The Newark Water Group presented a petition to the city clerk’s office Wednesday asking for an ordinance that would prevent the city from placing water and sewer operations under control of a utility authority without direct voter approval.
“It took just a few weeks to gather signatures,” said Terri Suess, one of the organizers of the drive. “Many people know about the issue already and were eager to sign.”
The ad hoc group gathered more than 3,400 signatures and will continue to seek more. Under state law, an ordinance can be forced onto a municipal council’s agenda if a number of registered voters equal to at least 15 percent of those who voted in the last General Assembly election sign a petition in support. The group needs a minimum of about 2,300 signatures, it said.
More than a dozen people, including council members Luis Quintana and Mildred Crump, were at the city clerk's office Wednesday afternoon as the petitions were being presented. South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka has also indicated his opposition to an MUA.
If the city clerk can certify the signatures, the “Save Our Water” ordinance would then go before the council for a vote. If it’s rejected by the governing body, the ordinance would then be placed on a ballot for a special election, when Newark voters would decide its fate.
The petition drive is the latest wrinkle in the long-running battle over the creation of an “MUA,” which was first proposed by Mayor Cory Booker a few years ago as a way to make city water and sewer operations more efficient.
An authority would be a largely autonomous body, run by an appointed board, with the ability to manage the system's debt and revenue.
The proposal immediately sparked resistance among those who feel an MUA would deprive city residents control over one of Newark’s most valuable assets -- its water system, which serves Newark and a quarter-million other customers in surrounding communities.
The MUA issue came to a head several days ago, when the council voted to apply with the state for creation of an authority. Had they failed to do so, Booker and state officials said, the city was at risk of losing more than $24 million in state aid. A “good faith effort” by the council to explore an MUA is one condition of an agreement between Newark and Trenton securing so-called transitional aid for the city.
State officials approved the application Wednesday, The Star Ledger reported.
The decision to send the application -- and its subsequent approval -- does not bind the city to an MUA, but the move still angered Newark Water Group members.
“The city government seems totally incapable of reforming the system,” the Newark Water Group’s Bill Chappel said in a statement. “All they seem to do is push crazy schemes like the MUA. We decided we wouldn’t sit around any longer and wait for them. Water is vital to the life of the city; it can’t be held hostage any longer to borrowing schemes and the creation of the shadow governments that the city administration and Governor [Chris] Christie are trying to set up.”
The ordinance proposed by the Newark Water Group also asks that the Newark Watershed and Development Corp., which manages thousands of acres of land in northwest New Jersey, be abolished “based on its history of operating outside its bylaws and failing to meet transparency requirements,” the group stated. As well, the ordinance would require the hiring of a full-time water and sewer director and would also prohibit the city from assuming water-sewer system debt without voter approval.