Councilwoman Fisher: The Heavier Stuff

A reminder that tomorrow night is Hoboken’s Annual Memorial Parade. It starts at 630 pm at City Hall.  The weather looks perfect so I hope you and your families can come out and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us. 
Hoboken’s community of veterans is like no other, and I am proud to be a founding member of Hoboken’s new American Legion Auxiliary Tom Kennedy Hoboken Unit 107 which will further support our veterans, active military members and their families.  Email us for more information, follow us on Instagram and look for us soon on Facebook.  
In this newsletter I cover a lot and it took me a while to write given some of the topics are frustrating to me.  And there are a couple that may fall into the "I think you need to know" that you may think otherwise.  So grab a drink or some cannabis (I was told now that it is legal I should not exclude) and let's do this: 
  • Who’s On First – What, Where, When About Cannabis – there has been more political spin this week leading up to Mayor Bhalla’s fundraiser, so let’s lay out the facts, again.
  • Proposed Story Dispensary at Former Hudson Tavern: JC Mayor Fulop’s heavy hand and the 7-0 approval by HudCo Planning Board and the upcoming Hoboken Planning Board on June 9th.
  • Hudson Yards Redevelopment Plan Amendment – Approved 9-0 by the City Council to move forward with a 280’ Residential Tower at site 2.
  • Cannabis Review Board – expansion of board to include 4 members of the public passed 9-0 on 1st reading, 2nd reading June 1st.
  • “Nixle Gate” II – Is the Mayor's office again using taxpayer funded Nixle Alert System for his campaign purposes? 
  • Parklet Appeals – The Administration as both Defendant and Judge?
  • CAPS – Community and Public Safety – New series connecting our community with Hoboken’s Public Safety leaders.
  • Municipal Budget – Finding Ways To Cut Mayor’s Proposed 5.6% Tax Increase
There has been a lot of spinning going on again this week by members of Team Bhalla about our cannabis laws and how we got here.  The facts are that all 10 of your elected officials – myself included - approved the cannabis ordinance in August that did not just one, but both of the following simultaneously:
  • Removed altogether the previous cap of no more than 3 dispensaries in Hoboken (a cap that has been in place since 2018); this change would have immediately allowed 25 – 30 dispensaries across Hoboken, many near parks, residential areas and schools AND
  • Expanded approved zones for cannabis dispensaries to include previously zoned residential neighborhoods on 1st, 14th and Jackson Street across from the Housing Authority that were never considered.
Mayor Bhalla has only put out his position on the 2nd part.  He has yet to say to the public why he signed into law the same ordinance that also changed the cap on cannabis dispensaries from 3 dispensaries to unlimited. 
Nor has CW Jabbour, CM Cohen and CM Doyle.  You can email them all at once and ask them “when you voted yes to remove the cap on dispensaries and allow at least 25-30 dispensaries citywide and many near parks and schools, did you do this intentionally or were you not aware the ordinance included this provision?” And don’t let them pivot with a response, because aren't there really only two possible explanations?  Either they...
  • intentionally supported having an unlimited number of dispensaries like CM Russo has said he supports, or
  • missed this language and it wasn’t intentional like I, CM Ramos, CW Giattino and CM DeFusco have said.
The point I am trying to make is Team Bhalla are spending a lot of time trying to spin for their convenient political narrative at the expense of just being honest with the public and accountable for their own actions.  We all did this – all 10 of us who you elected to serve you and protect your quality of life.  To fix this we have to be leaders willing to admit we got it wrong - whether intentionally or not, and to work to fix it and to put the interests of Hoboken residents first.  And I don’t mean just the Hudson Tavern location.  Mayor Bhalla has the opportunity to take positions that protect the interests of Hoboken residents over the cannabis dispensaries – like the one at 6th and Washington.  When you see or speak with Mayor Bhalla next, encourage him to do just that.
BTW, did I mention that Hoboken's Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia is representing (in his private practice) a dispensary poised to open around the corner from an Elementary School in a low income area of Jersey City?  Legally allowed by Jersey City but being opposed by certain JCBOE Board members.
