Year in Review: 2009’s Biggest Stories
Photos: Steve Gold, Irene Borngraeber, Zac Clark, Melanie McLean
It was an exciting year in Jersey City, and we were there for all the madness. Here’s a chronological look back at what we think were the year’s biggest stories. (For more Year in Review goodness, check out 2009, In Lists.)
– Then-Ward C councilman Steve Lipski pleaded no contest in early January to a misdemeanor assault charge for allegedly peeing off a balcony at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Lipski, an admitted alcoholic, said that the incident occurred after having his first drink in several years. “I had my first [Tanqueray and Tonic] and I didn’t get lightheaded, I didn’t get unbalanced, so I said to myself, ‘I can handle this.’,” he told the Jersey City Reporter. Unfortunately for Lipski, that didn’t quite turn out to be true. Later that month, the eight-year council veteran announced he would not seek re-election. “It’s been a great honor and learning experience for which I shall be forever grateful. But it is time for me to take a step back. I need to step back because I did not manage my life well, and let alcohol at times become a fix for the stress I was experiencing,” Lipski said in a statement.
– On Jan. 20, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the country’s first black president, an event that caused many in Jersey City to swell with pride.
– At its Jan. 28 meeting, the City Council passed four “green” initiatives designed to make the city more environmentally-friendly. The package of bills made the city adopt green building standards for city-owned and municipal buildings; created monetary incentives for private developers to adhere to green building standards; had the city purchase environmentally-friendly products and supplies whenever feasible; required the city to purchase hybrid or other green vehicles when purchasing new autos for its fleet.
– The Iron Monkey officially launched its music venue located next door, IM Automata Chino, on Jan. 31. The venue’s opening was a welcome shot in the arm to the city’s live music scene, which had been foundering in the post-Uncle Joe’s era. But following an unannounced visit from the Fire Department over the summer, the club closed down to make some improvements and bring the building up to code. Shows continued next door at the Monkey proper, and word has it that IMAC is set to reopen in January.
– On Feb. 2, the Evening Journal Association announced to its employees that the company would cease publication of the Jersey Journal and its weekly papers on April 13 if it couldn’t reduce costs enough.
– The city introduced the Fiscal Year 2009 budget — which covers a time period beginning July 1, 2008 — on Feb. 9, seven months into the fiscal year.
– On Feb. 17, Barack Obama signed the massive federal stimulus bill; local politicians immediately began vying for dollars. Since then, plenty of stimulus money has flowed into Jersey City, funding everything from road paving to museum jobs to solar-powered trash cans.
– After hearing from 21 residents, the City Council tabled the massive Journal Square Redevelopment Plan at its Feb. 25 meeting. The project, headed up by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, would have redefined 244 acres around Journal Square; it called for very tall high rises, a revamping of the Journal Square transit center, introduction of green space, a light rail spur and a trolley. The plan, a “visioning project” championed by Mayor Healy, hasn’t reared its head in any council meeting since.
– El Nuevo Hudson, the Spanish-language weekly newspaper of the Jersey Journal, published its final issue as the Journal‘s publisher scrambled to find ways to reduce costs enough to continue publishing the flagship daily.
– The Jersey City branch of Ready, Willing and Able closed on Feb. 27. The program and shelter helped ex-offenders reintegrate into society by providing jobs, training, social services and housing. The Jersey City Incinerator Authority later hired 20 former employees from the shuttered program to clean local streets, but the loss of this independent nonprofit was a blow to the city.
– Daisy, a housecat from Mercer Street, got loose in late February, and was collected by Animal Control officers. But instead of taking the cat to Liberty Humane Society, the officers dumped it in a remote area of Lincoln Park. And so began the saga of Animal Control reform. Ward E councilman Steven Fulop, at the behest of animal advocates, soon proposed creating a 19-member independent commission “to develop and track measurable objectives to ensure a competent Animal Control program,” as well as the creation of an Animal Control Ombudsman. The Healy administration and the City Council were resistant to Fulop’s proposal and challenged it at every turn, preferring to allow Animal Control correct its problems on its own. Over the course of the next few months, plenty of advocates turned out in force at a number of council meetings, and what they saw wasn’t pretty to their eyes. They watched as Fulop’s plan was amended to provide for a nine-member commission, blocked by the Law Department, downgraded to a 13-member committee, and finally abandoned by the council in June. The council instead opted to allow Department of Health and Human Services director Harry Melendez, who oversees the Animal Control division, to take the lead. In early August, Melendez laid out 11 initiatives that Animal Control has already implemented or plans to, including increased staffing, additional documentation requirements, new software and the creation of an Animal Welfare & Population Control Committee to provide advice and recommendations for best practices to Animal Control. But as we reported at the time, some of the city’s most vocal animal advocates thought the self-policing actions weren’t strong enough.
