Since I first challenged a long-time incumbent and ran for City Council three years ago, you've always known me as someone who’s willing to stand up against the patronage system and entrenched politicians that typify the political establishment in New Jersey.
Which is why I am concerned with the direction Hoboken is headed politically.
In June, Mayor Ravi Bhalla was censured by the NJ State Supreme Court for "unethical conduct" for failing to pay into his employee’s retirement account and being "nonchalant" about rectifying it for five years. That’s not just wrong, it’s heartless. In it's ruling, the Court opined that Bhalla had participated in “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,” yes....really. This comes on the heels of another scandal Mayor Bhalla caused when he broke a campaign promise and took a second job at a politically connected law firm.
And earlier this year, Hoboken paid $186k to settle two cases where Ravi Bhalla allegedly infringed on the first amendment rights of two residents who spoke out against him at City Council meetings.
But more recently, I uncovered that Hoboken taxpayers have unknowingly spent $10,000 over the past seven months funding the Mayor’s appeal of an ethics violation where he was reprimanded for voting on a business partner’s contract with the city. The City's continued funding of his defense wouldn't be an issue if Ravi Bhalla hadn't lied to our city’s legal team, which directly led the city to enter into this folly in the first place. Instead of acknowledging his clear mistake, Mayor Bhalla instead has doubled down and ordered a city attorney to quietly defend him, without any transparency towards residents or the City Council.
In response, last Wednesday the City Council voted overwhelmingly (7-2) to terminate the contract with the law firm retained by the administration to stop this taxpayer ripoff. Yet again, instead of doing what’s right and accepting fault, the Mayor refused to enforce the resolution, setting the Council on a collision course with his administration that could have serious consequences.
How has our Mayor responded to these continued scandals? By lashing out at me for leading the charge to hold him accountable and trying to distract from his own problems by making false claims against me.
A DISTRACTION FROM THE ISSUES
To distract from the mounting controversy, this week a close friend of the mayor’s Chief of staff was sent to file a bogus ethics complaint against me. They're saying that a long-awaited improvement to the city’s zoning that I am sponsoring along with Councilwoman Fisher is being done to benefit a campaign donor and developers. The truth is that this common sense measure would simply allow homeowners to add staircases to their backyards without dealing with an oppressive city bureaucracy. The Mayor would have you believe that this small change would be the end of the world, so he vetoed it, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is something that the Zoning Board has urged the City Council to consider every year since 2012, and after half a decade of recommendations, it was approved by an overwhelming 7-2 vote.
Updating our outdated zoning isn’t exactly a front-page issue, but it’s essential to keeping families in town and one of the main reasons I ran for City Council in the first place. Read more about how out of date zoning hurts residents and forces them out of town.
The fact of the matter is that the donation was from a well-respected restaurateur in my district, not a developer or special interest as the mayor sensationalized and it had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to take up the zoning issue. On the date of the contribution, the donor didn’t even own the property that he would later bring to the Planning Board. As soon as I became aware that this donor was submitting an application, I recused myself from that meeting to avoid any appearance of a conflict. There is absolutely no merit to the mayor’s lies against me and worse, his attempt to defame a Hoboken-based small business for petty political gain.
Perhaps most telling, after concocting the story, Mayor Bhalla sent out a fake version of a news article to his supporters that intentionally removed crucial facts, such as editing the headline to change the meaning and mislead residents -- in doing so, trying to manipulate the local media to fit his own twisted and false narrative.
PUTTING POLICY FIRST
Despite this political side-show, I remain dedicated to elevating good and rational policy-based ideas that help Hoboken and all residents. The Mayor and his two allies on the Council are misrepresenting the goals and impacts of the proposed legislation and are attempting to turn a common sense policy decision to help homeowners into some kind of giveaway to developers. For a spot-on analysis of what this ordinance actually aims to achieve, my colleague Councilwoman Tiffany Fisher has expertly broken it down and countered the mayor's false narrative.
Over the past two weeks, I have had the chance to listen to more community feedback on this issue and I plan to re-introduce revised legislation next month with additional assurances that limit this to the smaller, family-friendly, homes most negatively impacted by the city's flood ordinance. Much like the original ordinance, the revised will continue to maintain the 60 percent principal lot coverage (30 percent rear yard) standard currently required by exisiting law, ensuring green space, light and air is preserved for all residents, while clarifying the code to allow them to safely access their backyards. This is an opportunity to make a small but important change to the way our city treats homeowners, and I’m not backing down from it.
Ravi Bhalla might think that this political hit job, a gross misuse of his office and taxpayer resources, would silence me. He could not be more mistaken. He might also believe that he can scare Hoboken with wild accusations about donors and developers that don’t have a grain of truth to them. But I'm not going to stop fighting to hold his scandal-plagued administration accountable, or to keep moving our city forward. I know that Hoboken won’t fall for this kind of misdirection and that residents want the City Council to continue putting the needs of our city over the personal interests of the Mayor.