An ethics reform measure aimed at preventing Hoboken City employees from using public resources for political purposes has now become law, resulting (of course) in a slew of political responses from City officials.
The reform policy initially passed the Hoboken City Council on August 7 by a vote of 6-2. It originally stemmed from Councilmembers taking issue with the administration’s ongoing dissemination of subjective political material via the City’s Nixle information service. Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla never responded to the legislation, thereby seemingly closing a loophole that previously allowed public employees to use computers, phones and other public property for fundraising, political gain and campaign activities.
“I am proud to have co-sponsored this important piece of policy to protect the integrity of city resources funded by taxpayer dollars,” said Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher. “The Mayor seems to have been caught between a rock and a hard place: support good ethics laws or veto good ethics laws and support his Council allies who voted no. So he chose the ‘no action’ approach, allowing the ordinance to become law without his signature. Now, we will hopefully begin to see an end to the repeated politicking out of City Hall, particularly in the Mayor’s own office where his communication director Vijay Chaudhuri uses his taxpayer funded position to make defamatory and politically charged statements. Hoboken residents and taxpayers deserve better.”
“The City’s Corporation Counsel advised Mayor Bhalla a portion of the ordinance pertaining to the prohibition on the Mayor advising his opinion on a ballot question, while permitting the Councilmembers to do so, is unlawful. Given this, both the Corporation Counsel as well as Mayor Bhalla did not sign the ordinance,” said Hoboken City Spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri.
On February 11, the City of Hoboken received a letter from Eventbridge/Nixle stating that, “per the Terms of Service (http://www.nixle.com/agency-terms-service) Authorized Users must not “(b) use any of the Services for political, commercial or advertising purposes.”
In June, Chaudhuri told hMAG, “The City disseminates information via Nixle pertaining to city updates, and will continue to keep the public updated on important city matters.”
Meanwhile, co-sponsor Councilman Michael DeFusco says, “The Mayor and his administration have repeatedly misused taxpayer resources to advance their own political agendas.” He contents that, “Politics should never be operating out of City Hall or influencing the decisions being made that affect Hoboken residents. It’s alarming, though not surprising, that Mayor Bhalla would intentionally fail to put his signature on a piece of common sense legislation that bars city employees from performing political activities during business hours on the taxpayers’ dime.”
“The mayor’s inaction is seemingly a blatant attempt to turn a blind eye to the fact his handpicked candidates undoubtedly have access to sensitive information and city data. This is unprecedented behavior, given the great threat of city resources being improperly utilized during this election cycle,” said Councilman DeFusco.
Here’s where it gets interesting, if you’ve bothered to read this far…
A Hoboken resident is now filing an ethics complaint against DeFusco for violating his own legislation on the very night it was voted in, by sending this tweet from the City Council Chambers:
— Councilman Mike DeFusco (@mike_defusco) August 7, 2019
In an official complaint submitted to the City Clerk, 1st Ward resident Michael Watson asserts that Councilman Mike DeFusco was performing political activities during official city business and on the taxpayer dollar. According to Hudson County View, Watson is reportedly a Hoboken Democratic Committee Member.
As for the two Councilmembers who voted against the legislation, Councilman Jim Doyle and Councilwoman Emily Jabbour, they have released a joint statement saying, “Councilwoman Fisher and Councilman DeFusco’s nettlesome nonsense regarding ‘Ethics Reform’ is nothing more than sophomoric political grandstanding. The tone and petty swipes at the mayor’s staff betray their true, election-year intent.”
What’s worth noting is that Councilwoman Fisher and Council President Jen Giattino were both removed from City Hall in an ugly incident earlier this year where Bhalla staffers claimed “they had no business in City Hall”.
Doyle and Jabbour, who routinely align with the Mayor on matters, maintain, “Their alliance in the ‘Whatever it is [that Mayor Bhalla wants], I’m against it’ campaign continues, such that when a simple ethics code legislative fix is identified as being needed, a mistake that was on the books for ages, they cannot just fix it, which would have been greeted with unanimous Council and Mayoral support. The temptation, instead, to ‘lard up’ a legitimate fix with other unreasonable and unlawful provisions is too great. These include a provision restricting the Mayor’s right to express himself on significant public (not political) issues while granting it to the council, and a self-serving, inconsistent provision that significantly exempts the City Council from certain ethics rules (against political blathering) that they then bolster against all other City employees. Simplistically, we voted against ‘ethics reform’; to an informed member of the electorate, we voted against not merely mean-spirited vindictiveness, but unlawful mean-spirited vindictiveness.”
With the legislation now in place, questions about enforcement remain.
Caitlin Mota, a spokesperson for Fisher and DeFusco, tells hMAG, “The new ethics ordinance is an expansion of the current municipal law, with the new policy simply closes a loophole that did not directly prevent city employees from using publicly owned computers, cellphones and other technology for person gain. It also directly addresses that politicking and other campaign work can not be conducted during business hours.” She adds, “Now, it is up to the City and administration to enforce these new laws just as the previous code of ethics should have been enforced.”
Hoboken’s Municipal Elections will be held November 5th.