During Wednesday’s City Council meeting, several council members questioned Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s newly announced part-time position at a law firm, and also challenged his appointments to the Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board.
A week ago Friday, the law firm of Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis & Cohen, P.C. announced that Bhalla had joined their Hackettstown-based firm in an “of counsel” role. Council members were concerned this could take away from the full-time job of mayor. They also noted that on Nov. 3, a week before he won the mayoralty, Bhalla said in an interview with hmag that he’d “be working full-time for the people of Hoboken, severing my employment with [his previous] law firm.”
At Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, the council majority passed a resolution urging Bhalla to answer questions about his employment and how it will affect running the city.
Bhalla usually does not attend council meetings and was not at the meeting.
In Hoboken, the office of mayor is considered full-time job and comes with a $116,000 salary. (Mayors in several smaller Hudson County towns do the job part-time and earn less than $40,000.)
Critics have also pointed out that since taking office, Bhalla has hired a chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. Bhalla is the first mayor in recent history to have both a chief of staff and a deputy chief of staff. They also noted that a former state Republican leader is among the partners.
The new job will pay Bhalla $60,000 per year, plus bonuses if he brings clients to the firm.
On Friday afternoon, Bhalla responded to the council’s questions by releasing his employment agreement with the firm.
Bhalla said in the release, “While there is no requirement that I release this contract, I believe it is important to go the extra mile and provide robust public disclosure. As the agreement outlines and as I announced last week, I will serve in a limited ‘of counsel’ advisory role. I will not be practicing law, but rather will serve as a resource to other attorneys at the firm, providing advice from time to time. I particularly look forward to being a mentor to young lawyers at the firm. The arrangement will be periodically reviewed by corporation counsel to ensure that no conflicts emerge. This is similar to my recent decision to continue my term as a Trustee of the Association of the Federal Bar of New Jersey.”
He said the new part time job will “in no way interfere with my full-time commitment to the city of Hoboken. I am often the first one to arrive in the office and the last one to leave. I assure you that will not change.”
He also listed accomplishments in the first six weeks in office, including securing $1 million in state funding for transportation projects.
Besides council members, on Wednesday, several residents asked questions about the new job. They included former Councilmen Dave Mello and Tony Soares (who supported other mayoral candidates in November), and resident Mary Ondrejka.
“If you wanted to get rich, work in the private sector,” said Mello. “If you wanted to serve, work in the public sector… so if that’s what he wanted, maybe he should’ve thought about the decision he made to run for office and essentially interview for the people of Hoboken. During the interview during the campaign he made promise and said he would commit 100 percent of his time to the city of Hoboken.”
He added, “When you’ve interviewed for a job and answered a crucial question, if it proved to be disingenuous and proved to be a lie, would you not potentially be fired from that job?”
“I was councilman on 9/11 and Dave Roberts was the Mayor of Hoboken back then,” said Soares, “and Dave Roberts was here in this building and he was here in this building at two in the morning when people were still coming out. If Dave Roberts was at another company or restaurant in Morristown that day, he wouldn’t be able to get back into Hoboken. The city was shut down. It is absolutely a right to question a public official in this format.”
“You can’t do the job without distraction if you’re working a second job,” said Ondrejka. “I really have a problem with someone moonlighting, especially in this town.”
The resolution to urge Bhalla to answer questions passed with a 7-1-1 vote. Councilman Jim Doyle voted no and Councilwoman Emily Jabbour abstained. Doyle and Jabbour are the only council members who ran for office with Bhalla.
Doyle asked why this resolution was considered an emergency and thus allowed on the agenda last minute.
“Do our council minutes, our bylaws, allow for 5 p.m. resolutions to be just thrown on the agenda, unless it’s an emergency?,” Doyle asked, to which Council President Ruben Ramos said “yes.”
Doyle also asked if the council had asked the mayor any of their 26 questions before resorting to writing a letter and resolution.
Members of the council said they hadn’t, and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said he doesn’t respond to her questions on other matters.
