NEWARK, NJ - A contingent of clergy sent a carefully constructed message on Wednesday praising Mayor Ras Baraka while deflecting blame away from his administration over its handling of the city’s lead water crisis.
Standing on the steps of City Hall in Newark, religious leaders of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths declared they would stand in solidarity with Baraka, who was not in attendance.
The mayor has come under fire over a series of missteps by the city in response to high levels of lead contaminating the tap water supply.
Newark’s water crisis was catapulted into the national spotlight after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended earlier this month that some residents drink only bottled water after water from faucets equipped with Pur filters still tested positive for lead.
Just days later, the city briefly paused handing out water after discovering it had been handing out bottles that were past the “best by” date.
Officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy, have insisted water does not expire.
Pastor Steffie Bartley, the northeast director of the National Action Network, reiterated a perception shared by Baraka that there was misinformation being shared about lead water in the city but did not specify how or who was spreading falsities.
Bartley said the city was “making touchdowns” in its efforts to distribute nearly 40,000 water filters and thousands of bottles of water for consumption.
Pastor Patrick Council took the opportunity to slam a letter sent by Democratic Assemblyman Jamel Holley of Roselle on Tuesday asking Murphy to declare a state of emergency over Newark’s lead water problem.
“We know that there’s a lot of issues in Union County. We want you to be concerned about Union County,” Council said of the district Holley represents. “We got a leader that can handle his own.”
Council, a former city council candidate who ran on Baraka’s ticket and now serves as the director of the city’s recreation department, called the mayor “the perfect leader to bring us out of this situation.”
Rev. Louise Scott-Rountree of the Newark Clergy Affairs & Interfaith Alliance said standing against the administration only hurts people affected by lead water in their homes.
She also suggested nebulously that people who did not share the sentiment of standing with the mayor, did not understand elements of how the EPA is involved or highlight what she perceived as positive things the administration has done, then they should “refrain from telling a part of the story.”
“I pray that you just don’t say anything at all because that’s what’s causing the hysteria of people telling half truth or no truth or just making up stuff that they hear on the press,” Rountree said.
Council also took a swipe at media reports about the lead water crisis, but was not specific on what information he found to be incorrect.
“Pray for the press that they could get the story right,” Council said.
In response to Baraka's whereabouts, his spokeswoman pointed to the event being sponsored by the National Action Network, adding that the mayor was "not available."
That did not seem to faze those supporting him.
“We don’t need the mayor at this press conference because he’s busy at work,” Bartley said.
One of Newark's most prominent black ministers, Bishop Jethro James, pointedly declined to join the clergy choir signing Baraka's praises over how the mayor is handling the city's lead contamination water crisis.
"No one has talked about what is the role of the black preacher, or the Latino preacher, or the white clergy. The role is to serve God's people, not to serve politicians," said James, pastor of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark. "Why wasn't I there at City Hall today? Because I'm out trying to get water to old ladies and babies and mothers who have to mix water with their formula."
"Without getting into knocking Ras or the governor, they're not handling it properly," James said, specifically criticizing the city's policy that residents must provide proof of address to obtain safe bottled water amid scorching summer heat. "This is not about them. This is about putting water in the mouths of people. Whosover will, let them come."
TAPinto Newark Editor Mark Bonamo contributed to this report.