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Hoboken campaign finance union contribution law passes in surprise revote at council meeting

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Hoboken modified its campaign finance rules Wednesday in a dramatic vote after residents spoke against the ordinance and it initially failed, with one councilmember who first abstained changing her vote to help the ordinance pass.

Critics have slammed the legislation, which would exempt unions from campaign contribution limits if a court deems the language enforceable, as a retreat from the city’s strict campaign donation laws.

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher is already promising to mobilize residents to challenge the new law through a referendum.

The City Council also re-introduced a Western Edge Redevelopment Plan amendment and approved a new $2.6 million Hoboken Business Alliance budget. And it became the first municipality in the state to schedule a referendum on using ranked choice voting in the city in case the state authorizes it.

The campaign finance ordinance would newly allow unions to donate more than $500 to campaigns in the city. When Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s administration first put it forward for introduction, it said the move was essentially a course correction and that the city had only ever intended to limit PAC donations in elections.

The topic is, however, the subject of an ongoing lawsuit involving Councilman Mike DeFusco, who has been accused of receiving donations from unions in excess of the city’s $500 limit.

State Election Law Enforcement Commission rules say corporations or unions can contribute up to $2,600 to a candidate committee; $7,200 to a political committee, continuing political committee and municipal political party committee; $25,000 to a legislative leadership committee and state political party committee; and $37,000 to a county political party committee.

The text of the ordinance was changed this week to acknowledge that lawsuit. It now will only take effect if a judge ultimately decides that the original rule is unenforceable.

DeFusco recused himself from the vote, which at first received four votes in favor, three votes against, and an abstain from Councilwoman Vanessa Falco. With only four favorable votes it failed to pass.

About 20 minutes later, Falco asked to change her vote.

This was Falco’s last regular City Council meeting. In January, she will join the Bhalla administration as the new director for a Division of Housing. Councilman-elect Joe Quintero will be sworn into the council in her place.

Falco did not respond to a request for comment.

Critics of the ordinance said they have not heard any resident support for changing the law and that it was irresponsible to legislate while the lawsuit is ongoing. Supporters argued that it’s reasonable since it would only take effect after a ruling and that unions should be able to have a better chance to chime in during elections.

Multiple residents voiced opposition before the vote.

“Repealing campaign finance reform, that just doesn’t sound right to me,” said Carmine Sodora during public comment. “It sounds like this particular ordinance could be self-serving to many people, but not to the general public of Hoboken.”

On Thursday, Fisher said she is looking into how to challenge the ordinance by collecting resident signatures to create a ballot initiative.

“This vote tonight is a special interest vote only,” she said during the meeting. “That’s it, and it is absolutely not representative of the people.”

The council also reintroduced an amendment to the Western Edge Redevelopment Plan, the subject of a conflict with a developer who wants to build an 18-story building that Union City officials say would block some clifftop views of Manhattan.

The amendment provides ways for the developer to restructure its proposal to create bulkier, but shorter buildings as a means of not blocking Union City’s views.

It doesn’t, however, include a public lot that the city had originally planned to add to the redevelopment area as a bargaining chip. Councilwoman Jen Giattino asked for that lot to be removed from the ordinance last night, requiring the vote to be for a first, not second reading. The council spontaneously scheduled a special meeting for second reading for three days before Christmas, though it is unclear if enough members will show up to have a quorum.

Developer Pegasus Partners had previously said the appraised value of the $14.7 million public lot was too high for it to consider for the project. Both Pegasus Partners principals called into the meeting, with Mark Villamar saying the ordinance could be helpful in reaching a settlement with a lawsuit it filed against the city.

“The ordinance that’s before you is not the solution to the litigation but a tool to help get to that solution,” he said.

The Hoboken Business Alliance saw its new $2.6 million budget approved with all “yes” votes, but for Councilman Michael Russo, who said he has not seen the group devote enough effort to his Third Ward.

The budget represents a more than $1 million increase from last year’s $1.7 million allotment as the business alliance plans to expand its staff, devote more money to murals and lighting improvements and invest in public relations.

Rose Markle, who identified herself as a “mom and pop landlord,” said is unfair to parties like herself who have to continuously see increased taxes that she feels mostly benefit commercial businesses and their landlords.

Votes on ranked choice voting and an electric vehicle charging program were unanimous.

The vehicle charging or “Green Pass” program will be a six-month pilot offering electric vehicle owners discounts to the garages, which have charging stations.

“Transportation accounts for about 31% of (greenhouse gas) emissions in Hoboken currently, so supporting green mobility options, including electric vehicles, that reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions is a major priority for Mayor Bhalla,” city spokeswoman Marilyn Baer said in November. “Increasing adoption rates of electric vehicles is also a key strategy in the city’s Climate Action Plan, which lays out a roadmap for Hoboken to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.”

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