Jersey City is preparing to defend the controversial new ward map by hiring a politically connected law firm to handle a lawsuit filed by a group led by Bergen-Lafayette Councilman Frank Gilmore.
In January, the Jersey City Ward Commission, which is responsible for redrawing the boundaries of the six wards to make them equal in population, approved a map that moved Sci-Tech City and Liberty State Park out of Ward F, despite criticism and opposition from the public.
The city council on Wednesday will vote on a resolution to approve an agreement to appoint the law firm Murphy Orlando LLC to represent the Ward Commission in a case against Jersey City United Against the Ward Map. The contract is to be effective for a year starting March 21 for no more than $100,000.
The Ward Commission consists of the five members of the Hudson County Board Of Elections, City Clerk Sean Gallagher and Jersey City Chief of Staff John Minella. The Hudson County Board of Elections commissioners are Peter Horton, Janet Lawra, Daniel Beckelman, Daniel Miqueli and Paul Castelli.
Major Steve Fulop declined to comment on the hiring of the law firm.
Murphy Orlando LLC is run by Michael Murphy, a former Democratic primary candidate for governor in 1997 and former Morris County prosecutor, and Jason Orlando, a former deputy attorney general for New Jersey.
Orlando also previously served as a legal counsel on then Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s transition committee in 2018. Michael Murphy sat on the Waterfront Commission, an agency responsible for certifying those hired on the waterfront are not connected to organized crime, by former Gov. ChrisChristie.
Both Orlando and Murphy are part of the lobbying firm, Impact NJ, formerly run by Jersey City Assemblyman Raj Mukerji, whose past and present clients have consisted of the cities of Newark, Linden, Jersey City Medical Center and Bayonne Medical Center.
Jersey City United Against the Ward Map is a coalition of neighborhood and civic associations that joined together in a lawsuit against the commission, claiming the panel arbitrarily split up the city to reduce the influence of some communities and political leaders.
The group, led by former Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden and Gilmore, also said in the lawsuit that the commission violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. They’re being represented by the NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, Yale Bromberg and Brett Pugach of Bromberg Law, and Bill Matsikoudis of Matsikoudis and Fanciullo.
Gilmore and Gadsden say the map was specifically targeting the Bergen-Lafayette councilman out of conversations around projects like Sci-Tech City, which Gilmore has been vocal against, and any other future development opportunities that would have been in his ward.
Gilmore questioned why the city has to front the bill for lawyers to represent the Ward Commission. He said he plans to question the resolution at Monday’s caucus meeting, but he will probably abstain from voting on the measure.
“I know my question today will be along the line why is the taxpayers on the hook for paying for legal fees if this is a process that the city didn’t have much to do with,” Gilmore said. “Because there is this position that the city really had nothing to do with the drawing of the maps.”
“We want the map invalidated,” Gadsden said. “I think (the ward map) was more so to take (Gilmore) out of the decision making inside of the ward as it relates to the development that has taken place and they carved him out of all the opportunity zones in the ward.
“There were so many things done wrong and egregious that they have to be addressed in court.”
The redrawing of ward boundaries is a process that takes place every 10 years after the US Census figures are released. Jersey City’s population jumped from 247,000 in 2010 to 292,000 in 2021.
The sharp increase was most evident in Downtown’s Ward E, which grew from 46,000 to 70,000 residents over the past decade. Even though other wards didn’t shrink, the Downtown ward has to become smaller.