Fisher lawsuit to overturn Hoboken campaign finance changes dismissed

Councilwoman Fisher sued city, argued that changes to ordinance violated state law

Councilwoman Fisher had sued the city of Hoboken to overturn the campaign finance changes.

A lawsuit by Hoboken Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher to overturn the city’s campaign finance law changes, which could allow labor unions to contribute more money to political campaigns in the city, has been dismissed.

Judge Joseph Turula dismissed the suit with prejudice last Friday, meaning it cannot be refiled. Since then, several of Fisher’s council members demanded that she reimburse the city for the costs of defending against the suit.

Fisher sued the city in Hudson County Superior Court earlier this year over an ordinance which, by itself, would grant unions an exemption from the city’s $500 contribution limit and allow them to contribute up to $7,200.

The councilwoman, who has opposed the ordinance, was focusing on amendments made to the ordinance before its initial second reading in December last year, where a trigger clause was added stating that the ordinance would only go into effect if another related legal matter was resolved in a certain way.

That legal matter refers to a complaint regarding Councilman Michael DeFusco’s campaign finances, in which City Clerk James Farina alleged in 2019 that he had violated the city’s finance laws. The clause states that the ordinance will go into effect if the court rules that the finance laws are unenforceable or unconstitutional.

Fisher had argued back then that the 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.”

In response to the lawsuit, the City Council decided to reintroduce and adopt the ordinance with the trigger clause in February, but Fisher pursued her lawsuit despite the council’s moves.

In court, Corporation Counsel Brian Aiola argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the ordinance was reintroduced and approved, therefore making Fisher’s claims moot.

“Fisher’s complaint challenges that passage of the ordinance based upon the failure to reintroduce the ordinance after allegedly ‘substantially altering the substance of the ordinance’ by amending the ordinance before second reading,” he wrote. “However, in response to Fisher’s complaint, the council reintroduced the ordinance and re-approved the ordinance in accordance with law.”

In another brief written by Fisher’s lawyer, Scott Salmon, he said that the reintroduction of the ordinance would not resolve Fisher’s concerns over the transparency “and might, in fact, add to the resident confusion without further explanation.”

Ruling on the lawsuit, Judge Turula said that the city had complied by fixing the ordinance and that the council’s actions didn’t violate the Open Public Meetings Act.

“Apparently the plaintiff makes an analogy when he implies – stating that a child who steals a cookie from a cookie jar should still be subject to punishment, even if the cookie was returned,” said Turula. “While that may be true with regard to raising children, the court doesn’t agree with that. The city was put on notice that the ordinance was problematic and it corrected it.”

In response to the dismissal, Salmon disputed the lawsuit as being “frivolous,” and said that the lawsuit “produced a very clear and positive result for the residents of the city of Hoboken in the form of increased transparency.”

“All Judge [Joseph] Turula ruled was that by reintroducing the ordinance, the City addressed the issues that Councilwoman Fisher raised,” he said. “That isn’t the victory the city seems to think it is.”

Calls for Fisher to reimburse for lawsuit

Following the lawsuit’s dismissal, Hoboken spokesperson Marilyn Baer said that Corporation Counsel will be seeking reimbursement from Fisher for legal fees incurred.

Councilmembers Emily Jabbour, Jim Doyle, Joe Quintero and Phil Cohen, who all voted in favor of the campaign finance changes both times, also called on Fisher to reimburse the city from a “frivolous lawsuit.”

“Councilwoman Fisher claims to be a watchdog of the taxpayer dollar, but this is yet the latest example that she is anything but,” said Cohen in a statement. “I’m disappointed by her attempt to seek political benefit from this frivolous lawsuit.”

Councilmen Joe Quintero and Phil Cohen called on Fisher to reimburse taxpayers for the lawsuit. Photo by Mark Koosau.

Fisher said in response to their calls for reimbursement that Jabbour and Cohen have “short, revisionist memories.”

“I asked in a public forum if the sponsors would follow the advice of the city attorney and reintroduce the ordinance – Jabbour was silent and Cohen said he didn’t agree it was warranted,” she said. “In a later interview when asked again Jabbour said she was fine with how things were.”

“The legal process worked as it forced the city to take corrective measures to ensure transparency and the public’s voice being heard, which was acknowledged by the judge,” she continued. “I’m happy with the outcome.”

With the lawsuit out of the way, the only thing left standing on whether or not the campaign finance changes go into effect is the DeFusco case. That case, which is currently in West New York’s municipal court, is scheduled for another hearing on April 28.

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