– After a few months of getting our feet wet and slowly ramping up, we formally launched the Jersey City Independent on March 2. Later in the year, we would expand further, purchasing NEW magazine in December.
– Both houses of the state legislature on March 16 passed legislation pushed by Gov. Corzine allowing local governments to avoid paying half of their commitments to the state pension funds this year. The city, which was facing a crushing budget shortfall (sound familiar?) had lobbied hard for the bill to pass, and had actually already factored the savings of $14.8 million into its Fiscal Year 2009 budget, which had been introduced earlier that week. The repayment period on that sum will begin in 2012 and be drawn out over a 15-year period. Ward E councilman Steven Fulop and some citizens vocally criticized the deferral, alleging that the Healy administration was simply shifting numbers around in order to avoid a tax hike while neglecting to tackle the larger structural problems with the budget. In December, Jersey City state Sen. Sandra Cunningham and Assemblywoman Joan Quigley introduced bills that would bring the deferrals back for a round two in 2010, at the behest of Mayor Healy. Officials have put the city’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget deficit anywhere between $40 and $70 million.
– On March 17, the Jersey City Mural Arts Program got rolling with a mural by artists Jason Maloney, Bigfoot and Ron English on the side of the Hudson County Art Supply building on Coles Street. The program, started by Dylan Evans, led to the creation of other murals in Jersey City in 2009, including the massive “Raw Power” undertaking in the Powerhouse Arts District; look for more in 2010.
– Marion Grzesiak, who joined the Jersey City Museum in November 2001 as it reopened to the public in its current home on Montgomery Street, announced on March 24 that she was stepping down as executive director to become the next executive director of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, located in Summit. In September, the museum announced it had hired Dr. Laurene Buckley as Grzesiak’s replacement. Buckley took over the museum as it faced a decline in corporate donations, residual debt from its 2001 move to Montgomery Street and several cuts in municipal funding; she explained how she hoped to guide the institution through the tough times in a December interview with the Independent.
– At the March 25 City Council meeting, Ward B councilwoman Mary Spinello announced she would be stepping down to run the Parking Authority. On April 6, the City Council voted to fill her seat with Phil Kenny, who was running with many of the incumbent council members on Mayor Healy’s “Team Healy” slate. Other Ward B candidates and good-government advocates criticized the move as giving Kenny an unfair advantage in the upcoming election. Sure enough, Kenny cruised to victory on May 12. But his tenure on the council would be short-lived.
– Even though the campaigns had been working for months, full-on campaign season for mayor and the City Council officially kicked off on April 1 with the first mayoral debate at the Loew’s.
– Facing a state-imposed deadline of April 3, the Jersey City Board of Education (BOE) met on April 2 to adopt its $629.8 million 2009-2010 budget. But with five votes needed, the board ultimately fell short and failed to pass the budget. Instead, the BOE was forced to adopt a previously-introduced budget that called for the elimination of 225 positions, 135 of them in the area of special education — many of them positions the newer budget had restored.
– At the April 8 City Council meeting, an ordinance to revise the city’s outdated entertainment ordinance was tabled, never to be heard from again in ’09.
– April 13 was a date looming large for Jersey Journal employees and media watchers, as publisher Kendrick Ross had announced two months earlier that the paper would cease publication on that date if it couldn’t reduce costs enough. Luckily, the Journal was spared, as it was just seven years before, but not before wringing a number of concessions out of its unions and laying off several longtime staffers, including 27 year veteran Ron Leir and legendary columnist Earl Morgan.
– Elections for three seats on the school board brought two new members to the board as Sean Connors, William DeRosa (an incumbent) and Patricia Sebron were the top three vote-getters. Another incumbent, Anthony Cucci, fell just short of third place.
– On the morning of April 26, many waterfront office workers and Downtown Jersey City residents were stricken with the worst kind of deja vu when Boeing 747 and F-16 jets buzzed over Jersey City. But this was no 9/11, Part Two — it was a photo op for the Air Force. Local governments knew about the flyover, but since the feds forced them to keep the information secret, panic ensued in Jersey City and New York, with buildings evacuated and many frantic calls placed to 911. The ill-timed and costly photo op eventually led to the resignation of White House aide Louis Caldera.
