Ten Questions for Councilman-at-Large Peter Cammarano

Peter Cammarano was elected Councilman At-Large in 2005, meaning he doesn’t represent a particular ward in Hoboken, but the entire city. The 30-year-old is originally from Wayne, about 25 minutes west of town. He eventually attended BU (graduating cum laude) for his B.A. in Political Science before going to earn a law degree from Seton Hall.

He’s married to Marita Erbeck, who was born and raised in Hoboken. Erbeck’s paternal grandfather was once the City Comptroller. She practices corporate bankruptcy law in Florham Park while he practices at Genova, Burns & Vernoia in Livingston.

With politics a hot topic in town lately, it seemed only appropriate to sit down with one of the city’s more outspoken politicos in the form of Cammarano to gather his perspective on a variety of items concerning Hoboken.

Concha: The Jersey Journal reports that you have called for the disbandment of the Hoboken SWAT team given the racy photos that have been the subject of many media reports.  But, if those officers were off duty, what exactly was illegal about their actions?

Cammarano: Whether they are on-duty or off-duty, police officers always remain police officers, and must always observe certain rules of conduct and protocol.  Some of the most important of these rules govern the possession and use firearms, and 2 specific violations are evident in the photos that have been publicized.

First, a police officer is not to allow a civilian to handle their firearm; and clearly, several of these photos depict civilians handling fully-automatic assault rifles that are Hoboken SWAT team equipment.

Second, there is never supposed to be any overlap between the handling of firearms and the consumption of alcohol; and, again, several of these photos depict both officers and civilians drinking what appear to be alcoholic beverages, and then the same people handling fully-automatic firearms.  These 2 rules apply to all police officers, irrespective of whether they are on-duty or off-duty.  Moreover, these 2 rules have a common sense basis: to preclude accidents, needless injury/fatality and legal liability.

And even assuming that there is nothing “illegal” depicted in these photos, I personally believe that allowing civilians (who may very well be intoxicated) to pose with a firearm, with the express purpose of capturing the spectacle on film, demonstrates a shocking lack of good judgment and represents conduct unbecoming a police officer.

Concha: What do you see as the #1 issue facing Hoboken’s city council right now?

Cammarano: Hoboken is a terrific place to live. It’s my home and it’s where my wife and I have decided to raise our family. I truly love this city. And right now, I’d have to say the most immediate issue facing Hoboken is the budget. In any given year, passing a budget is arguably the most monumental task for local government to accomplish. It is critical that we approve an honest and responsible budget after considerable input from members of the public and State government.

Over the long term, I’d have to say that Hoboken’s rapidly diminishing affordability is the most pressing issue facing many residents right now. Simply put, as great as this city is, it has also become an exceedingly expensive place to live and work for many people. Hoboken’s rebirth started because artists, artisans and professionals seeking easy access to New York City realized they could rent or own cold water flats in Hoboken for low cost, while still enjoying all the amenities of urban living.

Now, a generation later, the extraordinary cost of renting or owning in Hoboken, coupled with high property taxes, has made living or running a business in our city prohibitively expensive for many people. Moreover, as residents and businesses leave Hoboken because of that economic reality, the city also loses some of the diversity that made it so attractive in the first place. The city has the delicate and complicated task of stopping and hopefully reversing this trend, while not causing further damage to its economy and housing stock. Making Hoboken a more affordable place to live, work and raise a family is going to be one of my main priorities going forward.

Concha: If you looked at Hoboken at the beginning of the decade and now, what would be the biggest improvement to everyday life for its residents?

Cammarano: The biggest improvement I’ve witnessed for Hoboken residents is that there is far more of a sense of community than existed at the beginning of the decade. More people are moving to Hoboken and staying put, rather than leaving after a few years. It’s no longer so much of a way-station to the suburbs. Residents are really investing in their neighborhoods and in Hoboken’s future. More people are engaged in their neighborhoods; more people are taking advantage of the best of what Hoboken has to offer; more people are registering to vote and becoming civic participants; more people are living and raising families in the City. Hoboken is more of a dynamic community, and less a bedroom community, than it was at the beginning of the decade.

Part and parcel of this positive development is the fact that Hoboken has also become a far safer place over the course of the last decade. We’ve seen improvements in crime rates, increased quality of life for all residents and some real political reforms.  At the beginning of this decade, our city’s reputation had suffered because of corruption. Over the course of the past few years, things have gotten much better in this regard. At least since I’ve been on the City Council, I’ve witnessed some real reforms to clean things up. For example, the city has enacted sweeping pay-to-play reforms and increased transparency in government operations. The Hoboken Housing Authority has been thoroughly overhauled, going from massive debt and mismanagement to solvency and accountability. These improvements have immeasurably benefited Hoboken and its citizens.

Concha: Mayor Roberts has indicated he will step down at the end of his term. What will be his legacy?

Cammarano: Like most two-term chief executives, Mayor Roberts’ legacy will be a mixed bag. On the one hand, he was instrumental in keeping the hospital open when it was threatened with closure; he fostered the creation of several new parks at virtually no cost to the local taxpayer; and he helped restore a clean, lawful government administration where there had previously been rampant corruption and illegality. On the other hand, Mayor Roberts is also responsible for an enormous increase in municipal spending. He ushered in a raft of development projects that are widely repudiated and has, at times, been unable to maintain confidence among an increasingly fractious public and Council. Ultimately, Mayor Roberts’ legacy will be up to history to judge. But, certainly, there is more than enough good and bad to weigh against each other. I hope we can build upon the former and learn from the latter. I’ve been proud to work with the Mayor on several projects such as creating more open space, addressing the need for more parking, augmenting public safety and building affordable housing. But, there is so much more that could have been done, and that I hope we will accomplish in the future.

Concha: Do you plan to run for Mayor in 2009?

Cammarano: Asking this question in the fall of 2007 is akin to asking a football coach at halftime what play he intends to run at some point in the fourth quarter, without knowing what the score will be at that time. Right now, I am focused 100% on being the best Councilman I can be. Yes, I do want to run for higher office at some point. And I believe I am both qualified and capable to do so. However, the ultimate decision to run for higher office is a long way off. And I’ll make that decision at the appropriate time after considering the political environment and speaking with my wife. (I would also consult with our daughter…but at five months old, she’s far more focused on feedings and nap times than any desire for her dad to run for higher office).

Concha: The 4th Ward race between Chris Campos and Dawn Zimmer received the most attention of any city council race in Hoboken history. Why do you think it was given as much ink as it was?

Cammarano: The 4th Ward is one of Hoboken’s most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods. The recent Council race received so much attention because it was truly unique in our city’s political history. This was the most expensive ward race Hoboken has ever seen. It was the subject of litigation, and was only resolved following a court-ordered special run-off election – which in itself was both a rarity and oddity. The race involved three elections in six months, which is an unprecedented amount of political activity in a single ward. Last spring, it served as a microcosm for the county-wide political war going on with the Hudson County Democratic Organization on one side, and the Democrats For Hudson County on the other. This fall, it had the unusual distinction of being one of the only times Hudson County ever witnessed a contested November local election.

This race also, unfortunately, took a nasty turn early on and stayed that way for far too long. Going forward, I will work with my friend and fellow Councilman Ruben Ramos to do all I can to try and heal some of the wounds in the 4th Ward that are still a bit raw after this divisive race.

Concha: According to the Jersey Journal and several witnesses, a heated disagreement between Zimmer and Beth Mason occurred at Busker’s recently.  Is this a preview of things to come on the city council following the Zimmer victory?

Cammarano: I hope not, but stranger things have happened. If animosity continues to develop between Councilwomen Mason and Zimmer, and if they deem that behavior necessary to prepare for the next mayoral election, that’s their political business. If Councilwomen Mason and Zimmer are planning to run for Mayor, it is unfortunate that they never intended to complete a single term as ward councilpersons. I only hope any animosity between them doesn’t bleed over into the important work we have before us on the City Council. I can only speak for myself here and say that I’m just going to continue working hard to get positive things accomplished on the Council. I’m focused on improving the quality of life for all of Hoboken’s citizens and would rather leave the political gamesmanship and squabbles to others.

Concha: The disagreement was prompted by what some observers felt was Mason “ambushing” Zimmer with a pledge letter to the State Attorney General concerning looking into voter fraud more deeply. Every other city council member verbally agreed with that letter, so why so you think Zimmer avoided doing so?

Cammarano: It is impossible to know what goes on inside someone else’s mind. If I had to venture a guess, though, I’d say Councilwoman Zimmer refused to sign the letter asking the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney to investigate any allegations of voter fraud because there is potential exposure for her in any such investigation.

When the lawsuit challenging the June 4th Ward election was originally filed, it contained some very serious allegations that the Zimmer campaign committed bribery and absentee ballot fraud, among other things. These allegations were never aired in open court because Ms. Zimmer consented to an order vacating her election, most likely because she did not want these allegations litigated – let alone aired out in public. Now, this letter requesting an investigation threatens to once again open a can of worms, which Ms. Zimmer likely does not want and cannot afford. This was a very nasty race and I know it is important to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

However, in order to protect the democratic process and voting rights here in Hoboken, we have to take a long, hard look at some of the things that took place over the past few months – not just in the 4th Ward, but in other parts of the City, as well.

Concha: Internet publications and blogs will play a bigger role in terms of influencing the political dialogue on a national level, but local levels as well. Some blogs and publications are responsible and balanced while others are biased and have a clear agenda. How will Hoboken city government use the internet to connect with the community on a more frequent basis?

Cammarano: First, the City must improve its website. It’s almost 2008, and considering the size of the municipal budget, there is no reason why Hoboken should not have a state-of-the-art website. In its current state, the city website is pedestrian, uninformative, and more-or-less a disgrace for a first-class municipality. It’s more of a “brochure”-style site than one that is interactive.

Second, we must dramatically increase the amount of public information that is made available online. The city website should include links to all resolutions and ordinances, the entire City Code, the budget, every public meeting agenda, archives of the same going back as far as practicable, as well as streaming video of all public meetings. The people deserve as much access to an open government as humanly possibly.

In short, our content needs an upgrade, and the website needs to be more far more user-friendly.

Concha: Here’s a question our readers will take particular interest in: Will the city of Hoboken continue to levy $1000.00 fines during the next St. Patrick’s Day celebration in town?

Cammarano: Absolutely. The St. Patrick’s Day parade is a spectacular event for the City. It is a significant day in Hoboken’s year, a huge boost to Hoboken’s economy and visibility, not to mention a lot of fun. Even the Italian restaurants make money on that day!

The city took a zero-tolerance approach to last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and that policy was a success that we should continue. There is no excuse, and there should be no tolerance, for people who get into fistfights, drink alcohol in public, or otherwise engage in lewd and disorderly behavior. Hoboken’s residents and our City’s reputation both deserve far better.

Hopefully, this year, the fact that the City was ready and willing to levy such fines is broadly understood among revelers, and those hefty tickets will have a deterrent effect on the drunk and disorderly who negatively impact our quality of life.

Concha: Who are you backing in the next Presidential campaign?

Cammarano: In late 2005, I volunteered in a national campaign to draft Al Gore for President in 2008. I believed then, and still believe, that Al Gore would be virtually unbeatable in the presidential election next year. Unfortunately, Gore has decided against being a candidate for President, and in his absence from the race, I decided to support Hillary Clinton in the upcoming presidential campaign. I am currently serving as the Clinton campaign’s top election lawyer in New Jersey.

This is an historic opportunity for our nation and I sincerely believe that Senator Clinton is the best Democratic candidate in a crowded and distinguished field of presidential hopefuls. She is the best person who can bring about the change that our country – and the world – so desperately needs. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton is going to be the next President of the United States.