Earlier this week, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla spoke out against a City Council resolution that would see the Office of Constituent Affairs and the City Engineer abolished as a cost-cutting measure. The Mayor maintains that the motivation behind these cuts is purely political.
“During a crisis, Hoboken residents reasonably expect politics to be put aside to do what is best to keep our residents safe. The City Councilmembers voicing support for this ordinance are not just playing politics with one of the most effective departments in City Hall, they’re undermining our frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bhalla.
Hoboken is currently facing a reported $14 million budget shortfall, which became apparent last December. As this impact of COVID continues to wreak havoc on the entire economy, the City’s financial woes are most certainly bound to worsen.
In early April, the City announced that 26 individuals would be laid off. In the end, 11 were actually laid off, and at least 15 took an early retirement package.
As City Council looks to find more ways to trim the budget, the Office of Constituent Affairs and the City Engineer’s office came under scrutiny.
Caroline Caulfield assumed her role in October 2018, as Bhalla resurrected the Office of Constituent Affairs—a position that had been vacant since a 2009 municipal audit. A lifelong Hoboken resident whose family runs the Fields Development Group, Caulfield formerly served as an aide to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Midaglia Pagan Milano, also a lifelong Hoboken resident, ran on #TeamBhalla last year for a First Ward Council seat, losing to incumbent Michael DeFusco. In the City Engineer’s office, Kimberli Craft serves as an in-house coordinator of development projects.
With 26 other employees being terminated, some question the Mayor’s stance on these specific positions—each of them appointed by the Mayor himself.
“It’s unfortunate at this time that we all have to make sacrifices,” said Lynette Medeiros Hoboken Municipal Employees Association Vice President. “The City of Hoboken has functioned for years without the Department of Constituent Services. The 26 individuals that were laid off or demoted were from essential offices that will now have to do more with less. The Administration will also have to function with the same mindset.”
A significant portion of the municipal shortfall stems from rising health care costs.
“The Unions offered a Healthcare plan to the City that would have saved a substantial amount of money,” said Medieros. “They chose not to accept the offer.”
City officials have informed hMAG that administrators have since adopted a less comprehensive medical plan. Meanwhile, employee representatives point out that others no longer have that option.
“The City can hire back some of those employees who have dedicated more than 20 years of service, some of those employees who have children with disabilities that now do not have health insurance,” said Medieros. “All of those employees who were laid off have contributed immensely to the residents of Hoboken. The sad part is it was rarely, if at all, acknowledged.”
Hoboken Councilmembers Jim Doyle, Emily Jabbour, and Phil Cohen—political allies of the Mayor—issued a follow-up to their statement of support for the appointees.
“The point here is not that these two employees, as individuals, are any more important than any of the other twenty-six former employees and therefore they should not be eliminated. To compare the proposed ordinances eliminating the Office of Constituent Services and City Engineer with the recent layoffs is a false equivalency. The point is the Office of Constituent Services, of all offices, is being cut for no good reason other than petty spite.”
In the group statement to hMAG, the triad of Councilmembers said, “That is not to downplay Caroline and Migdalia’s outstanding service during this COVID-19 pandemic. That speaks for itself. But to eliminate this Office because certain City Councilmembers chose to perpetuate a petty, vindictive political fight with this Office as a proxy for their disagreement with Mayor Bhalla is unacceptable. This Office represents the frontline of the City for residents, whether before this pandemic or now. This calculated punishment is exactly the opposite of sensible government, and while it may serve the agenda of certain Councilmembers, it will have a negative impact on residents needing critical assistance during the pandemic and beyond.”
None of this sat well with Dawn DeLorenzo, President of the Hoboken Municipal Supervisors Association, who also took umbrage to the Mayor’s comments.
“How incredibly insensitive and out of touch it is for the Mayor to make such a statement as, ‘I’m extremely disappointed that the council is even considering a law to abolish this office [Constituent Services]’ right in the middle of a pandemic, when he eliminated 30 jobs right in the middle of the same pandemic. I suppose those 30 people’s lives are of no consequence, nor do their feelings after reading such a statement matter. Is it possible that the Mayor has forgotten about them already?”
The Office of Constituent Affairs has been reopened for less than two years.
“The Mayor also stated that Caroline and Migdalia have been the “heart and soul” of Hoboken’s response to COVID. I suppose ALL the other employees have been crumbs in comparison to their heroism,” said DeLorenzo.
“Strangely, he never mentions how all 30 of the employees whose jobs he banished were the ‘heart and soul’ of the response to multiple disasters—like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy—during which time Constituent Affairs was determined by State Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi to be unnecessary. And yet amidst COVID, only their response is quantified as the heart and soul—never mind the hundreds of other employees who have served the public up close and personal for decades through times even more difficult than this.”
DeLorenzo then zeroed in on the Mayor’s notion that the Council’s move was politically motivated.
“One has to wonder what is the motivation behind the Mayor always promoting the office of constituent affairs, with his flowery words and photo ops,” she said. “Could it be that both employees are politically connected through campaign donations and/or promises or actually worked on his campaign? Political placements aren’t new in government, but publicly going above and beyond to save two employees while axing 30 (some of whose salaries are significantly below theirs) is beyond questionable. It’s clearly politically motivated and has very little to do with the ‘needs’ of the public.”
On Wednesday morning, Mayor Bhalla continued his appeal by releasing a statement on social media.
“Tonight, the City Council is voting on an ordinance to eliminate the Office of Constituent Services, which has been working tirelessly on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic assisting those residents in need.”
The Mayor included a statement from Monsignor Andreano of Saints Peter and Paul, which reads, “Any consideration of terminating Ms. Caulfield, her position or Office, would be a tragedy for the Citizens of Hoboken. It would be a denigrating act and a shameful mark on our little Town. Such an action would be an abomination, negatively affecting our Citizens of Hoboken most in need and most vulnerable. The voice of the poor, low-income tenants, those with disabilities, senior citizens, etc, have as their instrument, Ms. Caulfield through the aforementioned office.”
In his own words, the Mayor said, “I strongly urge the City Councilmembers voicing support to eliminate this office, including Councilmembers Mike DeFusco, Vanessa Falco, Ruben Ramos and Mike Russo, to withdraw this ordinance from consideration, which should never have been even considered in the first place.”
He added, “I encourage residents to write to their Councilmembers, to encourage them to help save the Constituent Services Office, and vote no on the ordinance eliminating it.”
Hoboken’s next City Council meeting is Wednesday, May 20 at 7:00 p.m.
***UPDATE: Hoboken City Spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri responds to comments, stating, “Neither Ms. Caulfield nor Ms. Pagan-Milano were involved in any way, shape or form in Ravi Bhalla’s mayoral campaign either as volunteers or donors, so it’s hard to take at face value Ms. DeLorenzo’s ‘claims’ of both public servants as ‘political hires.'”
Chaudhuri served as Bhalla’s campaign manager for the Mayor’s 2017 election.