Hoboken Council member Tiffanie Fisher sues city over campaign finance changes

Hoboken Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher is seeking to overturn changes made to the city's campaign finance laws. Photo provided by Tiffanie Fisher.

Hoboken Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher is suing the city of Hoboken to overturn an ordinance that she says weakens the city’s campaign finance laws, arguing that an amendment added right before it’s adoption violates state law.

The ordinance, which was adopted on Dec. 15 last year despite public outcry, changed the city’s strict finance laws by allowing labor unions to contribute more to political campaigns. The current rules only allow political committees to contribute up to $500 to candidates instead of the state maximum of $7,200, but the ordinance grants unions an exemption from such rules.

Fisher had opposed the ordinance since it’s introduction at the end of last year, who said before it’s adoption in December that it was the equivalent of “throw[ing] the baby out with the bathwater” because of one person breaching the law.

“Weakening Hoboken’s campaign finance laws goes against the will of Hoboken’s citizenry,” said Fisher in a statement. “On all issues before the City Council, Hoboken residents and members of the public have the right to be heard, and especially one of this importance which they were denied.”

The ordinance had initially failed to pass on second reading that night, but it then got adopted after outgoing Councilwoman Vanessa Falco, who had vacated her seat at the end of that year to lead the new Division of Housing, changed her vote from an abstain to a yes to give it enough votes to go through. She has not explained why she changed her vote.

The complaint was filed in Hudson County Superior Court on Jan. 28. Fisher is being represented by Scott Salmon of Jardim, Meisner & Susser, P.C, with the City of Hoboken listed as the defendants.

“Substantive” amendment

Fisher argues in the complaint that a last minute amendment made between the first and second readings was “substantive” and failed to provide the public with any additional notice, “by way of providing an additional first reading of the amendment, which was required by law.”

“As such, the ordinance should be stricken by this court as it was passed into law through illegitimate means and therefore violated the public’s right to procedural due process,” reads the complaint.

The amendment in question was a trigger clause added to the ordinance during its second reading, mandating that the changes only take effect based on the outcome of a complaint raised by City Clerk James Farina against Councilman Michael DeFusco.

That complaint began in October of 2019, when Farina alleged that DeFusco had violated the city’s campaign finance laws. DeFusco, who was running for reelection at the time, called the complaint a political stunt against him.

The amendment states that the ordinance will go into effect if the court rules in that case that the current campaign finance laws are unconstitutional or are unenforceable.

Fisher also notes in the complaint of a letter written by Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia, who recommended having a new vote on the ordinance due to the amendment, according to a report by Hudson County View.

Aloia elaborated by writing that while a substantial amendment is not defined, state statue calls for notice and publication of an ordinance prior to a vote, which was not done. He then argued that if challenged, the amendment could be considered substantial by the court.

The Hoboken City Council did just that at their Feb. 2 meeting after Fisher announced her lawsuit earlier in the day, voting 5-2 both times on an emergency and to pass the ordinance with the amendment for introduction.

Fisher, who had recused herself from both votes, said that the ongoing litigation will still continue. “Just because a burglar who robs a bank returns the money, doesn’t mean the burglary didn’t happened,” she said.

A Hoboken spokesperson declined to comment on Fisher’s complaint, citing pending litigation.

Complaint of a…..complaint?

The complaint between Farina and DeFusco, which has been the center of the finance law changes, has been stuck in the courts for over two years, due to a mixture of the COVID-19 related delays and moving between courts.

The case had been initially sent to the Union City municipal court, as it would have not been able to take place in Hoboken court due to the council members voting on the appointments of the city’s municipal judges.

It was delayed since then due to the pandemic, according to DeFusco’s attorney, Steven Kleinman of Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC. Kleinman said that they’ve had a number of preliminary hearings to discuss the case in Union City, and had filed a motion to dismiss it in August of 2021.

But the complaint then saw further delays after moving  from Union City to West New York court in November of that year, with the reason cited for the move being a conflict, according to Kleinman. It is unknown what the conflict was.

Kleinman said that they had filed another motion to dismiss in West New York. He also said that the court is “getting around” to schedule further proceedings, and are awaiting a date for a hearing.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.