Newarkers Save Their Water System
I drafted a start to the post below after I attended a public hearing about Mayor Booker's proposal to create a Municipal Utility Authority to take over Newark's water system. Its original title was "Heat but Little Light on Water". Now, however, it can bear the more celebratory heading above, or others such as "Democracy Carries the Day", or "The People Have Spoken", because the City Council President, Donald Payne, Jr., today "tabled" (shelved) the proposal. (Some people have used the ugly, violent expression "killed", but I am adamant that violent language normalizes violence, and we have got to stop doing that.)
I attended the first City Council hearing in the various wards, on Monday, July 26th. The West Ward hearing, in the auditorium of West Side High, happened to be the first of the five hearings scheduled for the entire workweek. It was a doozy.
I have often wanted to be Mayor of Newark. Not that day. The Mayor and Council went thru trial by fire, as four hundred to seven hundred or so Newarkers during the course of the evening expressed their indignation over the presumptuousness and disrespect they felt the Mayor in particular and Councilmembers as accessories showed them in trying to push thru an MUA. I later heard that the other wards gave them as hard a time as we did.
I didn't know how many people would attend a meeting on this subject, and was afraid that it would all be over before I even got there, since I started out late. I was very happy to see, as I drove up, a whole line of parked cars in a stretch of South Orange Avenue where parked cars are very uncommon. I figured (as it turns out, rightly) that they were there because of the hearing. The Newark Water Group did a heck of a job getting the word out! (despite the lack of a website).
As I started across SOAv at the light, a well-dressed and -coifed young black woman was crossing as well, and I asked if she was heading to the hearing. Yes. What side of the issue was she on, pro or con? She wasn't fully decided, but was leaning toward con. She said she had received information from Brenda Toyloy (of NWG) that she was inclined to agree with. I said I'd heard of Toyloy, and mentioned Bill Chappel, whom she had also heard of.
When I got just inside the school, I asked at the table up front if that was where one signs up to speak and was told no, that was farther back, but everyone needed to sign in here for purposes of school security. So I signed in, then headed to a table toward the back of the lobby, in front of the auditorium. It was about 6:40pm (the meeting was supposed to have started at 6:00), and I was told that the speakers' list had already been sent in. That seemed unreasonable to me. The woman said I could, however, submit a written question that would be answered by the Council. I thought a moment and wrote something I had thought of only earlier that day (approximate quote): "If the Council does approve an MUA, will it at least issue bonds in denominations that ordinary people can afford, for savings — say, $25, $50, $100?" I left that question with her then went to look for a seat in the well-occupied auditorium.
The whole council appeared to be on stage, or at least the largest part of it. I had hoped that only the West Ward's member would be there, so he couldn't take comfort from other members in a Them-against-Us fashion, but at least most Councilmembers and the Mayor attended.
I came in well before a dignified black woman, whose name I did not hear, was remotely finished with a slow and ponderous presentation, almost as tho she was speaking to children or simpletons, in favor of an MUA. There was no one on the dais to present the other side, a point that many people in the crowd picked up on and were VERY indignant about.
There were two strident camps in the auditorium. The smaller was a pro-MUA group with professionally printed flyers and some organizers wearing badges in plastic! Very suspicious. The larger was anti-MUA, comprising some people from the Newark Water Group who were there to speak, not orchestrate phony "spontaneous" demonstrations and catcalls, but appeared mostly to be ordinary citizens concerned about what they feared the Council would do with their water system. A few had professionally printed signs, but most who displayed signs had apparently just printed out the letter-size .PDF version of the "No MUA" flyer that NWG sent out in email, and most of the anti-MUA group had no signs at all, whereas pretty much ALL the pro-MUA agitators had signs.
The pro-MUA people seemed like shills, almost like paid players acting the part of concerned citizens. And they kept up, at times, an almost uninterrupted drumbeat of loud and disruptive comments that seemed intended to drown out the plain preponderance of the crowd, who were opposed to an MUA. I think I counted one definitely favorable speaker from the floor, and another two, at most, who did not reject an MUA completely. Meanwhile, there were police officers and private security guards who exerted themselves not at all to quiet the pro-MUA noise so ordinary citizens might be heard. Their suspicious passivity in the face of such provocations gave me the feeling of a contrived and managed 'show hearing' such as might be arranged by an authoritarian or totalitarian government, using the police not to maintain order and protect the people's right to speak, but to play ball with the agents provocateurs on the government's side of the issue. It was not a happy feeling. What was happy is that the audience was having none of it.
