Members of Jersey City Emergency Communications Unit at City Hall

A majority of the City Council Wednesday night rejected an administration proposal to contract with an outside firm for another study on how to “fix” the problems besetting the city’s 911 emergency communications system.

The council also voted on matters pertaining to retail cannabis licenses and animal control. 

On the 911 matter, by a 6-2 margin, with Councilmembers Denise Ridley (Ward A), James Solomon (Ward E), Frank Gilmore (Ward F), Yousef Saleh (at-large) and Richard Boggiano (Ward C) and Council President Joyce Watterman (at-large) voting no, and Amy DeGise (at-large) and Mira Prinz-Arey (Ward A) voting yes, the council refused to award a $213,000 contract to IXP Corp., of Princeton.

Councilman-at-large Daniel Rivera, who had had a death in the family, was absent.

The contract, endorsed by city Public Safety Director James Shea, would have directed the consultant to conduct employee workshops, assess technology and analyze service gaps within the city’s police and fire emergency communications units. The city had paid the firm to critique its 911 emergency response operation in 2015 and 2018 as well. 

At Monday’s caucus, Shea said the city has been aware of operational problems with the 911 system for the past decade but to date has been unsuccessful in remedying them. 

He said that before the city moves the communications unit from its current location at Cornelison Avenue to the new Public Safety Building under construction at the Hub on Martin Luther King Drive, he’d like to get the answers from an “independent set of eyes.”

Shea failed to persuade a council majority who felt they already knew some of the answers and how to remedy the issues. For Boggiano, a retired city police officer, it was simply a matter of numbers. “The radio room is short 40 people, and they’re underpaid,” he asserted.

Solomon added, “We have to do better with 911, and it starts at the top down.” 

He said the public safety boss had been hinting that privatization may be the preferred direction for the unit. Concerned that privatization would be the end result, Solomon said that it’s one thing to ask for an “in-depth analysis, but not decide that in advance, so (I say) no,” the Downtown lawmaker said.

But DeGise countered that, at this stage of the proceedings, “we’re not anywhere close to privatization, so I vote aye.”

Prinz-Arey said that while she was “not in favor of privatizing (the 911 unit), having a different set of eyes (analyzing the operation) may be helpful.”  Addressing several members of the city’s 911 unit in the audience, the West Side lawmaker urged them not to misinterpret her vote in favor of the study.  

“It’s really complicated,” she said. “You do good work, but we’re also responsible to the citizens of Jersey City…. My ‘yes’ vote is not a judgement on your work.” 

But this isn’t the first time the city had pitched IXP to evaluate the communications system. In 2018, IXP got a $38,000 contract to do a similar review.  It sparked controversy because the son of the late New York City police commissioner, Howard Safir, who led the search resulting in Shea’s 2013 hiring, worked for IXP.

“I don’t see why we have to keep paying out money,” said Watterman. “Staffing and leadership are the problem.”

Gilmore added, “The onus is on us to fix it.”

Saleh agreed, recalling the time he visited the communications unit and was allowed to take and listen to a steady stream of incoming calls during an entire shift. Sitting in a chair for a prolonged period of time, “my legs went numb,” he recalled. “And there was no coffee machine.”

He said dispatchers face the constant pressure of having to field emergency calls, including potential suicides, with no avenue open to them to decompress.

“I feel like we’re running an Amazon warehouse,” he said.  

“We took our eye off the ball for (several) years,” Saleh added. “I feel the people of Jersey City deserve better.”

During the public portion of the meeting, the council heard concerns from several of the city’s emergency dispatchers. Alexandra Fajardo said there was “an absolute disconnect between the higher-ups and employees.”  Michael Madrigal cautioned that “any merger of police and fire dispatchers would be detrimental to the city” because each department has separate responsibilities, he said. Paul Tamburelli commented that unlike other city workers, dispatchers often work holidays and overtime due to personnel shortages.

Santos Della Monica, president of Jersey City Public Employees Local 245, admonished the council for continuing to “keep giving jobs to private contractors.  Stop picking on the communications center.”  A better option, he said, is to “hire new directors.”

On the cannabis front, a city proposal to cap the number of retail marijuana licenses at 55 was defeated 6-1-1 with DeGise the lone lawmaker voting in favor and Watterman abstaining. City Business Administrator John Metro said the number 55 was proposed “so we have a handle on the market. We have provided for 21 (licenses) so far.” 

Boggiano, who opposes marijuana legalization, said 55 is too many to tolerate; Saleh, who feels 55 is too few, said, “I don’t think we’re at a place we need to be for the southern part of the city.”  

Solomon said he found 55 “quite high” but he, like Gilmore, added that he wanted to “ensure equity” for Greenville and Lafayette. 

Prinz-Arey raised another issue entirely, expressing concern that applicants “end up in a holding pattern” and lose their investments when, for example, two entrepreneurs may be awaiting a decision on a license for the same property. 

A few city residents who spoke about the proposed law expressed concern about that the law was fueling a rise in marijuana use in general. LaVerne Webb-Washington said, “I see people coming out of smoke shops with weed up and down MLK Drive” and wondered why that was happening if the shops weren’t allowed to sell cannabis. The city values the tax revenue it earns from the retail sales but has a responsibility to educate citizens about the health risks of smoking pot, she said. “Our babies are smoking the stuff, but we don’t know what it’s doing to their brains.”

In other action, the council agreed to introduce an ordinance to bond up to $11.4 million to retrofit two floors of 315 15th St., part of a city redevelopment area containing a residential high-rise structure, to accommodate what would be a new East District police station. Only Boggiano opposed the measure, saying the location is misplaced, while Solomon abstained, saying the city should review any comparable future redevelopment agreements binding the city to similar type payment obligations.

And in a surprise development, the council—at the administration’s request—tabled action on an ordinance proposing adoption of the Sixth Street Embankment Redevelopment Plan. Metro said the city—apparently at the behest of outside counsel—was “trying to get through the final steps of the settlement agreement” that needs to be signed before any work can begin. No further explanation was offered.

Featured photo: Members of Jersey City Emergency Communications Unit at City Hall meeting celebrate Council defeat of proposed study.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...