For Mason and Zimmer, transparency remains the core budget issue in Hoboken

HOBOKEN – To the most hardened street operatives, “reformer” is just another word for someone who wasn’t born within reach of a Hoboken fire escape.

But if adamant old-timers here pride themselves on being connected to the waterfront birthplace of the Chairman of the Board, 4th Ward Councilwoman Dawn Zimmer’s slate this year has less to do with trying to duplicate the Rat Pack look as trying to convey the opposite: that her candidates don’t have a devil-may-care attitude about a 47% Hoboken tax hike.

“I feel this crushing tax burden strikes everybody in Hoboken, and we need to move very strongly beyond this mentality of us-versus-them to what is for the benefit of everyone in Hoboken,” said Zimmer, a photographer, who heads up a “new Dawn” ticket consisting of former Councilwoman Carol Marsh, school teacher Dave Mello and attorney Ravi Bhalla.

Zimmer won elected office in 2007 and quickly jockeyed for the title of “reformer in chief” with 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, who’s also running for mayor, incidentally, and doing so on a balancing act slate that more obviously blends some old-presence street cred from the camps of state Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) and3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, son of former Mayor Anthony Russo.

“I have a person in Vinny Addeo, a former machinist’s union president, who understands how to deal with unions and is not in any of the unions we’re talking to,” said Mason, a management consultant. “He offers perspective without being in that same space. Anthony Pasquale has senior executive experience, a huge need given the financial challenges facing the city. And Raul Morales is an up-and-coming leader who has the energy we’re going to need to win.”

Zimmer pal Marsh has jumped in and out of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) camp at least once in her political career in a doomed run for the Assembly, so the luster of pure reformer is diminished somewhat even as she reinforces Zimmer’s basic image of a Hoboken public servant who doesn’t look like one of the main characters from “Sergeants 3.”

Now just days after the council considered – and passed – the $123 million budget, Mason defended herself against whispered criticism out there in the rival mayoral campaigns that by aligning with Russo and Stack people she has made herself into a political blur and given Zimmer the good government edge.

“I think the concept of ‘reformer’ oftentimes is you take a stance and don’t back away from it, and I’ve never been that way – a person who blows a hole in things just for the sake of it,” said Mason. “My main issue has been transparency, but you don’t favor one group over another change and it is unrealistic to be an elected official and not work with state representatives (like Stack). It doesn’t change who I am. People are coming to me, and I’m happy to have them. Councilman Michael Russo has voted on a progressive agenda probably not as much as (Councilwoman) Terry Castellano, for example – but this is about finding a way forward.”

Last Wednesday night, the three main candidates for mayor went three different ways on the budget, as At-Large Councilman Pete Cammarano voted “aye,” Mason voted “no” and Zimmer abstained.

To date, Cammarano – who heads a ticket made up of Union City cop Angel Alicea, businessman Michael Novak and Board of Ed Prez Frances Rhodes-Kearns – has tried to gain traction with the argument that he voted against the state takeover of Hoboken’s finances and therefore can take credit for not further driving the city into a budget meltdown and unleashing a sidewalk-full of infuriated taxpayers bound for City Hall.

His opponents’ allies slam him as merely a desperation resuscitation of the Mayor Dave Roberts era, to which he argues that in the strictest terms he wasn’t born in Hoboken either and in the broadest assessment of “old” versus “new” which has dogged Hoboken politics and breaks it into Manhattan financial types and latte junkies versus sandlot Sinatras, he can comfortably straddle both worlds.

As for the budget, “I’m starting at the same point as a year ago,” said Cammarano, an elections attorney, explaining last Wednesday night’s “aye” vote. “I have a legal obligation to pass a budget. Yes, $123 million is an outrageously high number but it will be chopped down to $90 million, because we are raising money through the tax levy to pay down the structural deficit. My decision boiled down to the two broadest indicators. The structural deficit is on a downward trajectory. Secondly, the tax levy is going from $62 to $60 million, after it went from 38% to 62% last year. It’s headed in the right direction.”

Cammarano called Mason’s “no” vote on a budget prepared with the oversight of a state monitor a curiosity considering Mason voted in favor of the state monitor a year ago, but he reserved incredulity for Zimmer.

“Abstention makes no sense,” said the councilman. “Abstaining on a budget vote is not leadership.”

Zimmer argued that she did not receive basic information she requested from the sitting administration and the state monitor and consequently could not make a responsible judgment about the budget.

Mason reached the same conclusion, though her vote was an emphatic “no.”

“I made attempts to bring basic forensic accountants in over year ago and in June recommended three restructuring firms to address the financial crisis,” Mason said.

A general practice attorney who has worked for both Hoboken and Union City, Bhalla specifically defended Zimmer’s decision to abstain.

“All the councilmembers by law should have received an audit by Dec. 31st but that information wasn’t provided, so you can’t make an up or down vote under those circumstances,” said the council candidate. “Abstaining was the right thing to do. The council, much less the public, was not in a position to make a clear assessment of the budget. The budget presentation was literally indecipherable. Not even a simple power point presentation, and this goes to the issue of transparency.

“The issue in this race is not old versus new,” Bhalla added. “It’s who is going to hold government accountable and deliver taxpayers from this burden of a 47% tax increase.”

If his ticket isn’t old in the classic Hoboken sense, as a onetime Roberts ally who green-lighted past Roberts budgets, Cammarano can’t credibly stand on a good government platform, both Mason and Zimmer argue. Cammarano counters that their insistence on state intervention merely compounded Hoboken’s’ fiscal problems, though they return to the point they made from the beginning in their sizeup of City Hall: without basic transparency, who can tell?