Transit 126 buses in Hoboken as well as more bus routes in western Hoboken.
Nason said that among other things, she’d get rid of the bike lane on Observer Highway, part of a Zimmer initiative. She said it backs up traffic. She jokingly apologized to Bautista, a bike activist, for the comment.
She also said she’d increase the use of the Hop, an inexpensive city bus system that is not well publicized.
DeFusco, who has been on the council for a year, said that no one has fixed a well-known traffic problem that has plagued the southwest for several years. There, the light rail and a traffic light frequently back up traffic. Even though the council authorized a study several years ago, the problems persist. DeFusco said he’d work to fix them.
Freeholder Romano said he would reconfigure traffic by the new uptown Trader Joe’s as well as open Jackson Street in southern Hoboken to three lanes.
Bautistia said he supports the engineers in their work, and said Hoboken should work better with the Stevens Institute of Technology to bring improvements to town.
Giattino, who has served on the council for six years, said she was the only council member who voted against the Washington Street Redesign Project and would like to also fix the parking signs in town, as they are confusing. She also doesn’t believe that meters should be for only two hours.
For more of the council’s ideas and rebuttals to each other’s plans, watch the debate at hudsonreporter.com.

“Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech but this should be directed toward me and my campaign. Certainly not my partner.” –Michael DeFusco


Controversy over government workers

Giattino and Bhalla both said that they would separate the positions of director of health and human services, and director of environmental services. Director Leo Pellegrini runs both.
Romano said he believed Pellegrini was doing a good job running two departments, which saves the city money. But Giattino responded that with a budget of over $100 million, residents wouldn’t mind paying extra to alleviate quality of life concerns.
Bhalla said he’d like to add a constituent services office to City Hall, as right now, there’s no specific department to guide residents with issues. But DeFusco countered that the Zimmer administration – which in the past has been closely allied with Bhalla and Giattino — got rid of that position.
Several of the candidates also mentioned a problem with how the current administration treats those who want to run a business or develop here. Romano said that the people in charge were frequently rude to those applying. He said they speak in a “condescending” manner.
Romano said, “I have worries because the zoning officer, her husband is the chair of the Planning Board, [which] was never brought to the attention of the people.” He noted that this could be a conflict. DeFusco and Nason nodded in agreement. The zoning officer, a paid position, “assigns those needing special approval to the Planning or Zoning Boards of Adjustment.” The board in question then hears and votes on applications, sometimes granting a variance to a project that differs from the existing code. Ann Holzman is the town’s paid zoning officer, and her husband Gary sits on the nine-member volunteer Planning Board. (He is not the chair.)
City spokesman Juan Melli responded last week, “The zoning officer does not choose the venue for applications and has no role in determining the outcome of applications.” But he said the officer, if she rejects an initial application for failing to comply with existing laws, will recommend that it goes to the Zoning or Planning board for a hearing. He said the recommendation isn’t binding and is a suggestion depending on the type of variance needed.
He added, “The applicant makes the decision whether to file an application with the Zoning Board or Planning Board. Applications are then reviewed by the attorney for the Zoning Board and/or Planning Board. The board attorney ultimately determines based upon the Municipal Land Use Law and Hoboken’s local zoning code whether an application belongs with the Zoning Board or Planning Board. If there is a dispute as to which board should hear an application, the dispute is resolved by the Zoning Board.”
The city’s attorney, Brian Aloia, said last week, “There is absolutely no automatic conflict created for a Zoning or Planning Board member if he/she is married to a zoning officer.”
Romano said he would create an office of the inspector general who would oversee the city’s zoning and planning boards.
Several residents have complained in Reporter articles about how difficult and costly it is to get approvals in town. Nason said Jersey City is doing a better job luring new business.
DeFusco said the city’s zoning is outdated and needs to be updated. Bhalla agreed and said the city needs a less antiquated construction office, pointing out that only one person in the office uses email.
Nason has fought the city’s zoning in the past, and ended up closing a business because she didn’t get the city permits she sought. She presently owns the eatery Hoboken Hothouse at Second and Monroe, and was featured in a June 5, 2016, Reporter cover story discussing the difficulties of having a business in town.
She said the application process needs to be streamlined, as people spend tens of thousands starting out.