“If you wanted to get rich, work in the private sector.” –David Mello
Rent board redo
The council also discussed, at the meeting, the mayor’s appointments to the Rent Leveling and Stabilization board, and his lack of reappointments of other members to the board.
The quasi-judicial nine-member board is comprised of residents and tenants. They hear cases such as landlords who are applying for a hardship exception to the city’s longterm rent control laws, which keep rent increases to a few percent each year.
At the meeting, the council approved Bhalla’s appointments of five out of seven residents to the Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board.
However, Council Vice President Jen Giattino then introduced a last-minute ordinance that passed unanimously, allowing the council to appoint the remaining board seats. In the future, the mayor will appoint four board members and the council will appoint three if the ordinance is passed on a second reading.
The council voted to approve Bhalla’s appointments of board members Rosemary Orozco, Michael Mastropasqua, Jason Maurer, Eric Osborn-Focht, and current alternate Daniel Schott.
The council pulled the appointments of residents Heath Urban and Warren Hall from the agenda.
This was done after members of the board and the public spoke out against the mayor for not reappointing current board Chair Michael Lenz and longtime board member Cheryl Fallick to the board.
Board member Danny Schott, who served last year as an alternate to the board, said, “Of my time on the board, chairperson Michael Lenz and board member Cheryl Fallick have served with utmost integrity and competence, actually I served with competence Michael and Cheryl served with integrity and expertise.”
Fallick has been a longtime activist regarding local tenant issues.
“I urge the board tonight withhold consent on the list of appointments to the rent stabilization and leveling board,” said Focht. “I think it would be wiser reinstate all of experienced members who once again volunteer time and efforts… I can only speculate as to how the mayor arrived at this list of people. I speculate he wanted fresh blood and new voices and that’s commendable, but as an alternate, a new volunteer could speak their mind at every meeting even if they don’t vote.”
Several members of the public spoke about Lenz’s and Fallick’s extensive knowledge and expertise when it comes to the subject matter of the board deals with.
“Michael Lenz and Cheryl Fallick are very experienced people who have the intention of making sure the rent control laws are properly enforced,” said resident Dan Tumpson. “They have lots of experience with how the law works and they work hard to make sure it is implemented properly. I don’t understand why they are not reappointed and why they are not on the list to be reappointed. I think it’s a very bad idea.”
Other issues at the council meeting
Members of the public brought up a bevy of concerns during the public portion of Wednesday’s council meeting. Residents get five minutes to discuss any Hoboken related topic. This week’s public comments included the topic of safety in light of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla., runoff elections, and financial spreadsheets.
“A couple of weeks ago I spoke to Director [Stephen]Marks and suggested we take the claims portion of the [council agenda] and move it to an Excel spreadsheet so we can go in every week and can look at it,” said resident Franz Paetzold.
At every council meeting the council votes on the city’s bills and claims, an itemized list of the city’s expenses.
He said if it was part of a spreadsheet and not just a PDF, the public could use it and manipulate it create helpful tools such as graphs and pivot tables. He said the spreadsheet would also let residents more easily navigate it and keep an eye on the city’s spending. He said it would help with transparency.
Resident Erick Garrison spoke out on safety measures he feels the city should take to protect students and residents in light of the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“I believe Hoboken should be as strong in addressing the issues regarding Parkland, Fla.,” said Garrison. “I believe there should be video cameras with a person monitoring those video cameras at each and every school. Gun carrying security personnel at school entrances should be required possibly from retired military and police personnel. This is a resource many strapped communities don’t take advantage of…”
He added that metal detectors should also be at all school buildings and that everyone had to go through medical detectors before attending the council meeting, and he feels more secure because of it.
“There’s a lot of smart people on the City Council. Lets come up with a model for the rest of the country,” said Garrison.
Resident Elizabeth Adams suggested moving mayoral elections in order to have successful runoffs in Hoboken.
“Instead of having the mayoral election lumped into an already crowded ballot in November,” said Adams. “Why not move the mayoral election to early October? Then if no one is elected at that time and a runoff is needed they would appear on regular November ballot.”
She said this would help, as some people have said they were concerned with low voter turnout for a runoff election in December due to inclement weather.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.