Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Councilman Mike DeFusco: "Marijuana in the Mile Square, and more..."

Official release:

As we wrap up the year and hunker down for the holidays, I wanted to quickly update you on what's been going on around Hoboken....
 
MARIJUANA IN HOBOKEN: BLUNTLY

You may have heard that the State of New Jersey has proposed permitting marijuana dispensaries. Legalizing marijuana on a statewide level could mean that thousands of young men, primarily of African American and Hispanic descent, will no longer have their lives permanently altered by a drug arrest. It also means a major opportunity for entrepreneurs to create a new market and for municipalities to reap the benefits of economic development. There are of course several important questions that have to be answered about legalization, and this conversation is ongoing at the state level.

While the concept is intriguing, I feel the proposed recreational marijuana law being considered in Trenton can be made better. The State Legislature and Governor are still in negotiations and will not have a law passed before the end of the year, and many local officials are arguing for more generous tax benefits and protections for municipalities, and I support those goals.  On the medicinal front, the State issued six medicinal dispensary licenses, none of which are within Hoboken.  Despite this, Mayor Bhalla had been rushing a local ordinance that would permit recreational and medical dispensaries within our city, a move that seems to be putting the cart before the horse.
November 19th community meeting discussing marijuana in Hoboken 
I am very receptive to the conversation, however, I feel it’s unadvisable to rush into passing local law until the state law has passed.  Additionally, in its current form, the Mayor’s ordinance places the bulk of potential dispensary locations in my downtown district, the First Ward, without any plans in place to ensure neighborhood quality of life, or provide any indications of how the increased revenue would be spent.  As such, I have worked with the City Council to temporarily table the recreational ordinance pending guidance from Trenton and adjustments to our local legislation.

However, tonight, the City Council will still consider two marijuana-related ordinances….  

The first permits medical marijuana dispensaries in Hoboken and the second temporarily halts the granting of zoning permits to dispensaries until the City Council and Mayor can agree on a more substantive, long-term plan. In regards to medicinal dispensaries, the City’s Planning Board recommended altering the ordinance to make dispensaries “conditional” permitting more board and community involvement.  I fully agree.  In regards to the temporary ban, I am in support so long as conversations are not stymied and we develop an ordinance that adds financial incentives and quality of life assurances for the neighborhood(s) impacted.

Let me be abundantly clear that to gain my support on zoning for future dispensaries, a large portion of revenue generated from sales will need to benefit the immediate neighborhood -- by fixing infrastructure, like sidewalks and streets, improving public amenities and adding more dedicated city services, like maintenance and police. By no means should the revenue generated be used to stuff budget shortfalls, acting as a temporary fix to cover this administration’s overspending, or pet projects that can be funded in other ways.

Marijuana legalization would create an enormous societal change for our state that would have benefits and consequences on Hoboken, whether intended or unintended. As a Council member, it’s my job to make sure that Hoboken and the First Ward are prepared for this new circumstance and ready to take advantage of this industry while protecting our neighborhoods and our quality of life. I will be holding a neighborhood community meeting on this topic in the coming weeks, and will distribute scheduling information shortly via my social media platforms. 

WHAT'S HAPPENING AT UNION DRY DOCK? 
 
Hoboken has a unique opportunity to have an unimpeded and interconnected waterfront at the former Union Dry Dock site along Sinatra Drive. I stand with the mayor and a unified City Council in saying that we must do everything within our power to protect that space as public park land, for the benefit of generations to come. However, I am troubled by the lack of accountability.  
For over nine years the now-mayor sat on the City Council, many as Council President, but always as the right-hand man to our last mayor. Through that period, the city had the opportunity to purchase the property at market value but passed because leadership at the time hoped to acquire it once Union Dry Dock ceased operations. Unfortunately, what they didn’t foresee was another maritime operation, like New York Waterway, stepping in and buying the property once the former dry dock vacated the site.

