The Hoboken City Council approved two new judges, including a new municipal court judge, in a close vote that was overshadowed by what several officials denounced as anti-Semitic remarks by a resident during last night’s meeting.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
Benjamin Choi, a municipal court judge who has worked for the city since 2009, was up for the chief municipal judge position, while Scott Pennington, who has a private practice in South Orange, was up for a municipal judgeship, as HCV reported earlier in the day.
Current Hoboken Chief Municipal Judge Cataldo Fazio was not nominated for a reappointment by Mayor Ravi Bhalla. Pat Waiters, a frequent critic of the administration, said Choi deserved the opportunity.
“Our court system is serious. You could not have made a better choice than Mr. Benjamin Choi. I am so happy I feel comfortable and safe he will do what it takes to protect our safety and reputation,” Waiters declared.
3rd Ward Councilman Mike Russo, also the vice president of the board who said earlier in the day that he was voting no, pulled the judicial nominees from the consent agenda.
“Judge Fazio has served this city for 29 years. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his service. This is not a knock from the two nominees. He did not want to leave. I appreciate him. For those reasons, I will be voting no,” he stated, sticking to his guns, as did 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos.
“I agree with a lot of Councilman Russo’s sentiments. We get a lot of complaints. This is one area in my 20 public years of public service I haven’t gotten a complaint. Even defendants say he did a great job. During COVID, a very difficult time, the courts ran efficiently,” he added.
6th Ward Councilwoman Jen Giattino said she would be voting no as well, again citing that the public seems to be happy with the way the court operates under Fazio’s leadership.
At that point, resident Melissa Blanco entered council chambers and asked to speak before the vote.
“Public comment on the agenda has already happened, so I added you to the end. Ms. Blanco, I need you to please sit down,” stated Council President Emily Jabbour, prompting Blanco to briefly yell out.
“Ms. Blanco, please wait until public comment. Please respect the council members’ time. I don’t want to ask the police officer to remove you.”
The Council approved the nominees 4-3, with Russo, Ramos, and Giattino voting no. 1st Ward Councilman Mike De Fusco and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher were absent.
During public comment, Blanco had some harsh words for Fazio not being able to keep his municipal job that devolved quickly.
“They call it diversity: this is not diversity. We have a perfectly competent, wise, deliberative judge that understands the community deeply and to call it diversity is baloney,” she stated.
“It’s about as diverse as all the people that have been plucked out of synagogues and all the synagogues that run the City of Hoboken. Please guys … we’re going to have all of this shift away from Hoboken because people will not be able to get a fair and deliberative judge.”
Blanco spoke beyond her five minutes and ignored Jabbour when she continued to ask her to wrap it up.
“Your five minutes has passed and I’ve been gracious and allowed you to continue. Ms. Blanco, Ms. Blanco, thank you very much for your comments. Ms. Blanco, thank you for your comments … It is up, your five minutes is up,” Jabbour said as Blanco continued to yell out.
A Hoboken police officer approached her at this time and asked her to step back from the microphone.
With Blanco seeming unwilling to relent, Jabbour banged the gavel and called for a five-minute recess.
Ramos repeatedly said “Thank you Melissa” as a second police officer attempted to get Blanco to stop yelling out. Eventually, she said down in the back row of council chambers and did not speak again.
Beginning at the meeting and continuing throughout this afternoon, officials denounced Blanco’s remarks decisively.
“Sadly tonight antisemitic sentiments were expressed in the public room. There is no place in our community for anti-Semitism. It does not belong in Hoboken,” Cohen, who is Jewish, said from the dais.
“It is important that we speak up whenever antisemitism or other forms of bigotry and hatred surface in our community. As a councilman, that is what I’ve done and that is what I will continue to do,” he added in a statement today.
In a joint statement, Bhalla and Jabbour said Blanco’s remarks were not reflective of what Hoboken stands for and residents should not condone or allow such remarks.
“Anti-Semitism has no place in Hoboken and we vehemently denounce any kind of hate speech, bias or discrimination in our open and welcoming community. We ask all residents to join us in rejecting it, wherever it exists,” they said.
“Comments like those made at the council meeting last night will not be tolerated in our culturally diverse city, and we expect all who attend any public gatherings in Hoboken to conduct themselves with decorum and treat everyone in attendance, elected official or not, with respect and dignity.”
2nd Ward council candidate Marla Decker also condemned anti-Semitism and said she would stand up against all forms of prejudice if elected.
” … As a council member, I will stand up against bigotry in our community. Hoboken’s diversity is its strength and a slur against any segment or our community is an attack against the right of every Hobokenite to feel safe and valued here.”
Her opponent for the November 7th non-partisan ward council races, Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who is also Jewish, also spoke out against Blanco’s remarks.
“I am angered and saddened by the anti-Semitic remarks made by a Hoboken neighbor – even worse, by someone I know which makes it feel even more personal. These comments in no way reflect what I know is best about Hoboken – a place where we deeply respect and embrace the diversity of all members of our community.”
Additionally, 1st Ward council candidate Paul Presinzano tweeted this morning that Blanco’s remarks were “unacceptable.”
Blanco could not be reached at a public phone number linked to her address, but wrote on Twitter that she did not feel her comments were inappropriate.
“To say the word synagogue or Jew is asserted by some to be antisemitic- it is not,” she wrote, linking to an article titled “What is antisemitism” by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.