Last Tuesday night, the Hudson County Planning Board gave it’s conditional approval for the Hudson Tavern Cannabis Dispensary application that begged a LOT of questions.  The political heavyweight relating to Jersey City Mayor Fulop’s financial interest in the dispensary opening (his wife is one of the new owners of the Hudson Tavern/landlord to the dispensary) was present the whole night.  The vote was 7-0 and was kicked off by John Allen who is Mayor Bhalla’s pick for the HCPB and stated that night that he lives in Shipyard a block and a half from the proposed dispensary.  John said at the end of his prepared political statement “I welcome the dispensary to the neighborhood”.  
Maybe had John voted with the 50-60 of his Hoboken neighbors who attended that night (and 30 spoke), instead of voting for the interests of Mayor Fulop, the outcome could have been different.  But in political circles, John is known to be Mayor Bhalla’s pick to represent Hoboken in the N.J. State Assembly in the 2023 election.  A pick that arguably needs Mayor Fulop’s blessing given 2/3 of our legislative district is Jersey City.
The crux of the discussion that night was about traffic and the impact on pedestrian safety and the surrounding neighborhoods.  A four page Limited Traffic Study submitted by the dispensary was the basis for the entire hearing.  The dispensary's traffic expert – the one who wrote the Limited Traffic Study - was only available to answer questions briefly at the beginning of the meeting and was generally unable to respond to questions about his own report.  His report, which used no actual information, research or data for either the Hudson Tavern or the proposed dispensary, concluded that the traffic impact of the proposed dispensary would be negligible compared to the Hudson Tavern which it characterized as (and used trip generation data for) a much busier restaurant than it was. 
The County accepting the applicant’s wrong characterization about Hudson Tavern determined the entire path and outcome of the meeting.  Had the report data used another category that more closely fit the description of Hudson Tavern’s business or even used the actual Hudson Tavern business as the basis, instead of negligible differences, the comparison would have shown a more truer picture of 40-50% increase in traffic from the dispensary.  And this more realistic picture would have triggered the need for a full Traffic Impact Report that would have uncovered the actual traffic and safety conditions and concerns for these two County roads. 
Here are the ITE two definitions used as the basis for trip generation data, you can decide for yourself.  Trip generations for a high turnover restaurant is estimated to be double the levels for a quality restaurant according to ITE.
  • Quality Restaurant: high quality, full-service eating establishments with typical duration of stay of at least one hour; generally, do not serve breakfast and some do not serve lunch; often requests and sometimes requires reservations and is generally not part of a chain;
  • High-Turnover (Sit-Down) Restaurant: sit-down, full-service eating establishments with typical duration of stay of approximately one hour; moderately priced and frequently belongs to a restaurant chain; generally, serve lunch and dinner, but may also be open for breakfast and sometimes open 24 hours per day; typically, do not take reservations;
As a direct result of the testimony of 20-30 of our neighbors who spoke that night, the County Engineer and Board Commissioner Tom Malavasi added two major conditions to the approval before the vote was taken that within six months will have to:
  • redo their traffic analysis with traffic counts more reflective of actual counts relating to Hudson Tavern and
  • have a signed contract with the neighboring parking garages for 14 parking spaces. 
Except for the two Jersey City commissioners, all others voted yes but only with these conditions. 
Mark your calendars!  The Hoboken Planning Board hearing for the proposed Story Dispensary at the former Hudson Tavern will be in person on June 9th at 7PM.  They are looking into a different location to accommodate what they believe, and we hope, will be a large public showing.  Neighbors are already organizing and planning to attend. 