Then, just last January, our new mayor pointed to outgoing Governor Christie as the problem, before changing direction and placing responsibility with our state’s new executive, Governor Murphy. This all without seemingly understanding that NYWW is an important transportation provider for the state, and it was a logistical, not political, decision.  In April the Mayor announced an “agreement” with the governor that he said would solve things; however, last week  the Army Corps of Engineers granted approvals to build, dispelling the notion of progress.  So now, the mayor is back to petitioning Governor Murphy to fix this municipal mistake.  

We can’t go back in time, but as we look forward for productive solutions, it’s important to understand how we got here.

One of those proposed solutions is the potential of moving ferry fueling operations to the Lackawanna Terminal, which certainly deserves consideration as it’s the terminus for New Jersey Transit and PATH. Operationally it remains to be seen how a ferry maintenance facility could operate without direct road access or how they safely fuel vessels within the busiest transit hub in the state -- with over 60,000 commuters passing through daily. Similarly, how we brace for significantly increased downtown traffic, including industrial sized vehicles when the roads surrounding the terminal are already packed at rush hour, is something that I am very concerned about.

There are more questions than I have answers for at this time, but do hope that this is not just another position crafted by the mayor's press team to kick the can or reassign blame. I am ready to roll up my sleeves and work with everyone to create a remarkable, one of a kind, waterfront park while simultaneously building a stronger transit hub for the entire city and state.

FIXING OUR STREETS
Washington Street 
Washington Street is now four months past schedule and nearly $2.5 million over budget, but the good news is that we're looking to complete the project by mid-spring.  Though I am proud to have chaired the Council Committee that moved Washington Street redesign forward three years ago, I've been frustrated with the organizational inefficiencies, cost overruns and delays since then.  I recently voted to switch the project’s engineer (a firm whose executive pleaded guilty for conspiracy to commit bribery in another city), however did not have majority support on the Council, but have nonetheless held the administration accountable for what has become a bi-monthly ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars, ensuring proper oversite.  I am cautiously optimistic that we will have the project finished before Memorial Day and will continue to keep you apprised. 

Newark Street
After extensive engineering studies and community meetings in 2016 we settled on a multimodal plan that was going to be break ground in 2017.  However, before construction began, we unexpectedly received a $400,000 grant from the federal government for the project and “free” federal money comes with free federal bureaucracy -- two years worth.   I am pleased to report that barring any further delays, work is planned to begin in the spring and we can look forward to a safer, more functional, Newark Street next year.

First Street
Paving will start in the spring - a county financed job, so I thank Hudson County Executive Degise and his team for working with the City to get it done

Court Street
This year I was able to secure funding for the new sidewalks intersecting with Court Street as well as a comprehensive engineering study to plan for the historic preservation of our city’s oldest cobblestone lane. The proposed plan calls for reinforcing the street from underneath and reusing the same blocks to historically recobble the street.  Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to walk the street with our city engineer along with my colleagues and partners on this -- Council members Giattino and Fisher, as well as a team comprised of historians and even an archeologist to ensure that the proposed engineering is historically sensitive.

The City has already held two public meetings and will introduce the plan at the Jan 16th City Council meeting.   Funding will be discussed as part of the 2019 budget hearings and I have been actively discussing a Hudson County grant with the mayor and county executive, which would award $500,000 from the County to help fund the project.  
CITY-WIDE PARKING RATE INCREASE 
In October, an ordinance raising parking prices at meters and in city-owned garages was backed by the mayor and supported by a split 5-4 vote of the council. I voted against this measure, but the Mayor and Council nonetheless significantly raised the cost of parking in Hoboken. In my opinion, this is yet another back door tax by an administration who earlier this year claimed there would not be a tax rise and transferred $4.1 million from the parking authority to cover other, non-transportation related, city expenses. This was done even as our parking garages, roads and bike lanes are in desperate need of repair and the administration has provided no indication of how we can fund these improvements in the future. I’ve long said that I won’t support raising parking fees without first seeing immediate upgrades to help motorists, cyclists and pedestrians get around town -- honest budgeting.  

