The Pluck of Dawn Zimmer

Planners can learn a lot about the havoc money unleashes on otherwise benign development plans from the moral fortitude displayed by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer.

Read Time: 16 minutes

February 3, 2014, 5:10 AM PST

By Ian Sacs

Hoboken vanity plates

Matthew Rutledge / Flickr

Planners graduate with good intentions to improve communities through better development, but rarely are they properly briefed on the political malaise that haunts the dark side of so many development projects. The noble fight of a good planning Jane Jacobs David versus a bad planning Robert Moses Goliath is between temptations of abstract ideology, a common focus for academia. But the critical lesson missing from so many planning curricula is about a much more visceral temptation: money. Planners can learn a lot about the havoc money unleashes on otherwise benign development plans from the moral fortitude displayed by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who recently risked her political career by publicly accusing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration of, effectively, blackmail, all because of a dragging development project.

Mayor Zimmer, my immediate boss for over three years, is highly respected among residents for demanding integrity and responsible development practices in a city regularly visited (and recorded) by the FBI, plagued with rampant corruption, and thoroughly entertained by ceaseless allegations (including ethnic cleansing) in episodes better than any reality TV show could ever write. She is known affectionately as "The Accidental Mayor" because she was swept up into the cruel, cutthroat politics of that tiny city, located directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, when her advocacy for a local park (that the city targeted for high-rise development) turned into an unexpected career shift. She had no political connections, no long-standing local family legacies, and perhaps most important, no favors owed. So, when she found herself a member of the City Council, then City Council President, and in a few short months Mayor of an extremely wealthy city where developers vehemently tussle to get their projects built, she was unceremoniously exposed to the pounding heart of decades of city agreements, commitments, obligations, and legislation that frequently fell into categories of "questionable", "shady", or worse. Indeed, we were regularly challenged to dig for the "get" in countless circumstances because the ostensible reasons for existing plans seemed simply absurd.

The pressure to build in Hoboken, and for politicians with the power to keep development moving, is steaming. The views, location, and effortless commute into New York City make Hoboken just as appealing as Brooklyn to many, but Hoboken is quieter and feels more like a small community outside the huge city. This unique combination of big city proximity and small town tranquility has morphed Hoboken into a textbook example of gentrification and therefore a powerhouse of development along New Jersey's "Gold Coast"; the profits explain the pressures.

Politicians have attempted to capitalize on these pressures by rolling development plans – and the ability to leverage them - into their campaign platforms or transition plans. It helps to have powerful, deep-pocketed backers when battling through a raucous campaign. I remember being called to a meeting with the previous mayor, Peter Cammarano – during his short 23 day stint in office before being arrested for accepting bribes by an FBI informant posing, not coincidentally, as a developer – where the topic of discussion was the redevelopment of a huge swath of North Hoboken into a luxury, exclusive, gated community with private streets and reserved parking to boot (reserved parking is equivalent to gold in Hoboken). The potential value of such a plan was in the billions. From where it came, I don't know, but the purpose of the conversation that day seemed to be simply whether or not this plan should move ahead, even though there is a very clear and deliberate public process for projects of this sort to be introduced and evaluated by local government (which to my knowledge had not happened yet).

When Dawn Zimmer stepped into the Mayor's office in 2009, several major redevelopment plans were already in the works with some level of (at least verbal) expectations from former administrations, and I vividly recall that the intense pressure to move those plans forward began from the very first days of her term. Developers vied for opportunities to present their plans and, presumably, begin negotiations "the way we always done it."  Zimmer did not agree to such meetings, and if some did get into her conference room under the pretenses of "constituent concerns" or suchlike, she was quick to redirect conversations about specific proposed developments to be in accordance with appropriate laws.

