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Rivera Not One To Shy Away From Tough Issues; Passaic Mayor Spurs Changes, Criticism
NICOLA M. WHITE, SPECIAL TO THE RECORD
July 1, 2003
PASSAIC - He took office amid controversy, promising to fight the ills that plagued the city - and the critics who said he shouldn't be mayor.
Two years later, Mayor Samuel Rivera has battled many of Passaic's visible woes: substandard housing, dirty streets, lack of new development. He's led crackdowns on some of the city's notorious slumlords, installed surveillance cameras on high-crime street corners, and fought for more cops on the beat.
He's also been criticized for attacking the visible problems to the detriment of others: funding cuts to the library and the city's Head Start program, high taxes, and his strong-arm political style that some equate with bullying.
"I've made some decisions that have been criticized, because nobody had the nerve to make them," said Rivera on a recent afternoon.
In 2001, when he won the city's highest elected position, he bounded into office with a margin of more than 1,000 votes over runner-up Imre Karaszegi.
He had a setback from Day One, however: a 1986 conviction for covering up his police partner's alleged murder of a drug suspect in Puerto Rico. The New Jersey Attorney General's Office asked a Superior Court judge to block Rivera from City Hall, citing a state law that bars some felons from elected office.
Days before he was to be sworn in as Passaic's first Hispanic mayor, the judge ruled that the state had failed to prove that Rivera's conviction should keep him from taking office.
Since then, he has rarely put down his fists.
"Many times, I've seen this guy walking straight to the problems," said Rafael Medina, who runs a small grocery store at Monroe and Fourth streets.
The corner was once a prime spot in the city's crack cocaine trade. With the new police substation on Third Street - and with the city's crackdown on substandard housing - the corner is relatively quiet these days.
The crumbling apartments above Medina's store and in the three buildings attached to the bodega are boarded up, and the residents have moved out. Through state and city funding, the buildings' landlord, Norman Bickoff, is gutting and rehabilitating the old tenements - a project run through the city's Community Development department. Bickoff, who is one of the city's biggest landlords, and one of the most oft-cited violators of city housing codes, had to pay to relocate the 40 families living in the buildings. Some of them moved to better apartments, others moved to similar housing in Paterson and Passaic.
"A couple of people had to pay the consequences," said Medina, who said that, although the corner is safer, business at his store declined by 75 percent when the tenants above the grocery store were forced out of their homes.
An abandoned park
A short distance from the intersection of Monroe and Fourth is North Pulaski Park. Although one section of it is scenic, with old- fashioned street lamps and views of the Passaic River, broken beer bottles and other garbage are strewn among the untended grass.
Fourth Street resident Fabio Ramirez does not take his grandchildren to the park. The perception is that the city has abandoned it, even though its gates are open.
"Nobody wants to come here," he said, pointing out the trash and weeds along the walled riverbank on a hot afternoon. Although the park has a brightly colored jungle gym, not one child was playing on it - or anywhere else in the park. "Many people come here to take drugs. I am afraid."
Ramirez said the city looks better now than it did two years ago - the mayor's bright "Don't Litter, this is Your Neighborhood" signs are a reminder of the attempt to clean the streets - but there's still a long way to go.
Rivera knows this.
"I have a lot of room to do better," he said.
Rivera's biggest campaign promise was to improve the city's "quality of life." But some of his ideas have come across as extreme. Last month, he suggested that all-night restaurants should be shut down at midnight, so that out-of-towners wouldn't be attracted to the city's many fast-food joints. Most City Council members dissented. He's complained that people from neighboring towns flood Passaic on the weekends, dancing in discos and loitering on the streets.
Other quality-of-life Rivera crusades have resonated with Passaic residents, such as his fight against the Montauk Theatre - a Main Avenue porn cinema that city officials are trying to keep closed.
The mayor does not mince words. He's said he wants to close down the city's nightclubs and send them to neighboring towns. He alienated the city's growing Mexican community by failing to find its soccer league a place to play and yelling at their representatives at a City Council meeting.
He has also slammed school district officials for not working with him on finding sites for new school construction. In December, Rivera evicted Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, from his City Hall satellite office and berated Pascrell's aide, Roscoe Baker.
The relationship remains cool.
"I am an honest person. My relationship with Pascrell is not the best, and I don't see any future in it getting any better," Rivera said. "I don't care if they hate me. Some people can take the criticism. Some cannot."
Because he is Passaic's first Hispanic mayor and one of the city's few elected officials to live in the gritty Eastside, voters identify with him.
"I think that's one of the reasons we're getting a good flow of people into the building [City Hall] that didn't come before," said Deputy Mayor Robert C. Hare, who is a former mayor. "He represents a good portion of the city."
Hare, who said he often acts as a mentor to the mayor, added that Rivera needs to delegate tasks better. Rivera, 56, who was hospitalized for two mild strokes in June, needs to relax, he said.
"I don't say he's a bully," said Hare. "I just say he's explosive on occasion."
When he took office in July 2001, Rivera started working on the promises he made to voters. He hired two more housing inspectors, pumped up the graffiti eradication program, and instituted street cleaning on Saturdays and Sundays. He hired public relations consultant Bill Maer at $20,000 per year to speak to the media and lobby for the city in Trenton. He filled the vacant police director position, which had been held by former Mayor Margie Semler while she was in office. He created the role of community relations specialist to organize events that foster inter-ethnic relations, such as last year's July Fourth festival in Third Ward Park.
The first budget Rivera introduced, at $60.1 million, was $1.9 million more than the previous year's.
Head Start cuts
While Rivera was spending on what he perceived as quality-of- life improvements, he cut other programs to keep already-high property taxes stable. Some cuts were unpopular. From the city's Head Start program, which is mostly funded by the federal government and serves the city's neediest children, the mayor and City Council slashed all of its 25 percent contribution: $416,000.
"I made the right decision about Head Start," Rivera said. "The city was paying too much for excessive salaries. I knew they could go on their own to do better. They're doing a good job."
To make up for the city's defunding, Head Start was able to secure a $1.8 million grant from the federal government, said Lillian Ramos, the program's director.
In that same round of cuts, Rivera slashed the library system's budget from $1.3 million to $800,000.
The community protested. At the last minute, Rivera offered a $150,000 boost to the library.
This year, the library went through the wringer again, when the city presented the library board a contract to privatize the system.
Library board President J. Humberto Espinal said the city does not see the library as a priority and that officials want to wash their hands of it. In June, the library's board of trustees voted to postpone a decision on privatization, until the New Jersey State Library performs an evaluation of the city's system.
In his two years in office, Rivera has amassed much political clout.
In this year's Board of Education race, the three candidates the mayor endorsed were swept into office. The same was true of this year's City Council race, with three incumbents and a newcomer endorsed by Rivera all winning.
'No time to fight'
To Rivera's fans, the cooperation among city officials means more efficient City Council meetings. To critics, such as former Mayor Semler, the "unholy alliance" between the mayor and the council means less questioning and accountability of the mayor.
"We have no time to fight," Rivera said, referring to council meetings of yore, where public quarreling among politicians was a permanent feature.
Statewide, Rivera's political power is growing. This year, the mayor was reportedly preparing to run for the Assembly. He did not.
"My heart is in Passaic. My responsibility is Passaic. I live here," he said. "My goal was to become mayor of Passaic and make the city one of the best in New Jersey."
According to the latest posted campaign contribution reports, he has amassed a war chest of $59,094 for his next mayoral election in 2005.