Mayor James Davis was the only candidate who attended the second Bayonne mayoral debate ahead of the May 10 municipal election. Hosted by Hudson Media Group and moderated by TAPintoBayonne’s Al Sullivan, the debate was broadcast on social media and television from a studio in North Bergen.
City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and doctor and lawyer Mitchell Brown decided to exit the second debate after Davis did not participate in the first debate hosted by Hudson County View at Nicholas Oresko Community School on April 26. Ashe-Nadrowski and Brown both criticized Davis for opting to only attend the debate at a studio and not the one in front of live audience.
However, Sullivan did his best to make the conversation feel like a debate as much as it could. Sullivan asked Davis questions he would have asked all three candidates, and asked to Davis respond to jabs by his challengers at the first debate.
Residential redevelopment on pause
Sullivan asked what Davis is preserving to guarantee the next generation gets the quintessential Bayonne experience. Davis said the city will never again be the industrial city he grew up in, when Texaco, Exxon and Best Foods were still there, prompting the city to chart a new path forward. Davis said it may be uncomfortable for those who have been here forever, but it is necessary for Bayonne to adapt.
“It was time to make Bayonne change for the better, and bring Bayonne up with the times,” Davis said. “And that was simply by doing residential redevelopment in the beginning to bring people to Bayonne. And we succeeded. According to the last census, there are 10,000 more people living in Bayonne than there was ten years ago.”
Now that multiple redevelopments have gone up, and more residents have moved in, the city is starting to change further, prompting Davis’ pause in residential redevelopment outside certain areas. Davis said the pause means the city is going to analyze what was built, is being built, and is in the pipeline to be built to figure out what the city will look like with redevelopment and what can still be done.
Sullivan asked about vacant lots and storefronts on Broadway mentioned by Brown at the first debate, to which Davis noted there have been some closures due to COVID-19. However, prior to that Broadway “was booming,” following Davis’ plan to attract commercial redevelopment after bringing in residential redevelopment.
COVID-19 response at question
When asked about it, Davis said he feels his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a success. He highlighted that he first met with Bayonne’s COVID-19 Task Force at the end of January of 2020, before the virus even arrived in New Jersey.
Following that, he said the Task Force grew consistently to ready Bayonne as best it could. According to Davis, by around April 10 of 2020, the hospital was “overrun,” but was as prepared as it could be due to the Task Force. Davis said he stands by his response and there’s nothing he’d do differently.
Davis also noted the city distributed $5 million in grants funded by both the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan that have gone out to approximately 220 small businesses in Bayonne. He claimed he was initially told by the county that the city couldn’t use it for businesses grants before researching it and eventually getting County Executive Tom DeGise on board.
Going forward, Davis wants to get money from the recently reinstated Urban Enterprise Zone fund. He said that Bayonne is set to receive $965,000 this year and plans to use $500,000 of that for a third round of small business grants. And when that doubles next year, Davis said he would try to use $750,000 to provide more help, which could include existing businesses as well as new ones hoping to open in the city.
Affordable Housing happening in Bayonne?
Davis responded to Ashe-Nadrowski’s jab over a still pending $22 million transaction regarding the Bayonne Housing Authority and a new senior building. He said it was “semantics” and that “the building will happen.”
“The truth is the Housing Authority came in on a deal where they came into $22 million,” Davis said. “That deal didn’t close until 2020.”
Since the deal has closed, Davis said after purchasing a property for the building from the on Oak Street the BHA now has enlisted an architect and engineering firm. He said the building will not only serve seniors but the adult special needs population.
In terms of affordable housing in general, Davis said he is in conversation with the Bayonne Housing Authority on the topic. He said they were waiting on the $22 million, which will also go toward other plans in the works, including another affordable housing building on Avenue C.
Additionally, Davis said his pause on most residential redevelopment was to assess if and where other affordable housing is needed in the city.
Addressing ‘City Hall is broken’ and ‘secret deals’
Addressing the frequent talking point by Ashe-Nadrowski, and recently Brown as well, that “City Hall is broken,” Davis disagreed. Sullivan said that six anonymous women had came forward alleging a hostile environment at City Hall, but that he has also spoken to 24 women who say otherwise, and wanted to know what Davis’ response was to this amid the number of related lawsuits, including the “sexting” lawsuit filed by former city employee Stacie Percella and the “gender discrimination” lawsuit filed by current Business Administrator Melissa Mathews.
“My position is, it doesn’t exist,” Davis said of the alleged negative atmosphere for women at City Hall. He said he has hired more women than any previous mayor and his opponents should talk to women who work for the city of Bayonne to find out.
“I get along with everyone,” Davis said. “I don’t mistreat anyone in City Hall. I work with everyone in City Hall. It’s an insult for anyone to say that City Hall is broken and there is a gender problem. Because it does not exist.”
Sullivan also asked Davis for a response to claims by his opponents that he makes deals behind closed doors, not inclusive of the community.
“Any decision I make for the city, all goes through a public forum,” Davis said. “The council votes on it.”
Former Marist High School and St. Andrew’s School
Sullivan asked Davis if he knew about the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s plans to acquire the former Marist High School to construct a new Newark Bay Bridge prior to the city drawing up a redevelopment plan for the property, which Davis denied.
“I had no idea the Turnpike Authority was looking to purchase Marist,” Davis said. “Otherwise, we would have walked away from it earlier.”
