The Hoboken City Council voted to appoint Jason Freeman as the business administrator last night following Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s recommendation last week, removing his acting title after roughly eight months.
“First and foremost, I know this comes out as negative against Mr. Freeman and I don’t mean that to be because I know he’s worked very hard in the role that he’s had, he’s stepped into a role that is incredibly difficult,” 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said at the beginning of a roughly half hour discussion before the vote.
” … Jason did a lot in the last seven months in the role of director of operations. That being said, this is a really big role, we have huge needs, and I just want to appeal to my council colleagues to support reinitiating a formal search for the BA position.”
Hoboken’s last full-time BA, Stephen Marks, left in February to take over the same post in his home town of Kearny.
Fisher said a formal search began shortly after that to find his replacement, but that process was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She made a motion to table in the interest to proceed with a formal job search process, which was seconded by 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco, but that failed by a vote of 5-4, with Council members Fisher, DeFusco, Ruben Ramos, as well as Council President Jen Giattino, voting yes.
While the writing appeared to be on the wall for what the final outcome would be, that didn’t stop a lengthy, argumentative debate from ensuing in typical Hoboken council fashion.
“For me, it’s just about transparency and how we’ve consistently done business in Hoboken and when it comes to hiring a BA, the council has always been involved,”
“The way I found out about, and I’m assuming the way Councilwoman Falco found out about it, was at the agenda meeting, going through the agenda, and being like ‘oh, no discussion on this whatsoever with the council? We’re not gonna look at other BAs?’ I think it’s inappropriate … I can’t believe the council is going to allow this to happen.”
DeFusco thanked Freeman for stepping into a difficult role for a difficult time, but questioned on how he would be able to balance his time between the city and the Public Administration Master’s program at Rutgers University.
Freeman responded that he would always put Hoboken first and that he wouldn’t have a problem managing his responsibilities before 3rd Ward Councilman Mike Russo said that the council hasn’t typically had a say in picking the BA.
“I just want to correct the record: the council, historically, has not had a say in picking any director’s positions other than its duty and obligation of advice and consent. The council has no authority to conduct a nationwide search, has no authority to do any of those things,” Russo began.
“Now, we can most certainly recommend it as part of our advice to the administration, however, there’s no legal avenue for this council to mandate or dictate that procedure.”
Giattino agreed that while there may be no legal constraints, she said she has personally interviewed every BA since she has been on the council.
“To that point, Councilwoman Fisher talked about 23 years of experience for our last two business administrators. Well, they got us in a financial mess in the past 10 years. So I don’t necessarily know that having that years of experience means they have good experience or good qualities to serve our city,” Russo added.
The councilman continued that his personal policy has been to defer to the mayor on director appointments so that he or she “will have to live and die by those decisions.”
Falco chimed in that all the council can do here is make suggestions, and as Russo said, advise and consent, so it was unrealistic to think Bhalla was going to pick someone else under any circumstances.
Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia noted that the mayor negotiates all contracts and determines how and what search will be done, and while the council can pass resolutions to make suggestions, they are not legally binding.
After Russo and Giattino had a quick exchange over whether or not an acting BA had all the same powers as a full fledged BA, she added that the mayor and administration previously agreed to having a committee and doing a search.
Fisher then said that whether or not Freeman remained acting BA was irrelevant, as a search would allow the city to at least interview and evaluate other candidates.
Falco still disagreed, noting that there has been ample opportunity for the administration to commence such a process and it hasn’t happened, noting that no one on the council has introduced a resolution, either.
” … Would I choose Jason Freeman as my BA? Absolutely not, but I’m not the mayor and the mayor is choosing to have Jason as his BA and ultimately it will be worked in at some point, somehow. Jen, you can shake your head but you know that that’s the case,” Falco stated.
She added that regardless who the mayor is, she would support his or her choices of directors and force them to own those appointments, as Russo had previously noted.
“If the mayor can just do whatever he wants, don’t have a council,” Giattino shot back.
Ultimately the vote passed 5-3(1), with DeFusco, Fisher and Giattino voting no and 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos abstaining.
This morning, DeFusco expressed frustration with the mayor’s reluctance to do an executive search, particularly given allegations made in a Hoboken fire captain’s tort claim alleging Freeman violated his 1st Amendment rights.
” … Hoboken needs a seasoned business administrator, not an inexperienced political operative, to lead us through the challenging financial crisis we continue to face,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this is more of the same from the mayor and his administration and unless he begins prioritizing policy over politics, I’m certain we will see more layoffs and an even larger tax increase in next year’s budget.”