Different than the County Planning Board with jurisdiction limited to traffic only, the Hoboken Planning Board will consider the entire neighborhood impact as well as whether the application is consistent with Hoboken’s zoning definition.  The crux of the argument is going to be about cannabis tourism and its impact on a residential neighborhood including the intensity of the use and the expected disruption to the area and how it is inconsistent with the purpose of the C-3 Neighborhood Commercial zone.  The new C3 areas were all previously residential zones until two yeas ago and given the residential density and neighborhood feel in those areas, the new C3 designation was defined as  “Neighborhood Commercial” with more restrictive and less intensive zoning vs. C1 and C2.  Specifically, the stated purpose of C3 is: to provide a range of shopping, goods and convenience services that cater largely to residents in the surrounding neighborhood.  Businesses in this new district will be smaller in scale and of a lower intensity than those permitted in the C-1 and C-2 Districts.   And Hoboken’s Land Use Element suggested that provisions in the C3 district “…are intended to prevent undesirable impacts to nearby residential neighborhoods”.   The zoning code even differentiates between smaller and larger uses ascribing more conditions to uses greater than 1,200 square feet (the Hudson Tavern is 6,000SF).  , the planning board has the discretion to require a circulation and traffic report. 
Long story, longer, the Hoboken Planning Board has more latitude and jurisdiction in their decision than the County Planning board.  And them members are mostly made up of Hoboken neighbors.  But they will only be able to fully understand the impact on the neighborhood if people attend the meeting.  SO mark your calendars!  There will be an upcoming community meeting on this, and I will come back to you with details.  Please email me if you are willing to help (thank you to all who already have).
This plan, which started over a decade ago, is finally closer to coming closer to fruition.  The amendment effectively establishes the height for site 2 at 280’ plus a 25’ rooftop amenity for the building.  If you remember, site 1 is the 200-300’ commercial building closest to the station that will anchor the entire development.  The height of this will be determined at a later date when they secure leasing of commercial tenants.  Site 2, just west of Site 1, was a “hoped for” commercial building, but if commercial was deemed not to be feasible, then a 200’ residential building would be allowed.   This is a tough market to determine what is feasible our not – construction costs are at an all-time high, and construction financing is still difficult and costly to obtain. 
The City Council subcommittee accepted the feasibility claims and recommended that the City Council approve a height of 280’ for the residential tower and remove the requirement that the office building be built first.  That said, the agreement still requires that the improvements at Warrington Plaza and other community benefits are completed prior to the first building opening.  Specific plans for Hudson Place, that has several commercial, retail and residential buildings on the north side of the street that require access to Hudson Place, are to be determined at a future date and will include public meetings.    
Several members of the public came and spoke in support of what they are calling a "good governance" ordinance to expand the Cannabis Review Board, relaying their experiences and saying that the homogenous, insider board lacks diversity and is not reflective of the community.  CP Russo suggested the role of the CRB would end as soon as six dispensaries opened.  But also insinuated that all the applications who got their application in early and before we changed the law have a right to open even if they are beyond 6.  This is where the interpretation of the law and Mayor Bhalla's position in this matters.  He is either defending Hoboken residents or defending dispensaries.  Hoboken's Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia, as mentioned above, is actually defending cannabis dispensaries so his view can't matter.  
The expanded CRB would not only review any new applications, according to our local ordinance, it would also, not disimilar to our ABC Board, on an ongoing basis, review violations and contribute to decisions on whether a license should be suspended or not in the future.  Please try to make the June 1st City Council meeting where the second vote will happen and show your support for this important ordinance.
In early 2019, I filed a complaint with Nixle that six of my City Council colleagues also signed against the Bhalla administration for sending out repeated emails via Hoboken’s Nixle Alert system that criticized City Councilmembers.  Nixle acknowledged the issue, said though they had no reason not to believe Hoboken's Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia who defended the practice, but did say they did not want to see it continue.  It was an election year, the City Council Ward races were just 10 months away, and the Bhalla administration’s unofficial campaigning and mudslinging was underway.  It is a little early now, with Ward races not until November 2023, but the same advisor to the mayor – Vijay Chaudhuri – is back in City Hall and at the helm and once against IMHO (and others) using the Nixle Alert system as his own personal campaign tool for the mayor.  I wonder if he fully realizes that doing so is not only a breach of Nixle’s Terms of Service of Nixle which prohibits use of the system for "for political...purposes" or transmitting "fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading communications..." but could potentially be considered a crime in NJ to use public assets for personal gain
The two most recent, and most flagrant examples are the nixle on March 2nd (still on the city’s website) where the mayor calls me “disingenuous” for trying to fight the dispensary at the former Hudson Tavern site, and then the one last week on May 18th (no longer on the city’s website), where he chastises four City Council members for not supporting his proposed municipal complex.  I am writing a separate newsletter on this topic, but in brevity, I don’t support the complex currently because Mayor Stack of Union City and the neighboring developer have bigger seats at the table than Hoboken residents and taxpayers.  It is way more complicated and involved and requires a separate newsletter.