Davis said the only reason the city was in the deal was because of the Board of Education and when they couldn’t afford it, that’s when the purchase agreement for the property was transferred to a redeveloper, all prior to the revelation by the Turnpike Authority, he said.
Sullivan pointed out his opponents say there were meetings with the Turnpike Authority and that the city knew long before the council members. Davis said he never met with the the Turnpike Authority about purchasing the property. He said that former Special Redevelopment Counsel Joe DeMarco, who he said is the campaign manager of Ashe-Nadrowski’s campaign, was the one who secured the redeveloper for the former Marist property.
According to Davis, acquiring the former Marist High School was part of his plan to address the overcrowded school district, as well as the purchase of the former St. Andrew’s School. He said that he committed to that property when the Board of Education told him they could not afford Marist and that St. Andrew’s would address the overcrowded district for the next 20 years.
Water contract, wind turbine, and electric vehicle parking
The city’s water contract with Suez Water, now Veolia, has become an election issue. Davis said the city cannot get out of the contract that predates his administration. He said it would cost approximately $300 million to exit the contract, which has a built-in yearly four percent increase that has led to residents to complain about sky-high water bills.
While the debate was previously criticized for not having live audience, those watching were actually able to ask questions live, which Sullivan then directed to Davis. The first question was about the out-of-operation wind turbine, which Davis said was “an albatross” or like “buying a car that is a lemon.”
Right now, Davis said the city is looking to find company to purchase it and run it. Meanwhile, the city has been embroiled in negotiations with the manufacturer to fix the broken generator in the turbine.
Davis said he hasn’t had any requests for electric vehicle parking in Bayonne since he’s been here. However, he added there is a trucking company eyeing a property off of Route 440 for electric trucks to complete the last leg of shipping deliveries. The company is looking to move to the East Coast from California and is in talks to partner with city to allow it to use the charging stations for municipal electric vehicles.
Eminent domain and Bayonne Medical Center
Sullivan said Davis has been criticized for his support of eminent domain proceedings against Hudson Regional Hospital to help BMC Hospital, LLC secure the land of the hospital. However, despite his past support for BMC Hospital, LLC, Davis said he has not actually been involved yet, pending action from the state.
“That whole situation is working its way through the state Department of Health,” Davis said “However that works out is when I will really get involved in the hospital.”
Davis hit back at Ashe-Nadrowski for opposing eminent domain by “limiting herself to one option.” He continued: “The way this is working out now, is that there are multiple options. If and when the Department of Health makes their decisions, and things can start moving forward again, that’s when we’ll see a much clearer picture of where that hospital will go. What I will say, is that hospital is not going anywhere, as far as closing.”
Davis said in October of 2019, the hospital was going to close on November 1 without anyone knowing. He said he couldn’t imagine what would have happened if the hospital closes before COVID-19 hit, and applauded the hospital for working with the city throughout the pandemic.
‘Dark money,’ Super PACs, and pay-to-play reform
Another frequent topic of discussion has been ‘dark money,’ campaign donations, and pay-to-play reform in Bayonne. Sullivan asked if a political action committee (PAC) supporting Davis was paying legal fees for the “sexting” lawsuit by Percella, which Davis denied. He then asked about PACs and Super PACs in general, and the role they have played in the campaigns thus far.
“I have no ‘dark money,'” Davis said. He denied that he was using ‘dark money’ in response to criticisms over a donation to his campaign by a redeveloper, which he said was public and was filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. He again hit Ashe-Nadrowski over a PAC that supported her campaign as using “dark money.”
In response, Sullivan asked if Davis would be open to pay-to-play reform. Davis agreed, making all three candidates in favor of pay-to-play reform, a change that might be imminent following the municipal election.
“It’s absolutely something that needs to be put on the table and spoken about,” Davis said. “That would be between the council and myself for when we do that. But absolutely. After all of this, yes. Because I have no dark money.”
Other topics of discussion
Davis conceded crime has been on the rise in Bayonne, but that it is a new trend everywhere and the city and Bayonne Police Department are trying to address it. Part of that includes a rise in drug use, which Davis said was scary thing considering the rise of Fentanyl, and his suggestion was to target kids at a younger age.
When asked about homelessness and if it’s a problem in Bayonne, Davis said “if one person is homeless there’s a problem.” He added the city has worked with the county on this constantly, and has a program set up to get people to shelters, and then help people with the next steps such as welfare.
Davis said the problem is that people only go to the shelter when the weather is bad, but regardless, he encouraged anyone who is homeless to come to City Hall to get the process started.
At the end of the debate, Davis touted the positive changes he has made at City Hall.
“I have made City Hall look like the people who live in the city of Bayonne,” Davis said. “We’ve been through a lot through past eight years. We went from the brink of bankruptcy to solvency. We’ve been through two social issues that could’ve exploded on our streets. But we controlled it and everybody worked together. We been through a blizzard and a hurricane that dumped 12 inches of rain on our city in a short amount of time… We’ve been through a lot together, but we’ve come through a pandemic like no other city. We’re coming out bigger, better, and stronger. The best thing we can do is continue to come together as a community and work together to have that nice neighborhood feel that has always been the city of Bayonne.”
Sulivan thanked the roughly 50 initial viewers for watching and apologized for the absence of the other candidates: “I think they could have added to this conversation.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.