Michael Lenz -- new Hoboken 4th Ward councilman -- a controversial figure in a controversial ward...in a controversial town

Michael Lenz -- new Hoboken 4th Ward councilman -- a controversial figure in a controversial ward...in a controversial town

Nov 17, 2009 - The Hoboken Reporter

Roberts once called him a 'genius,' Times said some saw him as political 'Karl Rove'

Former Hoboken Board of Education President Michael Lenz was chosen by the City Council Monday night to fill the 4th Ward seat vacated by new Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer.

The 4th Ward is in the southwest part of town -- a politically heated part of town where the public housing projects sit side by side with new luxury condos.

For years, politicians looked askance at the 4th Ward as simply a place to pay low-income residents $40 each to help get out the vote on Election Day. The rest of the year, the thousands of residents of the projects were left to live in poor conditions.

Until the mid 1990s, the ward was represented by political families -- the Francones and the Amatos. "Reform" candidates who lived in the ward like Tony Soares and Ruben Ramos began bringing the problems in the ward to light during that decade, problems like flooding and nebulous public housing wait lists.

When Dawn Zimmer ran for the 4th Ward seat in 2007, those problems again took center stage in her campaign.

When Zimmer was elected mayor of Hoboken this month and had to vacate her 4th Ward seat, it was time for the council on Monday to fill the seat again until a special election can be held next November.

In comes Lenz

Monday night, Zimmer's allies voted to put former Hoboken Board of Education President Michael Lenz in charge of the ward, despite his taking his political knocks over the years.

Lenz's political visibility began in the early 1990s when he ran as part of a group of newcomers to town who wanted to reform the Hoboken Board of Education. Once his "Choice for Change" school board allies gained a majority on the board in 1994, they took a step that polarized the community -- suspending the state's first Hispanic superintendent of schools, Dr. Edwin Duroy, saying he wasn't being upfront with the financial information he gave the board.

It was a tumultous time in Hoboken politics. People on all sides of the spectrum -- activists, reformers, old-timers, teachers -- crowded the school board meetings. Mayor Anthony Russo was furious. Duroy also made a public claim that at a private meeting at a Union City diner between him and Lenz, Lenz tried to push him into making certain personnel decisions.

Ultimately, Duroy's claim against Lenz was dropped, and when a new school board majority took over for Lenz's allies, the charges against Duroy were withdrawn as well. The new board majority appointed an outside investigator to probe Lenz's allies' claims of Duroy's financial mismanagement. The consultant -- a former education official from Elizabeth -- found there was not enough evidence to support their charges against Duroy.

Duroy went on to deal with bigger criticism a few years later when he took over the state-run Paterson school district and was blamed for the financial mess there.

Meanwhile, Lenz stayed vocal and visible...and controversial. He managed the campaign of Councilman David Roberts, who went on to win two terms as mayor. Right after Roberts won, Lenz was rumored to be jockeying for the post as 4th Ward councilman or head of the Parking Authority, neither of which he got.

Lenz did become the city's CFO under Roberts. He was terminated at some point, then successfully won a six-figure settlement for being unfairly terminated.

Political opponents of Zimmer and her allies, including some who supported rival "reform" candidate Beth Mason, find Lenz a polarizing figure. During a school board campaign last year, Mason's former campaign manager, Jake Stuiver, claimed that Lenz was rude and physical to him when he and some other Mason allies attended a rally in favor of a reform school board slate. Stuiver even said that he might file a charge with the police, but he did not.

Reformers behaving badly

Now, Stuiver is on the Zimmer team and was recently appointed to the Hoboken Housing Authority board, after endorsing Zimmer following Beth Mason's defeat for mayor. But it was only a year ago that Stuiver, in defending Mason from Lenz's criticism of her, wrote a letter to the editor of the Reporter saying:

After reading last week's article on prospective mayoral candidates, I felt compelled to respond to county Democratic Organization ally Michael Lenz's regrettably sexist and derisive remarks about Councilwoman Mason's bona fides as a reformer.

Having been heavily involved in Carol Marsh's mayoral campaign four years ago, I proudly worked alongside Lenz and a united Hoboken reform movement toward attaining change in Hoboken. ...Watching and listening to events over the past year, however, I have felt myself coming down off that fence and no longer able to give Mr. Lenz the benefit of the doubt. I truly am sad to say this because Michael is someone whose company I once sincerely enjoyed. Unfortunately, he is also someone who has repeatedly proven that any grandiose talk of a "greater good" he stands for appears to be mere cover for what he's really out for - himself. ....Observing Lenz's behavior in many of these instances, I came to suspect that he would rather lose an election than win without getting full credit for it.

Others defended Lenz. Zimmer wrote a letter to the editor saying, "I was elected to the Council with the invaluable help of many concerned Hoboken residents, including Michael Lenz and Jake Stuiver. Michael had no formal role in my campaign, and was not a 'decision maker,' but nonetheless gave me the benefit of his knowledge."

Even after Roberts and Lenz had a falling out, Roberts called Lenz a "genius" in the New York Times, referring to his political skills. A former CPA who worked in the real estate industry, Lenz hopes to bring his fiscal acumen to the position. He also has been involved in issues in the housing projects.

Fiscal acumen

Some credit Lenz with being the first person to complain that Hoboken's budget was underfunded, before the truth came out.

Will Lenz help Hoboken get out of the budget mess, and help fix flooding in the 4th Ward? Or will he simply be a lightning rod for long, angry arguments on the council?

"Sometimes I followed his advice, sometimes I didn't, but his motivation was always to help me get elected," said Zimmer in her letter last year. "Michael's two older sons are my children's favorite sitters, and I am proud to call Michael a friend."

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