Between The Lines

No more answers at ordinance hearings?

The office of Jersey City’s corporation counsel has decided that its lawyers will no longer answer questions that are raised by citizens during City Council public hearings on proposed ordinances.

The administration staff that includes corporation counsel attornies and city Business Administrator Brian Platt waited until near the end of the March 27 meeting, after all of the usual gadflies had left the council chambers, to inform the council of the new policy.

This is a change from long-standing past practice. The public and council members traditionally expect to receive information that may have been overlooked by the council, or have questions answered that were raised by residents making their case for or against the adoption of an ordinance.

Under state law, a governing body must introduce an ordinance, then in subsequent weeks allow the public and others to examine what they intend to do before the formal adoption.

Prior to the vote adopting the ordinance, the governing body must allow the public to make comments or raise questions.

But the corporation counsel has decided that its office will no longer answer legal questions. Assistant Corporation Counsel Norma Garcia announced her office is only responsible for writing ordinances, not providing facts in regards to each ordinance.

This has set up a confrontation with the city council that in the past could rely on the legal department to advise them during such questioning.

Councilman Richard Boggiano, never comfortable with having the administration as city council’s legal advisor, said this is a good reason for the council to have its own lawyer, especially when the council and the mayor’s office are in conflict over certain issues in an ordinance.

Council President Rolando Lavarro threatened to hold ordinances and resolutions hostage if Platt and the legal department would not answer the questions raised by the public. He also said that Platt should require city department heads to appear at public meetings when ordinances pertaining to their department come up for public hearings .

Platt, clearly flustered by the council’s aggressive response, noted that department heads are available to give answers  at the council caucus meetings. Caucus meetings are open to the public but only as observers.

Platt said to require department heads to appear at the public meeting might pose a hardship on their private lives. Many of the public meetings last for hours and the public portion, where questions are raised, often last late into the evening.

Platt said he was offended by the council’s tone, and the implication that he and the city attorneys are not providing the council with adequate information.

Councilman Michael Yun took the conflict one step further saying if the council did not get the answers to the questions at a second hearing, the council could vote against the ordinance in question or delay the ordinance until such time as the administration could supply the answers.

The hostility between the council and people like Platt, who represent the mayor’s office, has been growing for the last few months. Platt and other professionals are new faces, replacing a much more accommodating business administrator and legal staff they replaced at the start of Mayor Steven Fulop’s second term in early 2018. The previous staff, while not always forthcoming, sought to provide answers to questions raised by the public at public meetings.

Lavarro, who is expected to get dumped from Fulop’s ticket in 2021, has become more assertive in his demands of the administration, and told Platt that the new rules for dealing with public questions marked a change in administrative policy. Lavarro said if the legal staff wouldn’t provide the answers, then the council would have to take steps to make sure questions raised by the public are answered before the council votes on any issue.

Platt defended his position by saying his department provided answers to questions raised by the council at caucus meetings but seemed not to believe he needed to provide answers to questions raised by the public.

This current divide between the council and representatives of the mayor is more pronounced than in the past. Boggiano and Yun routinely question some of the information they received even under the old staff, when it appeared that mayor’s agenda differed from their own.

Last month, Lavarro, Boggiano and Yun complained about the lack of information on the city’s plans to rebuild the St. Lucy’s homeless shelter, claiming they received the information from newspapers after a press conference, not from a presentation from the administration to the council.

Now the credibility gap since the beginning of this year seems to be widening. Lavarro appears to be determined to force Platt to provide answers to the public’s questions when they come up.

Is Fulop back in the fold?

With the municipal election in Jersey City still more than a year and a half away, rumors suggest that Mayor Steven Fulop may ask Amy DeGise, chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, to run on his ticket as an at-large candidate instead of Lavarro.

Fulop appears to have made peace with Amy’s father, County Executive Tom DeGise, after having plotted Tom’s overthrow in 2018 with two other mayors, and failed.

Fulop made an appearance at a Tom DeGise fundraiser at the Liberty House on March 21, where Fulop was actually greeted with more than a political dagger stares. Gov. Phil Murphy also attended the event, but not U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker. Also missing were state Senator Sandra Cunningham and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco.

Those in attendance claim that Sacco had decided he needed to campaign instead of sip and sup. He is running for reelection as mayor of North Bergen against his arch rival, Larry Wainstein.

At his own election rally earlier this month, Sacco – in a quiet yet terrifying tone – said he would go house to house to campaign in order to “crush” Wainstein at the polls.

Wainstein and Sacco are in the midst of one of the most negative campaigns in recent history, with each side throwing enough mud at each other to serve as landfill on the Hudson River.

One of the other popular rumors circulating is that Boggiano will not run for reelection in 2021, paving the way for a possible run of Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas. But Boggiano said this week he is definitely running for reelection.

Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com