Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s decision earlier this month to transition to a full-time, in-house corporation counsel has been questioned by some members of the City Council. But she’s certain it’s the right move. “There’s a lot going on with all the different cases that we have,” the mayor said, estimating the city is currently involved in roughly 30 lawsuits. “I felt it was important to have somebody full-time [and] in-house.”
Former city attorney Mark Tabakin has left his post as part-time counsel and the city has begun a search for a replacement. While the search continues, Melissa Longo, a former assistant to Tabakin, will serve as interim corporation counsel.
“Mark Tabakin has done a remarkable job in his part-time capacity as corporation counsel,” said Zimmer in a memo to the council last week, “and I intend to call on his expertise whenever it is appropriate.”
“It’s going to be more of a challenge for [Shipyard Associates] with the litigation that we’re pursuing against them.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
Councilman Michael Russo – a frequent opponent of Zimmer – said that although he was happy with the position becoming full-time, her decision was “political” in nature.
“For three years I’ve been calling for that,” said Russo, adding that attorney fees have skyrocketed due to the corporation counsel’s limited availability. “It’s very clear that she’s doing it as a political stunt because her election is next year. Now [during] the 11th hour, nearing the election, she wants to make that change so she can get out from under all of that debauchery [rising legal fees] that’s been caused for the last three years.”
The corporation counsel will be expected to provide assistance with the large number of lawsuits the city is involved with. Many of the lawsuits utilize outside counsel which has led to heated council debates over the funding methods. The eventual adoption of the budget in April allocated $1.44 million to fund the various attorneys and processes, Zimmer said last week.
Of the roughly 30 active lawsuits the facing the city, Zimmer said that the several have been dropped.
Last month, a case was dropped against the city involving the Monroe Center Development. The Monroe Center Development was terminated by the city as a redeveloper in August 2010. The Monroe Center responded by alleging, among other things, that the city owed a $700,000 security deposit or performance bond, according to a letter from the attorneys to the city.
“We said, ‘Prove it,’” said Zimmer, adding that the documentation of the $700,000 was never provided. “So that saved the city $700,000 dollars.”
An additional lawsuit against Hoboken regarding campaign contributions to former Mayor Peter Cammarano was dismissed, town officials announced recently. The suit said that Cammarano allegedly created a Ponzi scheme to sustain his 2009 electoral race for mayor, allegedly accepting loans that were not repaid in full. The lawsuit, which was dropped, sought tens of thousands of dollars in compensatory, punitive, and other damages from the city.
“So we won that case,” said Zimmer. “I don’t think that the city had any liability whatsoever. This is just an example of the variety of cases that the city gets hit with.”
Zimmer also mentioned a recent case that was dismissed involving former employees and allegations that they were given an inappropriate early retirement program. Zimmer said that the lawsuit attempted to claim roughly $500,000 from the city.
“The bottom line is that we’ve been defending cases and winning cases,” said Zimmer, “and when you add up all of the cases that we have, [we’re saving money].”
Zimmer said that the attorney fees for the recently-dismissed cases were well worth the cost.
“It was expensive but it was important that we had proper representation,” said Zimmer. “It’s millions and millions of dollars [at stake], and we’re making sure we have proper representation to protect the city’s interests.”
One of the more notable lawsuits, and the only one in which the city is the plaintiff, is the Monarch at Shipyard proposed development.
Shipyard Associates, according to city officials, has a plan to construct two 11-story buildings on the pier east of the Hudson Tea Building. The city is charging that Shipyard Associates have not honored their original agreement, which included tennis courts, a tennis pavilion, parking, and other amenities.
Zimmer said that the city has challenged the Department of Environmental Protection’s approval of the project. The project also needs approval from the Hudson County Planning Board, which rejected the project’s original plan in April.
The project also requires the Hoboken Planning Board approval, and has a scheduled hearing before the board Tuesday, June 5.
“I can’t say whether the Planning Board will give them approval or not,” said Zimmer, “but it’s going to be more of a challenge for them with the litigation that we’re pursuing against them.”
Russo criticized Zimmer’s recent decision to replace former Business Administrator Arch Liston with an administration “team.” The city recently hired Quentin Wiest and Stephen Marks as Business Administrator and Assistant Business Administrator, respectively.
Both men will make a combined salary of $275,000. Liston had previously made $150,000.
“This is just wasteful spending,” said Russo. “We had one individual who was doing the job [Liston], and now they’ll use him as a scapegoat.”
“She has to be a better manager to her staff across the board,” added Russo.
Zimmer explained her reason for creating an Assistant Business Administrator position.
“We found the position really required a team approach,” said Zimmer. “There’s a tremendous amount to manage and a tremendous number of projects to oversee.”
“It’s not so much that we have more projects [now] but there’s a lot to manage,” continued Zimmer. “Arch [Liston] did a very good job but I think it was a challenge for him too.”
“I think together they’re going to be a great team.”
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at email@example.com.