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If the city council presided over a period where mismanagement might lead to a takeover of its budget, should tenure on the council count against candidates in May's municipal elections?
On the heels of the State of New Jersey hinting that they are going to take over Newark’s budget, much like they commandeered the city’s school system, this year’s municipal election is sharply juxtaposed against the backdrop of Trenton’s looming threat.
Since 2002, Ras Baraka has been employed in City Hall as either the Deputy Mayor or Municipal Councilman. It would be impossible to deny him culpability in Newark’s fiscal woes. Baraka, along with two members of his ticket – Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins and Mildred Crump – has presided over unprecedented fiscal mismanagement.
Chaneyfield-Jenkins was an at-large Councilmember from 1995 to 2006. She ran as a fiscal conservative during her inaugural council campaign, yet one of her first acts in office was to commission a $10,000 portrait of herself. The audacity of that expenditure was complemented by the councilwoman’s purchase of a $500 waste paper basket.
During her tenure, Mildred Crump traveled to Africa on the struggling city’s dime so wantonly that residents might have thought Ghana was a stop on the light rail. Whatever benefit Newark received from Ms. Crump’s sojourns to the motherland has yet to be evidenced, considering Brick City’s continually soaring unemployment rate and perpetual budget crises.
Another indisputable fact of their tenures in office is that Baraka and the council members on his slate use[d] their offices as their personal family employment agencies. They have hired their brothers, sons, husbands, nieces, nephews, cousins and family friends to work in their offices at taxpayer expense. So, in addition to their $85,000 salaries for their part-time jobs (councilmember jobs aren’t designated as full-time positions) taxpayers are contributing tens of thousands more dollars to the councilmembers’ households.
A cursory glance shows Ras’ brother, Amiri “Middy” Baraka, and Mildred’s son, Lawrence, serving as their respective chiefs of staff. Gayle’s husband Kevin acted in that same capacity when she was on the council. A quick stop in to their offices in City Hall reveals myriad other friends and family in various positions – public jobs that were never posted or made available to other qualified Newark residents.
Baraka’s mayoral opponent, Shavar Jeffries, has three current municipal council members on his ticket. North Ward councilman Anibal Ramos, who abdicated his own run for the mayor’s seat to join Jeffries; East Ward representative Augusto Amador; and councilman at-large Carlos Gonzalez. Political watchers say that a Jeffries disassociation from those council members would instantly scuttle his mayoral aspirations by undermining his relationship with Latino voters, Newark’s fastest-growing demographic. It remains to be seen if it is pabulum that residents are willing to swallow.
Be it a necessary political strategy or maintaining the status quo, voters can't be blamed if they give Jeffries the “side eye” and sigh a collective, “Whatever, man.” The councilmembers on his ticket have some stain on them for the city’s fiscal mess as well. The bright spot, if there is such a thing, is that it appears none of them have used their offices as their personal one-stop career centers.
Contrary to what many constituents believe, the municipal council is responsible for only two things: approving department director appointments, and overseeing the city budget. On the cusp of a state takeover, history would indicate that experience in City Hall is the least necessary attribute in the search for a solution to Newark’s problems.