If you filed a complaint against your neighbor, how would you feel if your neighbor got to pick the judge who would rule on the complaint?  The Bhalla administration is who approved all of the Hoboken’s parklets and in general, and IMHO did a good job.  In some instances, however, those decisions are being appealed – neighbors challenging whether the administration complied with our ordinance in terms of size and location.  And what is being appealed is the decision made by the administration.
The appeal process gives the City Council the right to hear the appeals. That makes sense given we made the law, but it is the administration who executes under the terms of the law – that is the executive branch or the Mayor’s administration.  The ordinance also allows the City Council to designate someone to hear the appeals if we want. 
Last week, the City Council did just that and voted 5-4 to designate someone else to hear the appeals.  But their designee was the administration itself - specifically Corporation Counsel - to hire the person to hear the appeal.  The same administration who's decision is being appealed.  So in effect, this vote allowed the administration to be both the defendant and to hire the judge.  I raised this issue, but it passed anyway.  Giattino, Ramos, DeFusco and I voted against this.
The circumstances make the appearance of impropriety even worse.  McSwiggans is one of the two parklets being appealed and is also the bar that is at the center of the ethics grievance filed with the Office of Attorney Ethics - A Serious Matter - Deja Vu, only worse - Tiffanie for Hoboken 2nd ( -  when it was discovered that the owner of McSwiggan’s hired John Allen’s law firm (and now Mayor Bhalla’s law firm) last summer for their corporate restructuring.  John Allen is a lawyer in our Corporation Counsel office. Adding to this the owner of McSwiggan’s donated $10,400 to Team Bhalla candidates in October and notably, Corporation Counsel is specifically an appointee of the Mayor Bhalla, with no input or discretion from the City Council.  At least part of what is being appealed is what neighbors feel was a back door approval of McSwiggans parklet.  This was discussed last August, during a public City Council meeting.  Hoboken’s Business Administrator Jason Freeman and Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia initially tried to defend the City's action saying they didn’t have to follow local law because state law applied, but they changed their tune when it was pointed out (by me) that state law actually didn’t apply to parklets in the street. 
But back to the vote - five City Council members thought it was ok to ask Corporation Counsel to find the right judge.  And three of these five received $2,600 each from the owner of McSwiggans in October for their election.  All this said, do I think either the neighbors or McSwiggans will get a fair hearing?  Sadly no.
One of my favorite programs is back! It used to be called "Coffee with a Cop" and invited residents to meet and speak with Hoboken police officers.  The newer version is called "CAPS – Community and Public Safety and is expanded to include all public safety disciplines including Police, Fire, Ambulance and Emergency Management.  The first event in this series is tomorrow at 830 am at Johnny Pepperoni’s on 11th. I will keep everyone posted about future events!  I've said before that one of the best things I personally have loved about being on City Council (behind Hoboken Seniors) is getting to know our public safety professionals in a way that I didn’t when I was not in office.  I hope you take the opportunity to meet them and learn about all that they do for our community.
In April, Mayor Bhalla handed the City Council his recommended budget with a 5.6% tax increase.  I am not on the City Council’s Finance Subcommittee this year so am not as close to the discussions with the administration on the budget.  But I still keep a running spreadsheet and feel I have a good understanding of the city’s finances.  I firmly believe that in this environment, and in every environment, we should be working to do what we can to keep taxes as low as possible and spend taxpayer’s money judiciously. 
