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Sunday, May 7, 2017

When the Zisas ruled Hackensack, greed, nepotism and partisan politics were king

In 2000, then-Hackensack Mayor Jack Zisa bought this Main Street building from Bergen Community College and, a month or so later, rented the property to the Bergen County Special Services School District. The initial six-year lease more than doubled his purchase price. The district now pays more than $380,000 per year to lease the property from Zisa's company.
The L-shaped building is much larger than it appears on Main Street. A portion of the building, painted white, is visible on Camden Street, above.



More than a decade after he stepped down as Hackensack mayor, Jack Zisa collects nearly $400,000 a year from leasing a Main Street building he acquired in a sweetheart deal made possible by friendly Bergen County officials.

Now, the former four-term mayor (1989-2005) and other members of the Zisa family political dynasty are seeking to return to power in Tuesday's non-partisan municipal election.

Jack Zisa; his brother, disgraced former Police Chief Ken Zisa; and their cousin, former City Attorney Joseph C. Zisa Jr., are backing a five-member slate they hope will defeat Mayor John Labrosse and his running mates.

All three Zisas appeared at the kickoff of the Hackensack United for Progress' campaign in March.

If the past is any guide, a Zisa victory on Tuesday would raise the potential of a return to the greed, nepotism and nasty partisan politics that marked the family's long reign.

If their slate wins, what would stop Ken Zisa from seeking the civilian job of police director (now vacant), and Joe Zisa from returning as city attorney?

On a Facebook page, members of the Hackensack United for Progress slate are portrayed as puppets of the Zisa family.

'My business'

On Saturday, The Record of Woodland Park quoted Jack Zisa as saying the slate he supports in Tuesday's election "is my business." 

But he didn't deny his family, supporters and friends are backing the so-called Progress slate, led by school board Vice President Lara Rodriguez.

Under the banner of Citizens for Change, Labrosse led a slate of City Council reformers to victory over other Zisa loyalists in the May 2013 election, breaking the family's decades-long grip on a city that had become a laughing stock called "Zisaville."

The mayor and other council members, now called Team Labrosse, are backing an ambitious downtown rehabilitation plan to boost ratables, reduce property taxes and pay for a major expansion of recreation.

The Zisas retained their power base on the Board of Education, where longtime ally Richard Salkin serves as legal counsel to the current Zisa-backed slate.

The original entrance to 293-295 Main St. in Hackensack, a building owned by Underwood Properties LLC -- a company Jack Zisa and his wife established in March 2000, when he was mayor. A previous owner of the building was the Evening Record Publishing Co., a precursor to North Jersey Media Group, publisher of The Record. 

295 Main St.

Jack Zisa pounced in 2000 after Bergen County College announced it was moving out of 295 Main St., which it owned.

Meanwhile, another county agency, the Special Services School District, was looking for more space, and it would have made sense for it to move into 295 Main.

But with a Republican county executive and a Republican Board of Freeholders in power, Zisa, as a registered Republican, managed to buy the building from the college for $725,000 in August 2000.

A month or so later, he rented the building to the Special Services School District for $266,666.66 a year, taking in $1.6 million on a six-year lease.

The county school district's attorney was a Hackensack resident who was very active in Republican politics, and a friend of Jack Zisa's.

But the lease wouldn't have been possible unless Jack Zisa was able to add 45 parking spaces to the 20 that existed at 295 Main.

So, in March of 2000, the City Council, including Mayor Zisa, approved an $850,000 bond to buy 295 State St., which was torn down to provide a total of 65 parking spaces for the building.

To this day, Jack Zisa's company leases 45 parking spaces from the city.

The Record reported:

"If Underwood Properties LLC -- the company Zisa and his wife established -- extends the [building] lease through 2011, they stand to collect more than $3.5 million in rent."

The lease has been renewed twice, and the Zisas are collecting more than $380,000 a year in lease payments from the county school district.

So far, by one estimate, they've collected more than $6 million in lease payments for the building.

More politics

Although Jack Zisa calls himself a Republican, brother Ken Zisa worked the other side of the aisle, serving as a Democratic state assemblyman from 1993 to 2001.

Lynn Hurwitz, head of the city's Democratic Party and a longtime supporter of the Zisa family, was reimbursed $925 for printed materials for the Hackensack United campaign, The Record reported on Saturday.

Ken Zisa became acting police chief in Hackensack on June 1, 1995, and took the oath as police chief that December, serving until 2010.

He was the target of more than 20 lawsuits, which the city was obligated to defend, paying more than $8 million in legal fees to his attorneys.

In January 2014, The Record reported four current and former Hackensack police officers won a $2 million settlement from the Police Department.

Their lawsuit accused former Police Chief Ken Zisa "of extorting money to support his candidacy in legislative races and to back his favored candidates in public and union elections," NJ.com reported.

Frank Zisa Jr.

In 2012, Hackensack agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Alessandra Viola, a police officer and the ex-girlfriend of Frank Zisa Jr., then-deputy police chief and Ken Zisa's brother.

Viola alleged Ken Zisa filed criminal and disciplinary charges against her when she refused sexual advances from him and his brother Frank after she ended her relationship with Frank.

The charges were dismissed, but the city suspended her without pay for 75 days in February 2011.

Viola was to receive $2.48 million in the settlement.

City to pay $3M

After a Superior Court jury convicted Ken Zisa of official misconduct and insurance fraud, an appeals court threw out the verdicts, citing misconduct by the prosecutor and missteps by the trial judge.

Hackensack official were ordered to pay the former police chief nearly $1,755,000 in back pay, vacation days, sick pay and other compensation.

And the city also was ordered to pay nearly $1,203,000 to cover Ken Zisa's legal fees through last Sept. 30.

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