– Developer Steve Hyman, engaged in a battle with the city and local activists over the fate of the 6th Street Embankment, made a splash when he entered the mayoral fray with anti-Healy flyers.
– The outdoor live music series Groove on Grove kicked off a successful second season on May 6 with a show by Higgins and Any Day Parade.
– On May 6, the city and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced their plan to transform a former federal Superfund site along the Hackensack River to a 32-acre park, known as the Marion Greenway Park. Later in the year, the City Council voted through a package of bills to move the site’s development along. The first phase of the park could be completed by next fall, but the entire park will not likely be ready for at least five years.
– Jersey City’s sex offender residency restriction ordinance — along with more than 125 others around the state — was struck down by the state Supreme Court on May 7. The court unanimously ruled that local residency restrictions conflict with Megan’s Law, which gives the state Parole Board responsibility of deciding where sex offenders can live. Jersey City’s residency restriction law was passed in 2006. The next month, the Assembly Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation that would allow cities and towns to implement their own residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders, essentially undoing the court’s ruling. But the bill lacked the the support of local officials or the state public defender’s office, and it failed to gain any traction.
– With just 55 days remaining in Fiscal Year 2009, the city passed the budget for the year on May 7. Most of the $474 million budget had already been spent via the “emergency temporary appropriations” passed at each City Council meeting.
– Months of baby-kissing, debating and campaigning came to an end on May 12, when Mayor Healy won the mayoral election, becoming the first Jersey City mayor since Frank Hague to win three elections without a runoff. Healy defeated challengers Dan Levin, Lou Manzo, L. Harvey Smith and Phil Webb. Healy’s council slate mostly rode his coattails as well, with his candidates in Wards B, C and D and his three At-Large candidates all cruising to re-election on the first ballot. Wards A and F went to June runoff elections, and Ward E resoundingly went to incumbent councilman Steven Fulop, who had himself toyed with the idea of a 2009 mayoral run before opting to stay in his seat.
– Commuters passing through the Grove Street PATH plaza on May 22 were greeted by the newest addition to the city’s cultural scene: The Creative Grove Artist Market. Since then, the market has become a Grove Street mainstay, offering a variety of local art, handmade goods and other good stuff each and every Friday.
– On May 28, the state Supreme Court dealt a blow to Jersey City schools when it upheld Gov. Corzine’s new school funding formula, which effectively scraps the Abbott funding system that poured extra money into this and other cities for many years. For an excellent look at the funding changes, check out Jersey City resident Carly Berwick’s cover story in the latest issue of Next American City (available in print only).
– The City Council narrowly approved a controversial bill to sweeten a tax abatement for luxury high-rise Crystal Point, which sits on 2nd Street right at the Hudson River. The developer, Fisher Development Associates, had come to the council with complaints of slow sales and a proposal: Extend our existing tax abatement by 10 years to a total of 30 years, and reduce the percentage of revenue paid by almost half (to 10 percent) for the first five years. During the second five years, let us pay 12 percent, and for the remaining 20 years, we will pay the full 16 percent. Despite widespread citizen protest and strong opposition from several council members, a narrow majority voted in favor, with Ward E councilman Steven Fulop, Ward F councilwoman Viola Richardson, and then-Ward B councilman Phil Kenny voting no. The council was apparently swayed by doomsday scenarios proffered by Ward D councilman Bill Gaughan (“If you’re voting no, you’re voting to doom this project”) and then-council president Mariano Vega (a no vote would leave the building “unfinished and vacant”). Or perhaps they were swayed by the fact that, as the Journal later uncovered, officials connected to the project donated $7,500 to the campaign of Mayor Healy’s council slate the same day Fisher appealed to the council for a better tax abatement deal. The developers said the donation “was not made with the intent of influencing the vote,” and Healy, via his spokesperson, called the insinuation “irresponsible journalism.”
– The runoff elections on June 9 ended with predictable results, as the incumbents in Wards A and F (Michael Sottolano and Viola Richardson) kept their seats by fending off their challengers (Rolando Lavarro and Ron-Calvin Clark).
– After months of public comment, further negotiation and a good bit of controversy, the City Council on June 17 approved the city’s joint settlement with the state and PPG Industries to clean up chromium contaminated sites around Jersey City, including the large swath of land at 880-900 Garfield Ave. The three groups, which have since dubbed themselves the Chromium Cleanup Partnership, held several public meeting later in the year and are getting the ball rolling on a five-year cleanup plan. Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit against PPG brought by the Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and later joined by the community group GRACO, continues to maintain that the settlement fails to guarantee a permanent and protective cleanup of the site.