As I mentioned previously and as the city announced, this budget is heavily impacted by the recent union contracts negotiated by the mayor and approved by the City Council.  Our police, fire and municipal professionals were working without a contract, including no pay increases, for four years which included during COVID.  For police and fire, the newly signed contracts provided for 3-3.5% annual increases during that time, payable in 2022.  So take 3% x 4 years and simple math says fire and police salaries go up 12% in 2022 vs. 2021.  The budget shows increases closer to 19% or $6M for regular pay for police and fire.  Without significant offsets, including a $3 million reduction in estimated health care costs, this increase alone would be an approximately 10% tax increase.
I asked the administration for additional information that has been provided in the past to help fully understand the financial position of the city – things like the current and projected debt schedule, the current and projected use of the open space trust fund, and an analysis of our surplus so we understand how much we can use – but they have not yet provided.  So without these, I provided the following in response to the Finance Subcommittee’s request last week for recommendations on the budget:
Please reduce spending overall to get to a flat tax at most
Areas to consider reducing to get there totally approximately $2.5M (which would bring down tax rate to 1.3%): 
  • Eliminate S&W and benefits costs for
the additional person added to the mayor’s office – approximately $150,000.  Mayor Zimmer had two people in her office to handle constituent services, communications, and the needs of her office – she had a Chief of Staff and Director of Communications.  Mayor Bhalla has four – former Chief of Staff / now Legal Advisor, a separate director of Constituent Services, a Director of Communications, and a new Chief of Staff
the director of housing – approximately $110,000.  A newly created role for an ex City Councilperson that did not previously exist. 
one associate corporation counsel – approximately $100,000.  There are currently three, with one acting as Legal Advisor to Mayor Bhalla. 
both recently added public safety roles – Public Safety Director - $150,000 and Public Safety Consultant - $50,000.  These are both newly created roles that didn’t previously exist.  We just promoted a new Police Chief and increased his salary significantly – we should give him a chance.  We have two fire chiefs and one head of OEM.  Combined these four are paid with benefits approximately $1.2M
Reduce headcount increases in 2022 in environmental services – approximately $150,000.  Environmental Services has headcount growing from a low of 57 in 2020 to 79 in 2022 with 8 hires in 2022.  I recommended with delay a few, but not all, of these and reassess in 2023.
  • Remove impact of the non recurring, one-time retro pay being paid to certain police officers totally approximately $1.4M.  Under one of the police contracts, the city paid in February, a one year retro active salary payment for 2021.  This is non-recurring so should not be a permanent part of the tax basis and can be offset with the use of surplus.
  • Fund all capital projects via bonding (like IT investment in HPU) – approximately $400,000
Areas to consider increasing: 
  • Senior programming – an additional $15,000 for more and more uptown activities
Notably missing from the budget:
  • Any expected costs relating addressing cannabis tourism
Of note, as I am writing this, it looks as though the Mayor's budget has a reduced amount of PILOT funds that had previously been earmarked to be shared with all of our public schools.  This has been a difficult and often emotional issue within our community as we try to figure out within the constraints of the state funding formula how to distribute to the schools what was intended by City Council resolution to be at least 25% of the PILOT payment from the 770 House development.
If a tree falls, and no one is around to hear it, did it make a noise.  The behind the scene politics on issues and sometimes the in front of your eyes politics on issues, if they aren't discussed publicly, its as if they never happened.  And sometimes I just feel the public needs to know they are happening.  The first fifteen versions of this newsletter were even longer if you can believe it.  I am reminded of something my friend told me - "Dont let the details get in the way of a good story.".  I get that.  But then there is the old addage, the "Devil is in the details."  I tried to strike a balance.  Thank you bearing with me and for reading this. 
Please forward to everyone you know who may be interested in this newsletter.  Feel free to email me at [email protected] or call me at 201-208-1674 to discuss what you have read or anything else that is important to you.    
Hoboken City Council, 2nd Ward
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  • Tiffanie Fisher
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