A state lawmaker came to Newark Tuesday bearing what he saw as a goodwill gesture from a neighbor — 17,000 bottles of water for the residents of a city with concerns about the safety of what’s coming out of the tap.
But Assemblyman Jamel Holley, a Democrat who represents Union County, says the gift — donated and collected by volunteers in the city and beyond — is not being warmly received by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and his inner circle.
Those who have been critical of Baraka’s response to the city’s water crisis — sparked when federal officials ordered bottled water to be distributed after tests showed that filters were not adequately removing lead from tap water in some areas of the city — said the issue stems from a Facebook post last week in which Holley suggested the city’s entire water system could be at risk.
Sources say Baraka and his chief of staff and brother Amiri Baraka Jr. — also known as “Midi” — admonished Holley over the post in a phone call Monday.
“My involvement with Newark today and the situation that you are all in, pains me,” Holley said, accompanied his host, Newark Pastor Jethro James, as together they announced that the bottled water was already being delivered Tuesday to sections of the West Ward.
It was available, they said, to anyone in the city, not just those living in the area covered by the city’s Pequannock water system, where the bad test results surfaced.
“Send your brother some water,” said James, who’s the pastor at Paradise Baptist Church. “We don’t need money, we need water.”
Holley said he was wanted to get beyond what he called “politics.”
“Being a mayor is a difficult position to be in. You say things sometimes … that you don’t want to say and that you regret later on,” he said, adding, “I’m focused on Newark and I’m focused on getting you water. Whatever politics and whatever other things you want to get into, we can discuss that afterwards.”
Newark Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, an administration critic and former mayoral candidate, was less diplomatic. She said she was in the room during the telephone call with Holley.
“The phone call came in from the Newark Corporation Council, along with the mayor’s chief of staff, his brother,” Jenkins said, “at which point in time they were saying that the assemblyman should have taken down his post because it was misleading. The water is not poisonous.”
Jenkins added: “And the assemblyman said, ‘Listen, I’m dealing with water … y’all are worried about a post from a week ago? ‘Seriously,’ he said. ‘I’m here with my staff trying to get this water distributed and sent to Newark.’”
Jenkins said that the corporation counsel then said, “‘We thought you were an ally … and that’s when Midi said, ‘Oh, since you’re not an ally, we know how to handle you from now on.’ So maybe that means they’re not going to invite him to their parties or whatever.”
Repeated calls to the mayor’s office to confirm the conversations got no response.
But critics like community advocate Donna Jackson say, politics aside, the city’s water distribution plan – limiting it to so-called affected areas – is not only irresponsible but insulting, since so few houses have actually been tested.
“They’re virtually making it impossible for families to be a part of the non-existent system that they have,” she said. “They’re still bringing people in. They’re taking people in the back, they’re checking their address, they’re telling them that if they’re not in the affected area, they’re going home.”
Testing of the city’s water system is continuing, but how long that’s going to take and how widespread this crisis actually is, is still unclear.