NEWARK, NJ - The city will spend up to $225,500 to hire a public relations firm to help disperse information to the media and residents concerning elevated lead levels in water and combat the social media blitz from a group suing Newark over the issue.
City council last night approved the six-month contract with Mercury Public Affairs, which has offices in Trenton and Westfield. The contract circumvented state public bidding laws since the city deemed it an “extraordinary unspecifiable service.”
The full resolution doesn’t specify what issue the firm will be working on. However, city spokesman Frank Baraff told TAPinto Newark the company will be handling information that is put out about the lead issue, which has garnered attention from media outlets since the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the city over elevated lead levels.
"The purpose of the contract is to provide a multi-dimensional public affairs campaign around the issue of lead in the city of Newark that centers around a strong response by the City to make the public aware of the facts while utilizing Mercury’s unique combination of expertise in the area of public affairs communication," Baraff said in a statement.
The resolution for the contract was met with no discussion last night and unanimously approved by the council, although it was added on to the agenda as a last-minute starter. The measure appeared on the city’s website last night, but no longer appears online.
Mercury Public Affairs Vice President Maggie Leuzarder, in a statement, described the company as a global, bipartisan public strategy firm. Mo Butler, who was U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's chief of staff when he was mayor of Newark, is a partner in the company. Butler also worked on Mayor Ras Baraka's re-election campaign.
"Our firm will be assisting the City of Newark in communicating with the community about critical issues facing the city," Leuzarder said. "We are proud to be working with the City of Newark, and we are deeply committed to providing strategic communications support. Many of our employees call Newark home, and Mercury partner Mo Butler served as Chief of Staff in Newark when Senator Booker was mayor."
NRDC declined to comment when asked about the firm.
Newark received the first of three violations for elevated lead levels in 2017. The NRDC filed suit against city and state officials in June this year, alleging they violated regulations that caused Newark's lead readings to skyrocket.
State and local publications have been covering the lead issue in Newark for some time, but major media attention was brought to NRDC’s lawsuit after the city began distributing lead filters in October. The following month, Baraka and other city officials held a press conference to address what they called “misinformation” in the media about the issue.
The city posted on Facebook in April, as the NRDC geared up to file suit, stating in all caps that “Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink.” However, a city-commissioned study found that the chemical the city treated its water with to prevent lead from leaching off into pipes had become ineffective.
Baraka and other city officials have pushed back on comparisons to Flint, Michigan. Officials in that town reportedly did not treat the water properly to prevent lead from leaching off into pipes after switching to a different water supply.
Meanwhile, the NRDC has called the information the city has told residents about which areas are affected by high lead levels as “misleading.” A federal judge earlier this week denied a motion from the group that mentioned some of those accusations.
The NRDC has used social media to plug its accusations against the city outside of court. Baraff, the city’s communications director, expressed annoyance when asked about a scathing video the group last month posted.
At the time, he compared the NRDC's social media video to what seen and done during a political campaign. He claimed the NRDC's lawyers are looking for a "big payday" by having a judge reimburse the group for its legal fees, which would be a burden to Newark taxpayers. The NRDC denied Baraff's characterizations.
Baraff explained that although the city’s contract will give Mercury Public Affairs $225,000, not all of that will result in profit for the company. Much of the money will be used for “media spots,” like advertising, video creation and other materials.
The city’s in-house communication department consists of four people, Baraff said. The NRDC, meanwhile, also has its own public relations team.