By David Cruz
To the naked eye, it was business as usual at today’s Newark city council meeting, but, behind the scenes, the state comptroller’s office audit, which was critical of the council’s financial dealings, was a major topic of discussion, with some members taking pains to put distance between themselves and their colleagues.
“I’m proud to say that I’m the council member that doesn’t drive a city car, doesn’t have a city phone, has less staff members, has led the charge to eliminate a public relations contract that was costing the city a half a million dollars a year just on the council/clerk side,” pointed out former Council President Anibal Ramos.
The audit outlined some council expenditures that raised eyebrows, including:
• photography services — $11,500.
• holiday decorations — $2,875
• catering for gospel show — $2,850.
• traveling police softball team — $3,900
It also pointed out that the combined council and clerk’s office $10 million budget was six times that of neighboring Jersey City and nine times that of Paterson.
“It really isn’t an apples to apples comparison as is suggested by just the sheer size of Jersey City [compared] to the city of Newark,” said Councilman Darrin Sharif. “That’s the spin — unfair spin — that is put on this audit, and I’m sure that people will use that to further their agenda.”
Sharif didn’t say whose agenda might be served by the release of the audit, which also took aim at city government as a whole, pointing out deficiencies in oversight on everything from overtime and sick time to payouts to deceased workers. Former Mayor Cory Booker — who was in office during the period covered by the audit — is now in the U.S. Senate, but Business Administrator Julien Neals said the mess, to the extent that there is one, wasn’t of Booker’s making.
“This is a huge corporation,” said Neals. “There’s always going to be some audit exemptions, so we expect there to be some mistakes made along the way. I mean some of the benefits that they point out are that we have a two-person payroll office that processes $263 million worth of payroll each year and there were no errors there.”
As for Mayor Luis Quintana, he too was the subject of much backroom discussion today, after a story in PolitickerNJ quoted an unnamed source saying that his recent city hall staff shakeup was a sign that he was preparing for a run at a full term in May. Quintana’s former council colleagues were skeptical of the report today.
“I believe that acting mayor, interim mayor, Mayor Quintana when he’s told me personally that he has no interest in running for mayor,” said Ramos. “He’s made that declaration both publicly and privately.”
Mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries, a frequent council critic, says the audit confirms what he’s said all along.
“When I’m mayor, I’m going to work hand-in-hand with our council to make sure that every dollar we spend is a wise investment, that’s going to invest in the future of our people,” he said, adding about the council budget, “Absolutely, there have to be cuts. No question.”
There hasn’t been this much intrigue around city hall since the last mayor tried to stack the city council, but that’s to be expected in a city now at a crossroads.