– The developer Metrovest auctioned off 25 of its luxury condos at The Beacon on June 27, starting what would become a mini-trend as the residential real estate market grappled with a sour economy and tight lending market.
– At his inauguration, Mayor Healy put economic issues front and center, asking department directors to slash budgets and warning that unpaid furloughs were in the offing for city workers. The first of those furloughs happened on Christmas Eve.
– Hyacinth AIDS Foundation launched Jersey City’s first-ever legal needle exchange program at the Puerto Rican Family Institute and Hudson Pride Connections.
– Five police officers, including Detective Marc DiNardo, and two suspects were shot in a July 16 early-morning melee on Reed Street. Police were attempting to arrest two individuals suspected in a June shooting when the suspects opened fire. DiNardo died of his wounds five days later at the Jersey City Medical Center.
– In a massive sweep called “Operation Bid Rig,” federal officials arrested dozens of New Jersey officials and political heavy-hitters on corruption charges during the morning of July 23. Many of those arrested were from Jersey City, who were mostly charged with accepting bribes in exchange for helping along a fictitious Garfield Avenue development project. Mayor Healy suspended all city employees charged in the bust, and several have since pleaded guilty. The first trial, of former deputy mayor and Healy campaign treasurer Leona Beldini, is slated for January.
– Confirming news first reported by the Independent, Mayor Healy released a statement on July 24 confirming he was “Jersey City Public Official 4” named in the federal complaint against Beldini, but he denied any wrongdoing.
– Then-council president Mariano Vega*, who had been arrested in the federal bust, told his fellow council members on July 27 that he had no intention of resigning from his position, but allowed that it “would be wise” for him to step down from the closed-door tax abatement committee he chaired.
– At the first post-corruption bust City Council meeting, angry residents came out in force and called on Vega* to resign, while Ward E councilman Steven Fulop tried and failed to pass a resolution of “no confidence” against the council president.
– The three-day music festival All Points West was back in Liberty State Park for the second year in a row as July bled into August. The weekend was marked — but only slightly marred — by heavy rains and outrageously muddy conditions; thousands of undeterred revelers were rewarded with standout performances by Jay-Z, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tool, My Bloody Valentine, Echo & the Bunnymen, along with scores of other bands.
– On Aug. 7, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli granted 2009 Ward C council candidate Norrice Raymaker’s petition to join a lawsuit seeking that Ward C councilwoman Nidia Rivera Lopez be disqualified from office based on allegations that her primary residence is in Florida. A decision in the case, which was tried in October, came down in Lopez’s favor in December.
– Mayor Healy hired the law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter to examine documents and legislation and interview officials in order to produce an audit of the city’s development process. The firm presented the results of their audit to a somewhat skeptical city council in December.
– In late August, it was revealed that the JCPD was investigating Joseph Castagna, who was then a health officer in the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, for potentially illegally issuing more than 100 food vendor licenses. This revelation was the latest twist in the ongoing saga of the city’s food truck vendors, who are currently governed by a selectively enforced 1971 law stating they must move locations every 20 or 40 minutes, depending on their specific permit. While the issue was raised at a handful of City Council meetings in 2009, an ordinance to fix the problem was drafted but never introduced and the city’s promises to fix the problem in a timely fashion have been broken. Meanwhile, vendors still face selective raids, brought on by complaints from local franchisees. For its part, the City Council did form a subcommittee in late October, which was tasked with coming up with a legislative solution within 60 days. But as of mid-December, the subcommittee had failed to even have a meeting. Oh, and what happened to Castagna? Things apparently got a little too hot for the health officer, who was also arrested in July’s federal corruption sweep. He put in for his retirement, which was approved in September, and he’s currently receiving a pension of more than $60,000 per year in addition to his one-time lump sum payment of $84,414 for unused vacation and for 80 percent of unused sick time. The retirement board’s decision is subject to revision if Castagna is convicted of misusing his position in City Hall.
– At a very well-attended Sept. 9 meeting, the City Council passed a redeveloper pay-to-play ordinance into law. The law, which was first proposed to the council more than two years ago, bars redevelopers from making campaign donations to municipal officials while seeking to be named the designated builder for a redevelopment or rehabilitation project in the city.
