The idea of corporatizing the water system keeps resurfacing in Newark, and each time, public resistance stops it in its tracks.
In 2003, former Newark Mayor Sharpe James proposed selling water utilities to the Newark Infrastructure Management Corporation (NIMAC) to shore the city’s finances, but citizens of Newark were not so easily persuaded to forgo control over their water system for a financial crisis that the mayor had not made clear.
The Water for All Campaign assisted people in Newark in analyzing the proposed contract. The Campaign found the plan to be “a quick fix, but a quick fix with long-term ramifications.” In testimony to the city council we exposed the major flaws in the proposed privatization: for the next forty years, the public would have no control over important decisions related to their water. And even worse, NIMAC was to take over the water system without any competition in the contract bidding process and with no experience in running a major water operation.
The citizens responded to the mayor’s proposal by organizing. A group of Newark citizens staged a “Drink In” in which they served samples of Newark tap water, informed residents about the issue at hand, and distributed fliers urging residents to take part in a public hearing.
In the fall of 2003, the city council voted 7-2 to rescind the privatization plan, with several council members citing citizens’ disapproval and the unclear details on the fiscal crisis as the deciding factors in changing their vote. Councilman Donald Tucker told the Star-Ledger that the vote was ‚a turning point in citizen involvement” in Newark.
After the plan was overturned, the city began looking into improving the public water system and appointed an advisory board.
When current mayor Cory Booker came to office in 2006, he took a slightly different approach and decided to try to corporatize the utility by selling it to an independent agency that is overseen by an elected board. In 2009, he proposed creating a municipal utilities authority (MUA) in order to sell the water system to the new entity and use the proceeds of the sale to shore up the city’s finances. After public opposition, he tabled the idea for year.
Booker brought the plan up again in 2010, but because of ardent public opposition, the city council unanimously voted against it. Community members did not want to sacrifice local control over the water system.
Two years later, in August 2012, the city council caved into pressure from the state and approved the mayor’s latest proposal to create a MUA.
In response, the Newark Water Group, a grassroots organization, collected thousands of signatures petitioning the city council to pass a “Save Our Water” ordinance. In September 2012, the council unanimously passed the ordinance, which requires voter approval of the MUA proposal. The ordinance also dissolved the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp., the independent nonprofit entity that managed the city’s water system.
This was a major victory that would have secured local public control of the city’s water resources. Unfortunately, Mayor Booker challenged the ordinance in court. In October 2012, a judge sided with Booker and invalidated the measure. Nonetheless, the community has stopped the MUA proposal for another year.
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