Current state of disrepair on the roof at the midtown municipal garage
A CLEANER HOBOKEN (AND DOWNTOWN DOG RUN)
 
Tired of seeing torn up bricks, overgrown tree pits and garbage over our streets, I recently sponsored and passed an ordinance to hold land owners accountable for their public-facing property.  Though only the mayor has the authority to instruct City departments, I was happy to write best practices into the law, which I hope the mayor will enforce properly.  Further, after campaigning in 2017 on a dog run in front of Garage B (Hudson between 1st and 2nd) I’m happy to have worked with Director Pellegrini and the mayor’s staff at bringing an overdue dog run to the first ward.  Funding was appropriated at the last Council meeting with work to be done when warmer weather is upon us.  Finally, after years of advocating for more trash receptacles, I'm pleased that the administration was able to add nearly thirty trash cans to neighborhood streets, twelve of which are in my downtown district - the First Ward.
The Hudson Street side of Garage "B" will be the home to a new first ward dog run (note: this is only a rendering, not the final design) 

GROWING STEVENS INSTITUTE
 
As Chairman of the Council's Zoning Subcommittee, my colleagues and I spent the year working with Stevens Institute as well as the administration to create a comprehensive update to the campus master plan to help the university grow, while protecting the surrounding historic neighborhoods.  I am so proud that through collaboration and teamwork, we were able to design a campus plan which will house 850 more students on campus than before, all within a new state of the art university center.  Currently many of these students live in apartments throughout town rented by the school and transported to campus via a city-wide shuttle bus.  By zoning for the new dormitories on the far eastern part of the campus, closest to Sinatra Drive, we will effectively eliminate the citywide shuttle system, freeing up our roads.  Our unified goal of housing more students on campus and helping the university continue it's record of academic success and growth was long overdue, but we got it done.

FAIR AND DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS RETURN

Election Day was over a month ago but I wanted to thank the residents of Hoboken who voted overwhelmingly (74 %) to restore runoff elections in our city. That was an incredibly inspiring result that is all the more important because we voted not for a candidate, but for bedrock principles like majority rule, democratic elections and honest government. It's disappointing that Mayor Bhalla and his allies decided to oppose this common-sense measure by spreading fear and half-truths, but it's not surprising. The current system was set up only to protect establishment politicians and entrenched incumbents, and thankfully now that will be a thing of the past. It's inspiring to see thousands of Hobokenites make their voice heard on this crucial issue, and I look forward to continuing to work to represent that mandate.
 
HAPPY HOLIDAYS! 

As we wrap up the year, I am so thankful for the support of my neighbors, friends and family as I continue to push for greater transparency in our local government and continue my push to bring new energy and new ideas to the forefront of local politics.  

Speaking truth to power is not easy.  Standing up to a mayor who this year accepted a second job at a politically connected law firm, was censured by the State Supreme Court, used taxpayer funds to settle a personal ethics violation, barred me from entering a taxpayer funded meeting and spent $63,000 taxpayer dollars on a personal luxury SUV driven by his two-man security detail -- is not easy.  If I didn’t stand up for what I believed in, what I know to be right, if I didn’t push for a more open dialogue about what’s working and what’s not and if I looked the other way for my own political benefit, I would simply be perpetuating everything that’s wrong with politics today.

What keeps me strong and grounded is my belief in this City and the love of my neighbors, friends and family who continue to stand with me as I stand for Hoboken.  I am so lucky to have the most amazing people around me and this holiday season, I wanted to thank my partner Alejandro for sticking by me through thick and thin.

At this joyous time of year, Alejandro and I (along with Rocco, our dog) wish you an abundance of happiness, and peace and a new year filled with hope. Happy holidays! 

Your Councilman,
Mike DeFusco
Hoboken City Councilman

P.S.
This holiday season and throughout the year, please join me and donate to the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, a list of what they need can be found here.