– On Sept. 12, The Jersey City Free Public Library put on a rain-dampened — but successful — second-annual book festival in Van Vorst Park, featuring authors from — and those who’ve written about — Jersey City.
– Comedienne Melissa Surach received a long-awaited award from the City Council on Sept. 23.
– The medical drama Mercy, which had been shooting scenes around Downtown Jersey City for a few months, premiered on Sept. 23 on NBC. Many of the show’s scenes have been shot at places familiar to Chilltonians, including Lucky 7 Tavern, Enos Jones Park, and Park Tavern.
– The 19th Annual Jersey City Artists Studio Tour kicked off on Oct. 2, with 400 artists exhibiting works at over 100 venues citywide over the weekend. That same weekend, the 4th Street Art & Music Festival had another successful year, despite some rains.
– We told you his tenure would be short-lived. Then-Ward B councilman Phil Kenny, who was not arrested in July’s federal corruption bust, pleaded guilty on Oct. 6 to taking a bribe during the same operation and officially stepped down from the council the next day. David Donnelly was handpicked by Mayor Healy to take Kenny’s place, and was sworn in as the councilman for Ward B the following week.
– That same week, Vega* resigned from his position as City Council president, but did not give up his At-Large seat. At-Large councilman Peter Brennan was unanimously elected to the president’s seat the next week by his council colleagues.
– Developer K. Hovnanian, which owns the waterfront luxury condo high-rise 77 Hudson, was denied an extension of its tax abatement. A very similar request by the owners of Crystal Point, another waterfront luxury condo high-rise, had been granted in June — before the city’s development process started receiving the glaring attention created by July’s corruption bust.
– A neck-and-neck gubernatorial race ended in a Nov. 3 victory for the Republicans, with former US Attorney Chris Christie set to assume office in January. Hudson County voters went for Corzine by the largest margins of all New Jersey counties — but the county had the lowest turnout of any county as well. Some have pointed fingers at Mayor Healy, who as head of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, should have been able to turn out the vote more vigorously. Still others blamed Corzine for his lack of a stance on Jersey City’s corruption scandals. Regardless of what got us there, a Republican governor will likely mean a different picture for Jersey City and other urban areas, if history is any indication. Based on his campaign materials, we took a look at what a Christie administration might mean for Jersey City (and our nonprofits, too). Meanwhile, the races for Assembly seats that represent parts of the city ended predictably in victory for the Democrats, virtually all incumbents.
– In a controversial decision, at its Nov. 25 meeting the council approved the Parking Authority’s $4.2 million purchase of a property on Central Avenue where it had been renting space. Despite assertions to the contrary from city officials, Ward E councilman Steven Fulop stated that he believed the building was overvalued and the city should request another appraisal — the building was last appraised in April 2008. The $500 price tag of an updated appraisal and the possibility that the price of the building would rise prompted the majority of the council to vote in favor of buying at the 2008 price.
– Back in February, we reported that Jersey City’s unemployment rate had hit 8 percent in December 2008, a nearly five year high. Little did we know the news would continue to get worse for the city all year, with the unemployment rate eventually jumping into double digits before rising all the way to 12.1 percent in September 2009, the highest it had been since July 1996. Preliminary data released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released in early December showed the rate had dipped slightly to 11.8 percent in October 2009, but that figure still remains higher than any monthly rate the city’s seen in the past 13 years.
– Former Parking Authority head Mark Russ alleged in a $1 million lawsuit that Mayor Healy fired him from his position and replaced him with Mary Spinello after Russ refused Healy’s orders to stop giving out parking tickets after 6 pm. Russ’ lawsuit alleges that Healy’s directive was a political ploy to curry favor with voters during this year’s mayoral campaign, a fact that the mayor disputes. The directive, he said in a statement, was “my response to complaints from scores of residents who have received tickets at 10:30 pm when they were parked three doors from their house and it just seemed we were hitting our residents over the head.”
– The city’s resurgent cycle culture got a big boost earlier in the year when Grove Street Bicycles opened Downtown. And on Dec. 8, a group of advocates and bike commuters got together to give it another shot in the arm, as they formed the Bike JC advocacy group, which seeks to improve bicycle safety in the city and promote increased bicycle use.
– On Dec. 9, Legendary Brunswick Street vinyl store Iris Records announced it would be discontinuing regular opening hours at its retail location. Owner Steve Gritzan gave JCI the low-down on what’s next for the world-renowned institution.