A resolution seeking to enforce Hoboken’s pay to play laws was postponed from a vote once again after the Sept. 26 special City Council meeting was canceled due to a lack of quorum.
Only Councilmen Jim Doyle and Michael Russo physically attended while Council members Michael DeFusco and Emily Jabbour phoned in for the meeting.
The council needed five members of the council to attend in order to vote on the resolution and would have needed five votes for the resolution to pass.
The special council meeting was called by Mayor Ravi Bhalla on Friday, Sept. 20 after the council voted to table the resolution during their regularly scheduled council meeting on Sept. 18.
This all comes before the municipal election on Nov. 5 in which Hoboken residents will elect six ward council members and three trustees to the Board of Education.
The resolution, sponsored by council members Doyle and Jabbour “seeks to direct the City Clerk and Corporation Counsel to take every reasonable measure to enforce the City’s Pay-to-Play Ordinances and ensure that same are in full force and effect during the November 2019 election cycle.”
According to current Hoboken law, originally adopted in 2011, Political Action Committees (PACs) are limited to $500 contributions for individual candidates as opposed to the $2,600 allowable by state law. It also restricts contributions from developers and professionals seeking city contracts.
The city administration hired Newark law firm Hunt, Hamlin, & Ridley to review the city’s ordinance on pay to play laws and contributions, according to a city spokesperson.
According to a Sept. 3 letter from the firm’s attorney Ray Hamlin to Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia, the council should consider repealing its pay-to-play regulations because they are unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional and instead abide by state regulations.
The 18-page legal opinion argues that the restrictions on campaign contributions raise potential legal issues under the First Amendment given that the Supreme Court has determined that contributions constitute political speech.
“I opine that this extreme decrease in the permissible contribution amount has a strong possibility of being found as unconstitutionally low if challenged in that it prevents candidates and political committees from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy, and there appears to be no justification for the significant reduction or any close relationship between the governmental interests and the greatly reduced amount,” states the letter.
As for enforcement, Hamlin argues the ordinance offers no explanation as to how the City Clerk would enforce the ordinance, that enforcement is not in line with the duties of the City Clerk, and the ordinance doesn’t clearly define where the “penalty equal to four times the amount of the contribution” would go if imposed by a court.
On a future agenda
During the Sept. 18 council meeting, the council voted 6-3 to table the resolution. Doyle, Jabbour, and Russo voted against it.
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher motioned to table the resolution, citing the Hamlin opinion and a “back and forth” with corporation counsel in which she said he also stated a portion of the city’s pay-to-play ordinance was unenforceable.
Fisher suggested that the governing body hire “conflict counsel” to review the matter.
After the brief meeting of the council Sept. 26, Mayor Ravi Bhalla issued a statement and said it was “troubling” that five council members did not attend.
“This deliberate action prevented an important vote to protect the integrity of our local elections as well as our redevelopment initiatives and city contracting process,” said Bhalla, “Instead of taking a stand against special interest groups, agreeing to abide by our current pay to play laws, and setting a positive example, the council majority is choosing to ignore the law for their own benefit. We must continue to be vigilant to stamp out voter fraud and strengthen campaign finance regulations, and tonight the council failed to accept the very the laws they have been elected to uphold.”
Bhalla is running a slate of council candidates against the city’s incumbents and has called for the law to be kept as is until after the election.
According to Deputy City Clerk Jerry Lore, the majority of council members who did not attend informed the city clerk’s office prior to the meeting that they had scheduling conflicts, such as Hoboken’s back to school night. Lore said only Councilman Peter Cunningham did not respond to the notice that there would be a special council meeting.
He also said typically in the past the administration reaches out to the council requesting a special meeting be held and asking council members for their availability but this time the meeting was scheduled and then the council members were notified by the clerk’s office.
Doyle and Jabbour plan to reintroduce the resolution at the next regularly scheduled council meeting.