The no confidence measure before the City Council urging indicted mayor Jose “Joey” Torres to resign from office divided council members on Tuesday night.
Council members were split on censuring the mayor accused of theft for using on the clock public works employees to renovate a warehouse leased by his daughter and nephew on East 15th Street.
Torres’s strongest supporter on the council was at-large councilwoman Maritza Davila.
“Let the mayor have his day in court,” said Davila. “I have a doubt.” She appeared to doubt the charges in the six-count indictment handed down by a grand jury and unsealed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in early March.
Davila provided a select set of examples of elected officials who successfully challenged the charges against them in court. She cited West New York mayor Felix Roque, a physician, who was accused of taking kickbacks to refer patients to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) lab. Roque was later found not guilty.
She also cited mayor Anthony Suarez of Ridgefield. He was indicted for taking bribes, but later was acquitted of the charges. She conducted research into elected officials who were indicted, she said.
Davila searched far and wide for examples to support her mayor, but the examples at home appeared to escape her. Torres’ first predecessor Martin Barnes was indicted, battled the charges, and was sentenced to three years.
Since 2014, two city council members have been accused of wrongdoing. Former councilman Anthony Davis was sentenced to two years in prison for taking bribes. Former councilman Rigo Rodriguez accepted a lifetime ban on holding public office or employment for election fraud.
“This case has hurt us a lot,” said Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman. He said it’s difficult for him to go out without someone approaching him talk about the indicted mayor and political corruption in the Silk City.
Velez said the allegations against Torres have tarnished the city’s reputation. He said Torres should have at least appeared and issued an apology for putting residents through this.
“He’s not here saying sorry because he doesn’t feel he’s guilty,” shouted an emotional Davila at Velez while council president William McKoy brought down his gavel several times to restore order and civility.
“We’re not saying he’s guilty; we’re not saying he’s innocent,” said Velez. The no confidence resolution is to express lack of confidence in the mayor to effectively govern the city while under an indictment. It also “formally” requests the mayor’s resignation to “free [him] to attend to his legal issues” and “allow the city to be run without distraction,” states the resolution.
“What’s going to happen if we vote no confidence on the mayor or vote on the mayor to resign?” asked Shahin Khalique, 2nd Ward councilman, who gave campaign contributions to Torres.
The measure is symbolic. It has “no binding effect,” said law director Domenick Stampone. “It is a power the legislative body has to make a statement.”
In the event Torres resigns, McKoy becomes mayor until the council votes to appoint an interim mayor. The appointed mayor remains until an election is held and a new mayor is selected by voters.
There’s no way to keep the mayor’s seat vacant until an election is held. “There cannot even be a moment when someone is not at the helm,” said Stampone. Who becomes mayor immediately after the sitting mayor resign? “The law says that person is the sitting council president,” said the city’s chief attorney.
McKoy has been a backer of the no confidence measure.
“I’m in favor of the vote of no confidence, I just hope the council president is not trying to create a path to become mayor,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, who throughout the scandal criticized Torres.
Sayegh was not present during the discussion on the no confidence measure. He said he had to leave the meeting early to care for his ill mother. Council members Ruby Cotton and Kenneth Morris were absent from the meeting.
Some have speculated McKoy may run for mayor in next year’s election. Sayegh, who finished second in 2014, is also likely to run. Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, who was silent for the no confidence measure discussion, has declared his intention to run for mayor. Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, is also a likely candidate.
Jackson has said he does not favor the no confidence vote. He spent much time discussing the plight of the suspended supervisors.
Jackson and Velez thought it unfair to suspend the three public works supervisors – Joseph Mania, 51, of Randolph; Imad Mowaswes, 52, of Clifton; Timothy Hanlon, 30, of Woodland Park — who were indicted along with the mayor.
“They deserved fair treatment. They should not be judged prematurely,” said Jackson. “They were following instructions. I don’t think these allegations are so egregious.” He said by suspending the three supervisors without pay it makes it tougher for them to hire attorneys and wage a good defense in court.
“For me it’s not fair,” said Velez. City employees charged with crime are typically suspended without pay. When an employee is acquitted the city has to provide them backpay, according to city officials.
Velez worried his comments against the mayor will result in Torres’ administration cutting services to 5th Ward residents. “Please, I ask this administration, I ask every director, ‘Do not retaliate with the services to the community’ because of statements,” he said.
Jackson cited the same last year when the council discussed a no confidence vote on Torres. Torres has been accused of retaliation in the past. He allegedly, in the most famous case, targeted a former detective, over a lawn sign, whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and cost taxpayers $2.2 million.
City residents had little fear of retaliation from their second indicted mayor in less than two decades and urged the council to take a stand against the mayor.
“This is what we all put you up there for,” said city resident Donald Lynch.
“Silence is not golden anymore,” said activist Waheeda Muhammed, a former school board member. “We should all be trying to assure the public they can still trust our elected officials. That we can still believe there are good people that want to do the right thing.”
Ernest Rucker, who was first to call for the no confidence measure last year, said investors are turning away from the city. “This has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. It’s the cloud that hangs over this city,” he said.
“I never had confidence in this man,” said activist Corey Teague speaking about Torres. “The people were defrauded.”
The no confidence measure is expected for a vote by the council at its regular meeting on Tuesday, March 28th, 2017.
Torres did not immediately respond to a call for comment after the council’s discussion of the measure.