The Hoboken City Council and Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s administration are again at odds over payroll in the mayor’s office.
On Jan. 2, the council amended the payroll to suspend funds to be paid to Santiago-Melli Huber, the former communications manager for the city, who was still on the payroll despite serving his last day on Dec. 12.
When asked why Melli-Huber was still on the payroll, city spokesperson Vijay Chaudhuri said, “The city doesn’t comment on personnel matters.”
Santiago Melli-Huber is now employed as the communications director for the city of Trenton under Mayor Reed Gusciora.
The council reduced the biweekly amount paid to the mayor’s office from $18,240 to $16,454, when Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino questioned why Melli-Huber, whose annual salary was $72,500, was still on the payroll.
The council was set to discuss this payroll discrepancy during the Jan. 16 council meeting. But criminal defense attorney John Lynch would not answer council members’ questions regarding Melli-Huber’s departure and pay. According to Chaudhuri, Lynch was appointed on Jan. 8 by the city’s insurer, the Garden State Municipal Joint Insurance Fund.
The attorney told the council he would not have a public discussion about “litigation or potential litigation or the hint of potential litigation” in open session and would do so only in closed session. He said that the fact that he was hired means there is the potential for litigation.
Asked if Santiago Melli-Huber was suing the city, Chaudhuri did not answer.
During the council meeting, Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said she believed it to be “convenient” that the administration would not hold a public discussion on the Melli-Huber matter. “It is pretty damn frustrating,” she said.
“It is pretty damn frustrating.” –Tiffanie Fisher
Meanwhile, back at the ranch …
At its Jan. 16 meeting, the council, which approves the city’s payroll every meeting, amended the payroll to exclude retroactive pay for the mayor’s current Chief of Staff John Allen. But Business Administrator Stephen Marks called it a raise.
“The mayor’s chief of staff received a salary increase after the date of his start anniversary,” said Marks, adding that the total salary increase was $7,500.
At the same meeting, the council voted to amend the payroll to omit the retroactive pay of $490.35 to Allen, whose annual salary is $112,500.
The raise, according to Marks, was a “merit-based raise” given after the anniversary of his employment.
Council members protest
Members of the council stated they were against the raise including Councilman Michael DeFusco and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher.
“However much I appreciate the service of municipal employees in the mayor’s office, these individuals are known to have organized quite offensive attacks on many elected members sitting before you today,” said DeFusco adding that Allen was a running mate of Mayor Bhalla, who defeated DeFusco’s mayoral bid in 2017.
DeFusco said that he and members of the council will examine the budget carefully to “make sure residents are seeing the results of their tax dollars and not funding a mayor’s office full of people who are just looking to seek political vengeance.”
Fisher said she found the raise “literally offensive.” She said the raise was a six percent increase, and above average for civil servants, but also because she said she is against a merit raise “for someone who organizes attacks against the city council.”
“This goes back to transparency … If you just let people know, especially the residents, how you are spending the money we will not continue to find ourselves in these situations,” Giattino said.
Fisher said she believes Allen “orchestrated” attacks on council members through two residents, Michael Donnelly and Anthony DeLeonardo.
Both residents came before the council on various occasions since June and discussed alleged ethics violations of council members during the public portion of the meetings.
“Hoboken politics has reached a new level of low when the mayor’s office directs members of the public to deliver personal attacks against council members seen as political opposition,” Fisher alleged in a Dec. 21 press release.
She went on, “Repeatedly since June, certain members of the Hoboken City Council who did not support Mayor Bhalla in last year’s election have been subjected to personal attacks by two Hoboken residents, Michael Donnelly and Anthony DeLeonardo. Donnelly and DeLeonardo appeared to have no previous political activity in Hoboken, and each have been identified as having ties to John Allen, Chief of Staff to Mayor Ravi Bhalla.”
The release continued, “Attacks on city council members at council meetings are a given and protected by the First Amendment.” But, she alleged, “when the mayor’s office is seen to be behind these attacks, that crosses an important line and isn’t acceptable.”
Fisher stated in the Dec. 21 release that she was surprised by the attacks, especially the ones against her. She said she believed she had a “great working relationship with the mayor and his team on many important topics in Hoboken,” including opposing the refueling depot at Union Dry Dock, working on the Rebuild by Design project to protect the city against flooding, and more.
“John [Allen] knows Mike and Anthony just like he knows many other residents involved in Hoboken civic life,” Chaudhuri said. “It’s too bad that residents who speak at council meetings now have to fear retribution at the hands of council members. Councilwoman Fisher’s Trump-like intimidation of two residents speaking out is unacceptable, and her conspiracy theories are absurd.”
This was in reference to emails from Fisher to constituents including the Dec.21 press release which provided information on not only the “attacks” but also information on the two residents involved.
“It’s extremely offensive that Tiffanie Fisher tried to silence me with her email publishing private information about me that I believe constitutes harassment and political bullying,” Michael Donnelly said in an unsolicited email. “It’s clear that by providing my age in a mass email, she does not believe young people should be involved in the political process, which is shameful. She owes the public an apology.”
In response, Fisher said “I stand by my statement that John Allen, the mayor’s chief of staff, is behind the multiple, personal attacks against city council members. If Vijay wants to continue pushing the bullying agenda of the mayor’s office then he shouldn’t do so on the taxpayer’s dime. The mayor may see these behaviors as justifying taxpayer-funded ‘merit raises’ of 30 percent for his team, but I certainly don’t.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com or comment online at hudsonreporter.com