NEWARK, NJ - This past year, Newark made national headlines for being a contender for Amazon's second headquarters and how its leaders are tackling elevated lead levels.

But what does 2019 hold for New Jersey’s most populated city?

Some of the issues in 2018 will carry over into the next year. But, 2019 may be pivotal in determining the political futures of local lawmakers and shaping the public school system, which gained control from the state this year.

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Here is what to look for in the upcoming year:

NEWARK WILL GRAPPLE WITH HANDLING LEAD ISSUE, LAWSUIT

At the end of 2018, the city hired a high-powered public relations firm to deal with how the elevated lead levels in the Newark are addressed. The move signaled the city’s stronger approach to getting their message out amid a federal lawsuit about the issue.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental group, filed suit against city and state officials in June, alleging they violated regulations that caused lead levels in Newark’s water to rise.

The city denies those claims and has pushed back on comparisons to Flint, Mich., as national media organizations have reported on the issue.

The NRDC wanted a judge to order the city to distribute lead filters or bottled water. The city only began distributing filters in October after a city-commissioned study found that the chemical Newark was responsible for treating its water with had become ineffective. The chemical is known as a corrosion control inhibitor.

The NRDC filed an emergency motion earlier this month demanding the city distribute filters to the East Ward, which the city has said uses an effective corrosion control inhibitor. U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas denied the NRDC’s emergency motion.

Judge Salas, who will hear the rest of the case, was adamant that the environmental group had to adhere to the agreed-up discovery schedule. The judge emphasized that the hearing for the emergency motion -- and what she expected from all parties -- would set the tone for the remainder of the case.

“It’s one of my most important cases,” Judge Salas said, adding that people’s lives are at stake.

The city, meanwhile, approved contracts with vendors to begin the first phase of replacing residents’ privately-owned lead service lines. The replacement program is set to begin in January, a city spokesman previously said.

Month-to-month water samples show some homes in Newark still had elevated lead levels. If more than 10 percent of homes have increased lead levels, the city could receive a fourth violation from the state.

It will take about eight months to implement a new corrosion control inhibitor at the affected treatment plant, the mayor has previously said.

NEWARK SCHOOLS TO BE REORGANIZED?

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger Leon is expected to release a strategic plan that will lay out the district’s goals for 10 years starting in 2020, but has yet to do so. Leon has also hinted that a reorganization will be coming soon. 

Some school board members have been pushing to see that strategic plan or a shorter-term strategy soon rather than later. In October, two board members abstained from voting on finance and personnel measures because they didn’t know how it aligned with the district’s overall plan.

Leon often gives extensive superintendent reports during public school board meetings, where he lays out more in-the-now goals. Chief among those is gaining perfect attendance for the district's students and raising test scores. 

The school board approved Leon’s hire in May in what was a historic vote, since the district’s superintendent was previously selected by the state. Leon wasted no time in overhauling the district by eliminating 31 administrative positions about one week before he officially took over the reins, Chalkbeat Newark reported.

The reorganization Leon hinted at in September may coincide with the approval of the next budget, which is usually drawn up around May. Leon has not offered any insight into which groups would be impacted by any potential layoffs.

BARAKA AND HIS ADMINISTRATION WILL BATTLE CLAIMS OF A DIRTY DEVELOPMENT DEAL

Willie Parker, the city's former corporation counsel, filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 alleging he was fired after he raised objections about a contract for a development deal that could be harmful to Newark. He names Mayor Ras Baraka, the city and the mayor’s brother in the lawsuit.

Discovery is still ongoing in the civil lawsuit, but it’s slated to end in 2019, according to court documents.

The development was not specified in Parker’s complaint, but it was later revealed that the project was for the city's new Department of Public Works garage. The developer for that project, Victor Santos, was federally charged in 2017 in connection with a widespread bank fraud scheme in Newark that allegedly took place between 2007 and 2008.

MORE: Real Estate Investor Pleads Not Guilty to Alleged Mortgage Scheme in Newark

The civil suit, meanwhile, claimed the mayor’s chief of staff and brother, Amiri "Middy" Baraka, Jr., showed up to Parker’s house with an armed security detail to intimidate him into agreeing to the deal.

The mayor and his brother both denied Parker's claims in responsive court documents. Ras Baraka, however, filed a cross-claim against his brother in his response.

ALL EYES ARE ON BARAKA’S PROMISE TO PREVENT GENTRIFICATION

Baraka has played a balancing act when it comes to gentrification. He unveiled a new commission on the issue in December by standing behind a lectern that read "NO GENTRIFICATION,” but he's also touted the residential diversity that luxury apartments in Downtown bring to the city.

But just how is gentrification prevented? And is such a lofty promise even possible?

Some residents think it’s already too late, pointing to tax abatements that some developers have already received for projects. Fewer tax dollars for the city means less money for other desperately-needed programs.

Baraka must appeal to his base, but he also needs to make sure he doesn’t scare developers off. And by the mayor’s account, he knows there are people out there who are looking to come to Newark as other nearby cities are becoming too expensive.

The direction of the city was also brought up in this year’s mayoral election when Baraka was challenged by then-Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.

Baraka has said the city is going in the right direction with its inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires new residential development with more than 30 units to set aside 20 percent of apartments for low-incoming housing.

Distributing the wealth in a city of about 270,000 needs to be done in a smart way too. Plopping a glass-facade high-rise residential buildings like the downtown’s One Theater Square into a neighborhood that is filled with dilapidated two and three-family homes would surely price out residents who live there.

That’s why the city has redevelopment plans like the one for the West Ward, which uses the power of eminent domain to turn condemned homes into three-family residences similar to the ones that are already there. It also seeks to have local residents become landlords.

Still, a developer has proposed building four residential towers in the West Ward, one of which would have a pool on the roof. The developer of that project remains a mystery, and whoever it is has several shell LLCs based out of the same Ramsey address that has bought more than 30 properties in Newark. And residents in the Ironbound are not exactly happy about the city’s intent to create a new MX-3 zone, which would allow for taller buildings in their neighborhood.

The city has also committed to giving free legal representation to low-income residents who are facing eviction. The program is slated to begin in April, but it’s unclear how Newark will fund it.

WE DIDN’T GET AMAZON. NOW WHAT?

Even though Amazon decided to put its second headquarters elsewhere, the $2 billion in tax incentives the city offered the corporate giant are still on the table for any other large corporation.

The $2 billion in tax abatements that city council approved to convince Amazon to come to Newark can apply to a “transformative corporate headquarters,” or any corporation that plans to create at least 30,000 new full-time jobs and make a capital investment of at least $3 billion.

The set of ordinances was approved in August and would give $1 billion in payroll tax breaks and a 35-year property tax abatement to any transformative corporate headquarters.

Baraka has said Newark will still benefit from being in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters. Mars plans to bring its corporate headquarters for M&Ms back to Newark, the city has said. The candy was produced in 1941 at a factory in Clinton Hill.

If any other large corporation similar to Amazon comes along, it won’t be without scrutiny from the city’s residents. Some who have lived here for a long time criticized the tax incentives that paved the way for Amazon.

They said the jobs that Amazon would have created wouldn’t have been accessible to city residents. The company’s second headquarters would have created jobs with an average salary of $100,000, and Newark residents have low college graduation rates.

The mayor hopes to increase the number of Newark residents with college degrees and post-secondary certificates by 25 percent by 2025.

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