I took some pix, and a short video that unfortunately did not capture the worst of the misbehavior from the pro-MUA crowd, so I don't need to show it here. One of the pro-MUA stalwarts was seated very near me, and was happy to pose for a picture that shows both her sign and her badge! She was very nice, but, I told her, "You're wrong." She took that good-naturedly. I could not understand why anyone would be enthusiastic about an MUA, but perhaps she was being paid for her appearance, so was content to do her work conscientiously. Perhaps she was just a member of an organization that was coopted by the moneyed interests who want to steal Newark's public water system and turn it to private profit. I hold out the tiny possibility that she sincerely thought that the MUA would save Newark from its financial crisis. At least she was quiet, and contented herself with holding up her little pro-MUA flyer (two copies held in one hand, one facing the Council, one facing the crowd behind her) most of the nite. Other people of the pro-MUA crowd had no such respect for the actual concerned Newark citizens present, but tried to drown out everything they said. One anti-MUA activist not far from where I sat blew a whistle loudly from time to time, mostly in reply to the chants and catcalls from the pro-MUA people. I found that rude too, but he was an oddity in the generally well-behaved opposition to the MUA.
Ronald Rice, Sr., father of Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., spoke from the floor in opposition to the plan, as did the son of former Mayor Sharpe James. Several people reminded everyone that when he was just a councilman, Cory Booker himself opposed an MUA! Very telling. Cheers from the unorganized crowd, jeers from the organized agitators.
I was really heartened by the vitality of Newark's democracy, moved to admiration by the level of engagement, the willingness to hear, the intelligence and indignation at, for instance, the Mayor's threat to close City pools in this hottest summer on record to punish Newarkers if they didn't do as he insisted. Speaker after speaker expressed reservations and indignation at the nerve of the people proposing to put Newarkers into hock for $223 million plus interest, and make us pay higher water bills every year so that private bondholders could make a profit from a public resource. The attacks from the floor were fierce, but civilized. No threats of violence, just insistence that the Mayor and Council did not have the right to do this, so must back off.
The council had announced that in order to give more time to speakers from the floor, the written questions we had submitted would not be addressed during the hearing but by email or letter afterward. I'm still waiting for the answer to my question, but it has been mooted.
I felt, as the evening drew to a close, that one thing remained unsaid that needed to be said (approximate formulation):
If nothing else has, one thing has emerged clearly from this evening: the Council has NO MANDATE to create an MUA, so is NOT entitled to push it thru over public opposition. If the Council still, at the end of this consultative process, thinks an MUA is a good idea, it must submit the proposal to the voters in referendum this November. That will be a Federal midterm election, so we can expect a better turnout than a municipal election alone would produce. Save yourself agony, and exposure to the voters' wrath. Let the voters decide. It's our water. It must be our decision.As it happens, we didn't need to have such a referendum, because five nites of hell persuaded the Council to withdraw that miserable idea permanently. Back to the old drawing board.
As I left, I spoke with a group of three well-dressed black people near the stairs down to SOA and remarked that I'm glad I don't have to go thru four more hearings like that one. A dapper young gent in a plaid shirt and sporty, brimmed hat said he didn't know that they'd go thru with the whole series of five acrimonious hearings (but would cave, and withdraw the MUA proposal first). Well, they did go thru with the entire series of five hearings in the city's five wards. It must have been a chastening and, I think, enlitening, even ennobling experience for them, to see how engaged Newarkers are about the future of their city.
Outsiders who have been tempted to think Newarkers don't care about their city should have seen these hearings. The civic impulse is very much alive in Newark, and won a HUGE victory today. We have every reason to be very, very proud of the people of Newark, and very hopeful about the future of this city that so many people LOVE. We'll find a way — to fill the $70M budget gap in the short run, and to build this city not just BACK to what it was, but far BEYOND what it EVER was. The past is prolog, only. (Or, "You ain't seen nuthin' yet!") I've said it before, and hope to say it again: this is a very exciting time to live in Newark USA.