A water crisis is currently ravaging Newark, New Jersey, and the town’s former mayor, current Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker, has called for federal authorities to give it their focus. However, his call to action has also made critics focus on the role he played in water management during his tenure in office.
“Newark’s water emergency demands our federal government’s immediate attention. Everyone deserves clean, safe water — it’s shameful that our national crisis of lead-contaminated water disproportionately hits poor black and brown communities like my own,” he tweeted August 14.
Booker served as mayor of Brick City from 2006 to 2013. According to NJ.com, he left before the initial discovery of elevated lead levels in the city water were made in 2017.
Now, a year after officials determined the city’s water was “absolutely safe to drink,” residents are relying on bottled water being handed out by officials after tests conducted Friday determined water filters for Pequannock County may not be effectively removing lead “to the low levels expected by city.” This according to a statement released by state and city officials last week.
With that news, critics have wondered what occurred with the water supply under Booker’s seven-year watch.
“As mayor of Newark, Cory Booker was either aware of the water quality issues and failed to act, or was completely incompetent,” a spokesman for a Republican research group America Rising, Chris Martin told NJ.com.
It was during that time Booker also served as chairman of the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation.
In 2014, a comptroller report found there was an absence of oversight at the agency, which treats and delivers water to the northern portion of the state. Criminal charges ensued for at at least nine people, including consultants, contractors and Linda Watkins-Brashear, whom Booker appointed to lead the agency. Presently, she’s serving an eight-year sentence for accepting nearly $1 million in bribes for no-work or over-inflated contracts.
Meanwhile, Booker served as an ex-officio chairman of the watershed corporation’s Board of Trustees but the comptroller report noted he was never present at meetings. In that role, he also failed to designate a proxy, as was common for those who previously held Booker’s position.
“When we asked the then-mayor about the lack of board members, he said that he had difficulty moving board nominees through the [City] Council,” according to the report from the state comptroller’s office. “We note, however, that the mayor held the seat ex officio and thus did not need the advice and consent of the council to designate an alternate for himself.”
Booker was never charged or investigated concerning the scandal. His name was also removed from litigation claiming he failed to monitor the agency.
In 2011, an independent report was written by Dan O’Flaherty, a Columbia University economics professor and former Newark city employee, stated Booker left the watershed management in a worsened state than it was in prior to his becoming mayor.
“The professional engineering quality was less than optimal,” said O’Flaherty, who was briefly Booker’s financial director, according to NJ.com. “The probability that someone would make an error was higher when he left than when he came in.”
Speaking to ABC News, O’Flaherty said he feels the watershed scandal had added to the agency’s mismanagement and caused the current water issues in Newark.
“The human capital of the water department was not renewed and deteriorated — they weren’t hiring engineers,” he said of the current presidential hopeful’s time leading the watershed. “So you have a seriously depleted department in 2013, and that was a department which made a mistake in the subsequent years.”
The “mistake” happened after Booker left the mayor’s office. In 2015, city officials chose to change the water treatment chemistry so as to adhere to new regulations established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The city’s water treatment facility’s pH levels were lowered so as to lessen the possibility of the formation of cancer-causing chemicals as the water was disinfected, an action that apparently had the knock-on effect of making the water supply more likely to leach lead from old pipes.
Meanwhile, one of Booker’s spokespeople working on his campaign said there was “no connection” between the scandal and the current water crisis.
“There is just no connection between the people who defrauded Newark residents at the Newark Watershed a decade ago and the very real water crisis impacting Newark residents today — other than they both share one word in common — ‘water,'” said spokeswoman Sabrina Singh.