Hoboken has a history of residents being afraid to speak out against whichever administration has been in charge – fearing it could affect their business, permits, or personal lives. In both present and past administrations, members of the public have been removed from council meetings when they started to speak out, only to end up being awarded settlements (including this year) for thousands of dollars, paid for by the taxpayers.
During the debate, the candidates were asked how they’d ensure that their critics would have no fear in speaking out against them in the future – especially since whoever wins the top spot will likely do so with much less than 50 percent of the vote.
The candidates were also asked individually if they’d ever experienced bullying and intimidation.
Nason said that just a few weeks ago, she was intimidated while out to dinner in uptown Hoboken. She said a group of men who said they were from North Bergen told her she should drop out of the race. She alleged that they were DeFusco supporters. At the debate, DeFusco denied this immediately and suggested perhaps they were working for Romano, which Romano then denied.
Nason and DeFusco had several heated exchange as the debate continued.
DeFusco denied Nason’s implication that he’s controlled by any North Bergen politicians. In a follow up interview with the newspaper, he said, “The notion that I have any support from North Bergen is a political tactic. Yes, my media rep is somebody that does work in North Bergen, but that is the only connection I have. And rehashing a false narrative in a debate which should be factual is ridiculous.”

Political bullying

DeFusco also said he’d experienced political intimidation himself. He said his partner’s workplace supervisor received a Facebook message from a Hoboken resident who supports Giattino. DeFusco said the man “asked [the supervisor] if she was aware of what we were doing in Hoboken. This is an intimidation tactic. I asked Council President Giattino to speak with him and ask him to stop, but nonetheless, the tirades continued on social media. Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, but this should be directed toward me and my campaign. Certainly not my partner.”
DeFusco later provided emails, in response to questions from the Reporter, between himself and Giattino. In the emails, DeFusco told Giattino what her supporter was allegedly doing. Giattino said she did not support the behavior.
Last week, Giattino told the Reporter that she contacted the resident and asked him to stop the behavior. The resident also did post numerous comments about DeFusco online.
Bautista said that he was bullied when he was younger for being an undocumented immigrant for 11 years. He is now a citizen.
Bhalla responded by saying he understood the fears of immigrants, and that he would “codify” the laws to protect them. When asked in a followup phone call if Bhalla meant that Hoboken will become a sanctuary city, he said that that he took Bautista’s comments as a call to action and would “absolutely” work to designate Hoboken a “welcoming community,” or “welcoming city” – however, this is a newer and different term than sanctuary city, and has fewer protections.
“Welcoming city” resolutions and ordinances proclaim that a city will not ask anyone for their immigration status and will serve everyone equally regardless of immigration status. A “welcoming city,” unlike a “sanctuary city,” will continue to cooperate with federal immigration officers in all cases. So if customs agents come to Hoboken, the city will cooperate with an investigation.
The candidates shared other stories of being threatened politically in Hoboken. Giattino said a resident had tried to punch her early in her political career, at a council meeting. Candidates also brought up rumor-laden blogs and local political websites, where candidates as well as their supporters are often derided and called names.
“The best suggestion I can make is, just don’t read the blogs,” Giattino said. “They are awful.”
DeFusco mentioned several times that he believes due to these sorts of comments and others, hate is being unleashed in the community.
Nason shot back that she didn’t see the kind of hate in Hoboken that DeFusco did. This led to a war of words. Nason mentioned that she had a brother who was homosexual and had defended him since the 1980s. DeFusco indicated that she isn’t practicing what she preaches today.
During the exchange, she unleashed at least one expletive aimed at the councilman.

Romano’s living

DeFusco also called into question Romano’s living arrangements, as Romano lives in Marine View Plaza, one of the city’s moderate income properties. However, it’s not federal “subsidized housing” as it doesn’t receive a low-income subsidy from the government, as some of the projects in the southwest do. It’s longtime affordable housing that was set up to keep the middle class in the area decades ago. Residents do, however, usually pay lower than market rate rents. Those who got into the housing decades ago are not required to leave, no matter how high their salary rises.
DeFusco noted during the debate that Romano collects both a pension (he was a police captain) and a freeholder salary. DeFusco actually said Romano earns two pensions, but this was later corrected.
Romano said he pays an income surcharge of $400 monthly on the rent.

Much more

Nason also sang a Janis Joplin song during the debate, and the candidates spoke about several issues.
To see the debate this week, watch hudsonreporter.com. Got comments? Leave them on the site or email editorial@hudsonreporter.com and marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.
If you want to write a letter, remember that they must be 500 words or less, include contact information, and no letters containing any negative claims about a candidate or political group (even if verified) will run the weekend before the election. Send letters to editorial@hudsonreporter.com and put Hoboken letter in the subject head.

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