Big controversies at City Council meeting

Runoff elections, Union Dry Dock land, park overspending

The Hoboken City Council pulled a resolution for a change order requests for the Southwest Park construction in the amount of $344,792.
The Hoboken City Council pulled a resolution for a change order requests for the Southwest Park construction in the amount of $344,792.

The Hoboken City Council met on Wednesday Dec. 6 and discussed several controversial issues.
This meeting – the second since a heated mayoral election last month – saw its share of political discussion. The council passed an introductory ordinance to introduce runoff elections, with a 7-1-1 vote. Until 2012, municipal elections would result in a runoff between the top two vote-getters. However, Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her supporters said the runoffs cost too much money and led to more political wrangling, and residents voted in a referendum to do away with them. But some believe that the recent six-way mayoral election proved it was not a good idea. The winner, Mayor Elect Ravi Bhalla, earned 32.7 percent of the votes in an election that drew 41.2 percent of registered voters.
Councilman Jim Doyle abstained from the vote. Bhalla, still a councilman, voted against the ordinance. However, he asked for the matter to be tabled, saying he thinks the city should wait until after the first of the year to get input from the new council members. Plus, he doesn’t believe it’s fair to rush such a change during the holiday season. He said the council has eight months to discuss the matter, as it wouldn’t need to be approved until August to be considered for the next November school board election.
The ordinance was sponsored by Councilman Michael DeFusco (a former mayoral candidate) and Councilman Ruben Ramos.

Southwest Park over budget

After a discussion between the members of the City Council and Business Administrator Stephen Marks, as well as Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia, the council decided to postpone a resolution that would have approved four change orders to the city’s contract with the contractor for the Southwest Park, for a total of $344,792.41. That would be a 15.54 percent increase from the contract’s original amount.
The city and council had awarded a contract to Flanagan’s Contracting Group, Inc., for the Southwest Block 12 Park Project in May 2016 for $4,907,567 and approved change orders in the amount of $417,728, increasing the contract price by 8.51 percent for a new total contract amount of $5,325,296.
The newest round of change orders was presented to the council last week. The park has been open since September.
Of the four change orders, the most expensive and most questioned was a change order for $264,524 for the removal of contaminated soil.
Marks said the soil is commonly referred to as “historic fill” which is typically found in urban areas such as Hoboken. Historic fill includes pieces of brick or mortar, two-by-fours and sometimes glass.
“We couldn’t keep it on site for human health and environmental reasons,” said Marks.
Members of the council didn’t question whether the soil should have been removed but rather when it was removed and why the change order was being presented to the council in December, three months after the park was opened.
According to council documents, an email shows the contractor was aware of the disposal as early as April 11, 2016.
Marks said all change orders had to be approved by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before the council could vote on them.
“Does the administration have the ability to issue a change order without council approval?” asked Councilman Michael Russo, to which Aloia responded that approving the order depends on the situation, but the council approves whether to pay for it.
“I am having hard time grappling with what you are saying,” said outgoing Councilman David Mello. “The administration can move forward and green-light change, but the only remedy we have as a City Council, as the legislative branch, is basically default on debts? … It’s the same as if I were to hand my credit card to my 11-year-old and then, when it’s time to pay the bill, say, ‘I’m not going to pay it.’ ”
Bhalla said that if the council votes it down, it wouldn’t necessarily become a debt incurred, but rather a disputed claim in a multimillion dollar contract, which can often be negotiated into a compromise or folded into another contract for additional work.
Bhalla added that he would like to examine how the city goes about bidding out public works projects to ensure the council receives an accurate bid — and subsequently fewer change orders seeking more money.

Union Dry Dock park controversy

The Hoboken City Council unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Council President Jen Giattino and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher recommending to state and Hudson County officials, as well as NJ Transit and Port Authority executives, to not let NY Waterway put its ferry repair operations at the site of the longtime Union Dry Dock ship repair company on the north waterfront. NY Waterway recently bought the property for $11.5 million, but Hoboken wants to keep the area as open space and put a park there. NJ Transit has also said it plans to purchase the property from NY Waterway which will continue to use the property as a homeport.
During the summer of 2017, more than 2,100 people signed a petition to urge the city to acquire the site. In August the council passed a resolution recommending that the planning board add the site to a list of planned and possible new parks in the city’s master plan reexamination.
In November the council approved the use of eminent domain for the site
“Hoboken invested so much to create a waterfront park loved by so many,” said Heather Gibbons of the Fund for a Better Waterfront. “It’s a model for other communities.”
She said she was concerned about the environmental impact the proposed ferry maintenance and repair facility will have, citing diesel engines polluting the air as well as fuel and sanitary waste polluting the water.
“The proposal would be so dreadful for Hoboken,” she added.
Resident Tony Soares said, “We keep having issues where we are chasing a project.”
He said if the city had codified the 2004 master plan as well as subsequent plans which identified the space as potential parkland, the city might not end up in its current predicament.
“Once the Union Dry Dock closes, you have to change the zoning,” said Soares. “If it had been in place we would’ve had less of an issue… we would’ve had a stronger case.”
The resolution states that the council will write to Governor Chris Christie, Governor-Elect Phil Murphy, NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro, Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole, and a host of other officials, attaching a copy of the resolution, expressing opposition to locating the NY Waterway homeport at the UDD Site in Hoboken, and that the city will work with NJ Transit, NY Waterway, the NJDEP, and other relevant parties “to identify a more appropriate location for the ferry homeport and secure the UDD site for public open and recreational space.”

Marilyn Baer can be reached at