Portside Towers’ two tenant associations earned a small victory Wednesday night in Jersey City.

The law firm Eric M. Bernstein & Associates will not represent the city and rent control board in a highly publicized illegal rent case against Towers at Portside Urban Renewal Company after the associations claimed the lawyers had a conflict of interest and were not selected through a competitive process.

Members of the City Council shared similar concerns and voted 4-3 with two abstentions on the resolution executing a contract with the Warren-based firm. The measure did not receive the required affirming votes — five councilmembers or what’s a majority of those present — to pass.

It’s the third time the resolution has been on the council’s agenda. Clerk Sean Gallagher announced the measure passed during the meeting, but later told the Montreal Olympics he made an error.

Councilmen Daniel Rivera, Frank Gilmore and James Solomon opposed the measure. Council President Joyce Watterman and Councilman Yousef Saleh abstained.

“It’s not illegal, it’s unethical,” said Watterman afterwards.

Jersey City Hall

The towers stand on Washington Street. Tenants for months have advocated for the enforcement of Chapter 260, the city’s rent control ordinance, while awaiting pending litigation involving corporate landlord Equity Residential.

Eric M. Bernstein & Associates would have cost $175 per hour. The city estimated at least $17,500 in total expenditures, but the firm is not allowed to exceed $80,000. It’s not immediately known how the administration plans to proceed following the council's rejection.  

The advocates contended Bernstein gave money to Mayor Steven Fulop’s gubernatorial campaign and argued proper procedure was not followed.

“(The resolution) cites an alleged request for qualifications from December 2022 to which Mr. Bernstein responded in January 2023,” said Michele Hirsch, president of Portside Towers West Tenant Association, as part of her prepared remarks. “That professional services contract was awarded to Mr. Bernstein for representation in tax appeal matters, not the Portside matter.”

“This means the contract cannot now be a fair and open process because no RFQ was posted for the Portside work. An RFQ and contract from December 2022 cannot be used to award this contract. It would not be fair and open.”

The administration, in its proposed resolution, outlined how it followed the “fair and open process” under state law.

The document also stated that the firm submitted a disclosure form, indicating it has not made any reportable contributions to political or candidate committees in the last year.

Furthermore, the contract with the city would prohibit the firm from making any reportable contributions during the term of the contract, the resolution stated.

The one-year contract was retroactively effective Dec. 1, 2023, and was signed by John Mercer, chief financial officer and assistant business administrator.

The group continued to advocate Monday for the council to initiate an investigation into Landlord/Tenant Relations Office for the lack of enforcement and reimbursements following the Rent Control Board’s rulings in favor of their petition.

They also heard a Gilmore outburst. He pressed Acting Corporation Counsel Brittany Murray on why the city could not further act after the board ruled the rents were in violation.

“We know that they (the tenants) already are paying the illegal rents,” Gilmore said.

“As a governing body and as corporation counsel, there just has to be more at our disposal to hold these landlords accountable,” he added.

Murray stood firm, explaing how no additional action could be taken until the tenants’ rates were recalculated by the Landlord/Tenant Relations Office in approximately two weeks.

She also cited a “pending motion” in federal district court “dealing with whether the landlord can continue to collect the rents.”

Further proof of illegal rent allegations can be submitted it to Shyrone Richardson, director of landlord/tenant relations, Murray said.

“The board’s decision is not yet complete until we have those rent recalculations. If they are getting illegal increases, they need to submit it to Director Richardson,” she added.

The acting corporation counsel noted plans to talk with Richardson to see what else can be done, but emphasized that “until we have the recalculation, those are the new legal rents.”

Andy Milone has been a freelance reporter covering local government for various New Jersey and New York news outlets since May 2024. You can reach him at 201-406-7222 (call/text) or [email protected]. The...