A member of the Hoboken Housing Authority board was issued a cease and desist letter at last week’s meeting as his feud with the local Republican party escalated.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
HHA Commissioner James Sanford, a former chair of the Hoboken GOP, posted from their Facebook page on October 31st – eight days before the non-partisan November 8th school board race – that the “Kids First” team lacked integrity.
He made that claim largely due to the fact that Joe Branco, the current Hoboken GOP chair who managed the Kids First campaign, “threatened me on multiple occasions” and also tied him to former Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia, also a former HHA executive director under indictment for a large-scale bribery scheme.
During the public portion of Thursday’s HHA meeting, Branco said that the BOE slate, who lost to the “Leadership that Listens” slate, filed all of their reports on time, did not receive money from developers, as well as that he personally never worked for the HHA or Garcia.
He also denied every “ambushing” or threatening Sanford, noting that his residency was challenged in 2019 and he was still ultimately able to vote.
Branco then submitted a cease and desist letter to the board, which specifically asked Sanford to hand over intellectual property – the Facebook page – to the party.
Sanford questioned if it was appropriate for the governing body to accept such and document and HHA Counsel Matthew Fitzpatrick agreed.
“I haven’t read through the whole thing, but it sounds like this is directed at Mr. Sanford in his personal capacity, not in his capacity as a commissioner of the housing authority, so I am not accepting anything,” he said, also noting that a cease and desist letter is not a matter of service.
Sanford then refused to accept a copy of the letter from Branco before he addressed HHA Chair Barbara Reyes.
“This is inappropriate, this is inappropriate: you allowed a member of the public to exceed five minutes. You are now allowing a member of the public to attempt to serve me,” he said.
“Okay, unfortunately we’re in a public meeting, I cannot do anything about that … the lawyer said he can’t accept it and you’re sitting here, so I’m assuming it’s okay – again I’m not a lawyer,” Reyes replied.
Upon further questioning from Reyes, Fitzpatrick said he didn’t want to give legal advice on the matter, simply reiterating that the HHA would not be accepting anything on Sanford’s behalf.
HHA Commissioner Mike Russo, also the council president, then asked members of the public not to yell out before Sanford again expressed dismay over what was transpiring.
Reyes again stated it was a public meeting, apologizing if she did anything wrong, but said she could not control who shows up and/or what they say or do.
At that point, HHA Executive Director Marc Recko removed the letter from in front of Sanford after he repeated that he would not be accepting it.
Hoboken GOP Secretary Pavel Sokolov, who ran as a part of Kids First team last month, said that they didn’t want to air their dirty laundry at an HHA meeting, but felt it was necessary since Sanford identified himself as a commissioner in his public remarks.
“I find it incredibly ironic because the title of that letter was ‘a lack of integrity,’ right? And the irony being is that it’s his actions that lack integrity,” he stated.
“It is not proper to use his failed political career, as a formerly elected Republican official in town, to basically hijack the housing authority to become a political mouth piece for his own perverted views of what the political process should be.”
For about two hours, it looked like the fireworks were over, that is until the board was ready to vote on their November 10th meeting minutes.
Sanford asked how much time was spent on a policy adopted via resolution last month that would prevent HHA commissioners from using their title in public communications.
Fitzpatrick said that specific item was the subject of two subcommittee meetings and likely took about three to four hours to prepare in total. Sanford then pointed out that the resolution in question was not in the minutes they were ready to vote on.
“We can’t approve the minutes until that’s put into the minutes,” stated HHA Commissioner Andrew Impastato, to which Fitzpatrick agreed.
Sanford then asked if Russo was aware of what transpired at the last meeting since he had left early, but he noted that he was still participating over the phone.
“Is this policy going to apply to you as well?” Sanford asked.
After Reyes clarified what resolution they were discussing, Russo asked why that wouldn’t apply to him.
“So you’re going to write a disclaimer every time you put out a public statement … What’s good for goose is good for the gander,” Sanford asserted, stating that he should have to do the same thing as a councilman.
“James, I have no problem going down this road, but are you prepared to go down this road?” Russo answered, giving a more in-depth response after a brief back-and-forth.
“I have no problem, no problem, going down this road: I always defer to the chair, I always defer to the vice chair, to the director, and our counsel, okay? What you do not do is run those things that you do outside this board past our counsel and that’s why you got yourself in hot water,” he exclaimed.
Russo continued that he has represented himself as an HHA commissioner in various communications expressing his personal opinion, noting that the authority has never tried to prevent any candidate from campaigning and it isn’t up to Sanford to tell them otherwise.
“We have all done our best to give you as much coverage as possible, because if you want my opinion, I’m gonna give it to you. I think you are absolutely wrong in what you did and I think that you do not do anything to further the agenda of the authority to represent the people who live here!” the council president continued.
“… You sit there, you don’t vote on resolutions, you abstain on things that have no basis for you to abstain on – an abstention means you have a conflict, it does not mean that you are a coward enough not to vote on something.”
“Are you calling me a coward?” Sanford asked.
“Absolutely, those votes are cowardice because you do not want to vote on something, because you personally disagree with it: that’s not the way we do business,” Russo retorted.
Sanford didn’t address Russo’s criticisms, opting to ask Reyes if the resolution in question was because of him, to which she eventually said it was.
Vice Chair Erica Seitzman added that this resolution was to protect the authority and that individual commissioner’s can’t speak on behalf of the entire board.
Sanford disagreed, noting that no one had ever spoke to him about this prior to the resolution being introduced during the prior meeting, as well as that he had never been informed of what precipitated it.
Russo said that board members had reached out privately on multiple instances to no avail, making the resolution a necessity. Sanford remained incredulous, asking what he had done wrong.
“You have represented this board without the authority! End of story,” Russo shouted in response. Impastato then urged the board to move on from the”nonsense,” but Reyes allowed Sanford to ask Fitzpatrick one final question.
He asked if the board violated the Open Public Meeting Act to discuss the resolution, to which Fitzpatrick said they did not. Sanford said he still wanted to go on the record that he felt the OPMA, also known as The Sunshine Law, was violated in this instance.