NEWARK, NJ - As the City Council prepared on Tuesday to enter into closed session – shutting the public out by locking its chamber doors to discuss a $120 million loan to pay for lead service replacement lines, South Ward resident Deborah Gregory had a few choice words.
“The community needs to be fully aware of all of the terms and the conditions in this loan,” Gregory told the panel inside City Hall. “Our level of trust has been shaken.”
Gregory reflected a growing sentiment among Newark residents toward government officials in the midst of a public relations crisis over its handling of a lead water problem that has launched New Jersey’s largest municipality into the national spotlight.
City leaders astutely defending Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration continue to push a unified message: Misinformation by people out to get the government was pitting the community against itself.
They also point to lead water being a problem across the country, not just in Newark, as evidenced by a sign hanging in front of City Hall Tuesday that read: “America’s old infrastructure is an American problem not just a Newark problem!”
Then there is the pointing of fingers at television news coverage for causing hysteria, leaving officials insisting they are praying misinformed residents – and the media – get the story straight.
Council President Mildred C. Crump said people were saying “ugly” things without going into detail.
“So many people have approached all of us about what’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Crump said.
Crump said the purpose of going into executive session Tuesday was to ensure that “spontaneous conversation” about the $120 million loan from Essex County did not spawn further incorrect information.
The City Council will hear the bill appropriating the funds at its meeting on September 10.
Gregory, president of the Newark branch of the NAACP, said the government had not been fully transparent with the community about issues with its drinking water that have gone back for years.
Sabre Bee of the Newark Water Coalition was out protesting at the MTV Video Music Awards Monday to bring awareness to the lead water issue as the city hosted the big-ticket event at the Prudential Center.
Days before the event, the city’s visitor’s bureau sent a statement to entertainers and visitors attending the award show that they need not worry about lead in the water because it did not affect that downtown neighborhood.
Bee claimed the city did not appear equipped with the right people to run the city properly.
“We’ve seen them not do great as far as public relations,” Bee said of the administration’s handling of the lead water issue.
Central Ward Councilwoman LaMonica McIver on Tuesday also reiterated Crump’s sentiments – that the Baraka administration was not doing anything detrimental when it came to its efforts to fix the lead water pipe issues. McIver said people were out to “burn down an entire city” because of personal grudges they might have against the mayor and his office.
“It’s dangerous and irresponsible,” McIver said.
McIver said some of the misinformation involved notions that the entire city’s water system was affected when the mayor’s office maintains it is only those residents served by the Pequannock water system who also have lead water pipes serving their homes.
The issue affects about 14,000 households in a city of more than 280,000 people.
The city has replaced 770 lead service lines since March.The $120 million loan Newark was able to secure from Essex County is intended to expedite the program to replace every lead service line in the city.
Crump said a public perception that the council was not concerned about lead water running through people’s homes was “mistaken” and that residents ought to focus on not sending negative messages.
“We’re going to get through this,” Crump said. “We’re not called `Brick City' for nothing.”