It must have come as quite a shock to those who were expecting - or perhaps it is better to say, previously required - to cut a deal. After all, developers were just playing by rules established long ago.  At first, the brakes applied from the Mayor's office were interpreted by some as preference towards "her people".  But quickly, the consensus within the building community became that Mayor Zimmer was simply "anti-development". I heard that sentiment third-hand all the way down in Ocean County, so her style of governing – that is, her honest, law-abiding actions - was clearly raising eyebrows across the state. I was asked on several occasions what it is was she wanted, "What's her get?"  Only a clever few realized the simple truth; they just needed to start following New Jersey redevelopment laws.

There was (and still is) a lot of cleaning up to do in what was as near to a fiefdom of self-governance as one can get in modern day America. In my role as Director of Transportation and Parking, I was given responsibility over the Parking Utility, an agency with a dark history that hopefully ended with my immediate predecessor being arrested and convicted for theft of $600,000 in quarters.  Mayor Zimmer gave me directions to "close back doors and plug holes".  We did that nearly every day, taking up much more of my time than I had expected. The first few months were a constant wave of discovery in questionable practices and undocumented relationships. I was contacted regularly by residents, vendors, and developers looking to meet with me "one on one" to secure continued or new agreements on everything from consultant and maintenance services to parking permits to garage management; those meetings were declined, thank you.

I discovered numerous contracts and informal agreements missing official approvals, undocumented or, at least, set up in such a way as to be easily susceptible to misuse. For example, in an early audit we revealed and shut off about 160 transponders used to gain monthly access to municipal garages that had been issued to vehicles with little or no records, and certainly without charge. Why were nearly a quarter-million dollars in annual fees just given away freely?

In another example, an uptown developer had attempted to overrule my objections to their absorbing over one hundred on-street parking spaces into their construction area without permission or compensation to the city by using a letter swiftly-written on their behalf by the city's own construction office; why an official in that office was willing to prioritize a private developer over the city's residents' desperate needs for limited parking is a matter of speculation, but the need for me to appeal to state authorities to countermand this person is fact.

In a third example, a speculative developer sitting on a hugely valuable downtown property had managed to extend his daily parking lot business into the sidewalks of the city and county right-of-way to get an extra row of parking for about twenty cars for nearly two decades; extra fees collected are in the millions and the few letters documenting attempts to get this property back show previous administrations mysteriously dropped the issue. Why?

The same dubious circumstances were discovered for other parking products, including business, resident, and handicapped parking permits. After many years of what I learned to be an artificial waiting list for monthly parking in the municipal parking garages that sometimes exceeded three years, we simultaneously eliminated the wait and increased revenue. But, why was there a wait list in the first place?

Most people had the sense to accept that the party was over, but some who felt their former power still carried weight in City Hall had the audacity to confront me, in person at my office. A major challenge was that not a few of these instances involved employees at city hall or higher ranking state government officials (and their relatives), many of whom were from the long-standing families in power before Mayor Zimmer. Unfair as it was to assume a position of suspicion with these colleagues, it was equally impossible to know who to trust, and devastating when people who you did put faith in proved themselves to be totally corrupt, as we discovered when the FBI arrested our head of IT, who we realized was archiving and feeding all the mayor's emails to political adversaries and union members in real-time. During that investigation, it was revealed the same person had been pre-approved for and then won (by lottery) a so-called "workforce" housing subsidy the previous year from a local developer to buy a luxury condominium in a new building for nearly half its $500,000 market value; problem being that the reported income at the time apparently well exceeded qualification criteria.

It is hard to believe that the monetary value of all the "free parking" I discovered being issued to disparate parties was not redeemed through other channels. But in an environment where so many are seemingly complicit, little to no documentation exists to pinpoint such potential graft, so in most cases all we could do was stop a found leak and move on. Nonetheless, my most disheartening revelation during my short tenure was how the opportunities and methods to manipulate, extort, and con thousands of people and millions of dollars were at my immediate disposal with literally no safeguards, the extents to which I had not the criminal mind to imagine, and I was not even mayor. If one considers the spotty dossiers of some of those who preceded me, and how family relationships rather than professional qualifications drove the hiring process that gained them access to huge sums of money and enormous power, one must at least wonder if there was but a little foul play in the development projects funded by or connected to the Hoboken Parking Utility, and its predecessor Hoboken Parking Authority, let alone other departments. After all, nepotism is the most difficult form of corruption to eradicate in even the least-corrupt places.

