An outside counsel opinion rendered today says that Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s job offer to make Councilwoman-at-Large Vanessa Falco the director of the new division of housing come January is legal after concerns were raised by two of her colleagues last week.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
The eight-page opinion was issued by Daniel Antonelli and Jarrid Kantor, the partners at Livingston-based law firm Antonelli Kantor, P.C., who serve as the city’s labor and employment special counsel, and are on tonight’s council agenda for a $5,000 contract increase.
Their opinion says that the rules for a municipality are not the same as those of an “independent local authority” and therefore do not have to wait until a councilperson’s term is up to offer them employment.
“The Mayor was completely within his authority in making the conditional offer of employment to the sitting councilperson. The City is a municipality and not an ‘independent local authority’ and, therefore, not subject to the one (1) year restriction,” they wrote.
“In addition, the Mayor’s offer was made to an individual who has a proven track record as an affordable housing advocate which he asserts will do a ‘tremendous job’ on behalf of residents of the City. There is no basis in fact or law to assert that this action was taken by the Mayor for his own personal gain or to garner influence; therefore, such actions are lawful and not in violation of any section of the Local Government Ethics Law.”
One week ago, Councilwomen Tiffanie Fisher and Jen Giattino called on both the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Community Affairs to probe on the job offer, asserting that it violated at least three state statutes, as HCV first reported.
Six days prior, Bhalla announced that Falco would be the director of the new division of housing come January, the first time it was publicly announced that she would not be seeking re-election in November.
The opinion also asserts that Bhalla did not participate in an act official misconduct or make an offer of unlawful benefit since he did not make the job offer to benefit himself, someone else, and/or injure or deprive somebody of a benefit.
“The Mayor extended an offer of employment to a well-respected councilperson who is viewed by all, including her opposition, as an important voice and accomplished advocate for affordable housing,” the two law partners wrote.
“Moreover, at the time the conditional offer of employment was made, the Mayor has not yet won re-election and the 2022 budget has not been adopted. Thus, the conditional offer of employment cannot act as a basis to influence a sitting member of council, whose oath of office remains valid and enforceable.”
In an email, Falco said she was “shocked and saddened at the despicable claims” her two colleagues made last week, claiming that she found that to be defamatory and will consider taking legal action.
“My goal has always been to help provide access to housing for Hoboken residents who need it. Playing politics, as Jen and Tiffanie have with affordable housing, especially relating to my motives for doing so, shows their true colors,” she said.
Additionally, 5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen and Councilwoman-at-Large Emily Jabbour, who defended the potential hire last week, called Fisher and Giattino’s conduct “stunningly disrespectful and unprofessional” and asked for an immediate public apology.
Bhalla announced today that he’d be seeking re-election on November 2nd with Jabbour and two first time candidates: Joe Quintero and Dini Ajmani as his council-at-large running mates, as only HCV reported.
Giattino declined to comment beyond what she said last week, while Fisher said on Thursday morning that she is far from convinced that things were done on the up and up.
“Not surprising to see in this election season Mayor Bhalla and his team try to shift the narrative away from him and onto Councilwoman Falco. I remain confident that ethical and possibly criminal lines were crossed by the mayor and that his actions have now compromised all votes before the City Council through the end of the year,” she said.
“And regarding the opinion, it was ordered and paid for by the same corporation counsel who supposedly blessed the offer so I guess you get what ‘who’ pays for it?
When asked if she spoke to Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia about the matter, she said they had a “robust conversation” and that he felt he had no conflict in soliciting a legal opinion since he had nothing to do with Falco’s job offer.
The Hoboken City Council convenes this evening at 7 p.m. via Zoom.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a comment from 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher.