The city council voted to approve the Bunker Hill Special Improvement District’s $171,500 budget on Tuesday night soon after an almost hour-and-half discussion on the downtown business district that included a segment on allegations of conflict of interest.
Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, alleged there was a conflict of interest in the downtown district. He then praised the work of the Bunker Hill business district saying, “This is a way a responsible SID should be run.”
“The irony does not escape me,” remarked Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, picking up on the cant of Jackson’s assertions. “This Bunker Hill SID is run by the mayor’s LLC. If there was ever a perceived potential conflict of interest it would be in this particular issue.”
The Bunker Hill business district has a contract with Paterson-based Urban Solutions which is owned by mayor Jose “Joey” Torres and his wife Sonia Torres. The mayor’s wife serves as the executive director of the district as part of a contractual arrangement between the district and the mayor’s company.
The mayor’s wife is paid $24,000, according to the district’s budget. Torres, who has been extremely sensitive about the Bunker Hill business district issue, did not directly respond to a message seeking his response for this report. His office referred questions about the alleged conflict of interest to David Hertz, vice-chairman of the Bunker Hill district.
“I don’t really know what the conflict would be. She does a really good job. If we weren’t happy with her it would be a very easy thing for us to make a change. Nobody pressured us to have her there or do I feel pressured,” said Hertz, owner of Sealy Mattress, speaking of the mayor’s wife. Indeed, the mayor’s wife has received praise from not only members of the Bunker Hill district’s board, but also indirectly from some council members who praise the district.
The district is not funded by the city itself, but by the property owners of the area. The owners voluntarily pay an additional assessment to provide themselves more services.
Torres was the previous executive director of the Bunker Hill district. He gave up the post upon winning a third non-consecutive term as mayor. On his way out he asked the district whether it wished to continue the relationship with his wife, according to Hertz.
“We said, ‘Yes, we’d like the continuity,’” said Hertz.
Sayegh’s remarks resurrected a perennial political irritant that briefly haunts Torres every year since he returned to office in 2014. Sayegh finished second in that election; he is likely to be contender in next year’s mayoral election.
“That matter has been litigated, prosecuted, and litigated, prosecuted — and here we are,” remarked council president William McKoy after Sayegh’s remark.
Council members approved the budget for the Bunker Hill district without opposition. Sayegh abstained from voting on the district’s budget.