Make no mistake though, Hoboken wept corruption. Former mayors who attained that ultimate prize and power would notoriously bark down the public and City Council members at public meetings, knock down residents who supported other candidates at polling stations, shamelessly rattle off lists of names (including ethnicities) for jobs they had given their allies under the ironic auspices of strengthening the community, and threaten retribution via rent increases to groups of residents who might consider support of another candidate. Privileges of power and access to huge sums of money and benefits were heavily guarded; the godfathers at a real-world scale alive and well in Hoboken's murky underworld. Jobs apparently handed out based on loyalty rather than credentials.  Workforce housing awarded to families in ways that guaranteed government subsidies for life, regardless of future income levels - so long as you supported your patron. Threats of arrest made – and made good on – towards those who meddle too much with the black market social security in jobs and benefits of loyal families and their supporters. Corruption of authority and power permeate throughout various boards, departments, and agencies. Hoboken, and Hudson County politics, is not for the faint of heart, nor the thin-skinned.  I only lasted three years there myself before seeking refuge on the other side of the planet.

Not surprisingly, powerful local families with long entrenched political legacies in the nefarious, covert, largely undocumented underworld of local government (operating in what I call the "Favors Economy"), were none too keen to let Mayor Zimmer undo what took generations to build, and what they would proudly describe with a smirk and a wink to each other as "this little thing we got." From my perspective as a new administrator, mostly naïve to the sordid story of Hoboken City Hall, these legacies appeared embedded across all parts of local government, from the Mayor's office where the first approval must traditionally be attained by some black box negotiation (there is a story of a former Mayor forcing a team of developers to wait for over two hours in the hallway while he went across the street to the barber, a sort of power play in advance of intense deal-making. Upon returning, he asked the men if they liked his haircut!), to the boards where seemingly innocuous plans can be thwarted for reasons such as "People in Hoboken don't walk to restaurants." (note: Hoboken is ranked #1 walk-friendly city in America), to construction permitting, where developers were known to have been told who - exactly - they should use for concrete, electrical, and plumbing work because those contractors "…understand Hoboken's special building requirements"; those requirements being, presumably, kickbacks.

Planners with a few years of experience might recognize similar themes from the above paragraphs in municipalities where they work, because unfortunately, similar struggles and corruption exist across the nation at one level or another.  Our frail democracy – and perhaps more directly, its taxpayers - suffer from a scaling-up of sorts, few checks and balances are required of or applied to the local levels of government where so much money ultimately ends up, albeit divvied out in fairly small portions relative to federal standards. But to local residents, those sums translate to major economic development and improvements to quality of life, at least ostensibly.

Behind the scenes, these improvements to the community can bring along vote buying, political patronage jobs, obscure kickback schemes, quietly accepted yet illegal uses of government property, weakened labor negotiations, no-bid contracting (in its many, various forms), unmitigated largesse, inexplicable redevelopment decisions, convoluted law-making (or abolishing), and in some cases, blatant theft. Most of these crimes go unpunished, and even those that are prosecuted are not held fully accountable. One instance involves a former mayor convicted and sentenced to jail in 2004 on corruption charges who not only never paid back the $317,000 in restitution owed, but remained on the city's medical insurance policy until it was discovered in 2010, when Dawn Zimmer swiftly ended the transgression.  I've been (un?)fortunate to catch a whiff of all of these things in my time as a public servant; I only wish I had had the tenacity to stamp out more.

