The Hoboken City Council meeting was extremely heated, beginning with Mayor Dawn Zimmer going on the offensive regarding the new proposed contract with Suez Water, with several members of the council happy to return fire in a lengthy, tense exchange.
First, Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla recused himself while 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco attempted to ask whether he was truly conflicted or not.
DeFusco was quick to attack Bhalla over a perceived conflict of interest at last month’s council meeting. Bhalla did not acknowledge the question before taking a seat in the back of the council chambers.
Nevertheless, DeFusco brought up an email stating that Bhalla “was not conflicted,” yet he was recusing himself anyway.
“My question is are you conflicted or are you not Councilman Bhalla? But I guess we will not get an answer to that.”
DeFusco also mentioned that Bhalla was present in the subcommittee meetings about the infrastructure.
Immediately following that exchange, Zimmer asked the council members “to put politics aside” especially with elections right around the corner.
“We first introduced the proposed agreement nearly 2 months ago on July 11th, the agreement includes over $31 million in capital investment and repairs for the City of Hoboken,” the mayor said.
“It also includes $10 million in debt forgiveness and future savings for bulk water costs. This represents a total of over $40 million in net economic benefit for the City and its taxpayers.”
Zimmer pointed a finger at 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos, referencing his remarks made to Hudson County View last week, claiming the main cause of these problems is a “disastrous amendment which is the cause of the urgency we face today.”
Ramos and several other council members told us on Friday that they did not intend to pass the new Suez deal since they had a number of questions that had still not been answered, despite Zimmer’s urging to approve the deal.
She also claimed that Ramos “rubber stamped an agreement that actually reduced Suez’s maintenance obligation from $550,000 per year to $350,000 per year for 23 years and created the enormous bulk water liability for the City.”
According to the mayor’s statement, Ramos voted to reduce Suez’s maintenance obligation by $200,000 per year and cost the City of Hoboken over $17.6 million dollars.
Zimmer also claimed that the agreement brought a “mere single $2.6 million payment” that both “Mayor Russo and Councilman Ramos” used to plug a budget hole.
Concluding, Zimmer once again asked that council members to have “an honest discussion about the merits of this agreement without political grandstanding, and then taking a vote.”
Her address did not sit well with the majority of the council, including 3rd Ward Councilman Mike Russo.
“You support this agreement, I understand that and as Mayor it is your right, but we as council people, we have a right too. With all our conscience, and because it may be different from yours, you shouldn’t stand at that microphone and berate council members who laid down the street for you when you asked them to in the past.”
Ramos also responded to her criticisms.
“To say that this is not politics, all we heard was a campaign, a soft speech, tonight for a candidate that she is supporting,” began Ramos.
As far as putting politics aside Ramos explained how he reached out to other council members, including President Jen Giattino, with questions on the new proposed Suez contract.
“That’s what colleagues do to each other whether they’re political allies or not. Not a rubber stamp that the mayor said on January 1st of 2015 or 2016.”
“I didn’t get one phone call from the Mayor from the past couple months regarding this issue. Does she care about my vote? Probably not. But she was looking for rubber stands for the past 2 years from other people,” declared Ramos.
When it was time for public comments, Giattino explained that there will not be any presentations from Suez during the council meeting due to time constraints, of which she asked as of last week to the administration.
When it came to the renegotiated contract with Suez, council members had many questions and in particular for accounting, and appropriations especially with the $8.3 million liability the City that has been accruing for four years from the increasing water rates and improvement costs.
Hoboken City Auditor Steven Wielkotz recounted the conversation he had between Mayor Zimmer, former Business Administrator Quentin Wiest and himself.
“While they were negotiating the contract, Suez says there is ‘significant unbilled bulk charges that kicked in in 2014’ and at the point the charges were unquantifiable,'” he revealed.
“This is actual liability, and yet no one thinks to ask what it is? And you as our auditor don’t think that its meaningful enough to be disclosed?” asked 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher.
Fisher also make it known that no one has contacted other potential service providers besides Suez.
She, as well as other council members, wanted more information on the contract to consider if this would be the best option for the city. Fisher had also previously expressed a concern about the $8.3 million liability.
DeFusco also asked Business Administrator Stephen Marks on when he was knowledgeable of this figure.
Marks pointed at Dennis Enright of NW Capital Markets, who explained that Enright only “earlier today (day of council meeting) brought it to my attention that the actual number, the actual dollar figure did not come to light, unless he has a different recollection, until couple months ago.”
Due to numerous unanswered questions and missing information, Giattino opted to pull the measure without any objections from her council colleagues.