Most of these activities are related to the acquisition of public funds; local government decisions made on the fulcrum of private monies are much more surreptitious. To qualify for this money, entities must apply through seemingly transparent processes; however, to actually get the money, one must kowtow up through the political hierarchy for attention and favor, so that a good word is put in on one's behalf. In return for such consideration - which often translates to much needed local funding - there is a political debt to be paid. In the case of Mayor Zimmer's accusation of blackmail against Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno (and at least one other official inside Governor Christie's government), the debt demanded was for Zimmer to secure local approval for an enormous redevelopment project that would otherwise not meet local requirements in exchange for the release of Hurricane Sandy disaster recovery funds, as Zimmer documented in her journal about a parking lot conversation, during which Guadagno supposedly said:

"It is very important to the governor. The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it's not right -- these things should not be connected -- but they are, and if you tell anyone, I will deny it."

Yes, they are connected; they always are connected. That is the lesson here. That short statement sums up this entire post. Those connections begin small at entry-level political levels, and grow with accumulated power. The problem is, there are so many existing interconnections and interrelationships to which one may fall prey - and most of them based on undocumented conversations - that it is nearly impossible to excel in one's political career without being expected to compromise one's integrity somewhere; and once you're in, you're in. To reject the status quo is to face the public with, most likely, nothing stronger than a "he said, she said" accusation, so does Dawn Zimmer. But, the smallest ethical slip can be spun into the grandest grab by one's political opponents, so speaking up is tantamount to political suicide.

The elephant in the room is the possibility, the almost screaming certainty, that so many seemingly upstanding politicians are compromised at least slightly, yet no one can say so.  How else could they have climbed so far?  Perhaps with so many beholden to the same certain fate, keeping quiet is a political force majeure, how "things get done".  It takes the crossroads of impeccable timing and a relatively spotless soul to summon up the strength to speak out, and few politicians have the chance and are so brave - or so clean - as to risk certain character assassination and political catastrophe by doing so.

Unless, that is, you're Dawn Zimmer. With a short political career, admittedly just a couple slips-de-naiveté of an entirely smaller order of magnitude with which to be taken to task, and a spectacular record of annihilating corruption left and right at the local level, there are perhaps few in possession of as shiny a political resume as hers, and even fewer who realize such an opportunity to speak up without being entirely crushed. Her accusations are easily pigeonholed to the immediate political context of an embattled governor with presidential ambitions, but perhaps we planners should see it for the larger context of the potential rampant corruption via the mechanisms of discretionary funding. Our government system still operates largely on systems of discretionary funding, where pots of money - or at least the authority to prioritize the use for pots of money - lie in the hands of the politically powerful; quid pro quo, pay to play, call it what you will, discretionary funding creates an ethical pitfall for every politician, the edges of which are often hard to see, but very slippery. I submit we can no longer leave such power to mere trust.

In a perfect world, where everyone was honest (and no one weighed their own re-election in the balance), discretionary funding would be a simple method of distribution. But that is not at all the way it works. Money gets applied in an ostensibly flippant manner to all sorts of odd projects, and most of us are so numb to it that we do little more than grumble about it around April 15th. Few politicians ever speak out about it (after winning their campaigns, of course), and fewer take an actual stand on it.

How many politicians are silenced by the muzzle of complicity? How many projects pop out of a black box with approvals or rejections but no clear reasons? Can we naively assume that the reason no one is talking about it is because it simply doesn't happen that much? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we can be certain that such evils lurk in all corners of our democracy because at least a few are exposed on a regular basis. Budding planners should consider that when their project takes an odd turn away from the objective recommendations of professionals.  Moreover, perhaps they should wonder why no one else is speaking up about it, the way Dawn Zimmer has.

In closing, I offer a quote from The 14th Dalai Lama:

“All human endeavor is potentially great and noble. So long as we carry out our work with good motivation, thinking, 'My work is for others,' it will be of benefit to the wider community. But when concern for others’ feelings and welfare is missing, our activities tend to become spoiled. Through lack of basic human feeling, religion, politics, economics, and so on can be rendered dirty. Instead of serving humanity, they become agents of its destruction."

Ian Sacs

Ian Sacs has been playing in traffic for over ten years. He solves challenging urban transportation and parking problems by making the best possible use of precious public spaces and designing custom-fit programs to distribute modal demand.

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