EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange City Council unanimously approved three bond ordinances related to the East Orange Water Commission at a meeting Monday, June 27, one of which appropriates existing funds for reallocation to be used on the city’s golf course.
According to Cynthia Brown, the city clerk, Bond Ordinance No. 12 provides $500,000 for the “acquisition and implementation of billing and customer service software”; Bond Ordinance No. 17 provides $23,100,000 “for various water improvements and acquisitions of equipment for the East Orange Water Commission,” and Bond Ordinance No. 27 provides “for improvements to the city-owned golf course and various road improvements” by re-appropriating $1,287,645.60 in “excess bond proceeds from various bond ordinances not needed for their original purpose.”
Voting for the ordinances were: Chairman and 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green; 1st Ward Councilman Christopher James; 2nd Ward council members Jacqueline Johnson and Romal Bullock; 4th Ward Councilman Casim Gomez; and 5th Ward council members Alicia Holman and Mustafa Brent. First Ward Councilwoman Amy Lewis, 3rd Ward Councilwoman Quilla Talmadge and 4th Ward Councilwoman Tyshammie Cooper were absent from the meeting on Monday, June 27, and did not vote at all.
Holman was not present for most of the meeting, but she did come in that night specifically to cast a much-needed seventh vote on Bond Ordinances No. 12 and 17, and others as well.
There are 10 City Council members seated in East Orange at any given time and a three-fifths majority vote — seven members — is needed to pass a bond ordinance that allows the city government to borrow money for various reasons, including capital improvements such as upgrading the EOWC billing software and making improvements to the water system.
“I came for two votes: One was on a bond for the water commission and the other was a bond that we already had previously and we put it toward the golf course,” said Holman on Tuesday, June 28. “We already had that bond; we just re-appropriated the funds for the golf course. With a bond ordinance, you have to have seven council members present.”
Bond Ordinance No. 27 was passed on second reading and provides “for improvements to the city-owned golf course and various road Improvements” by re-appropriating $1,287,645.60 in “excess bond proceeds from various bond ordinances not needed for their original purpose” to finance the costs thereof.
The fact that Bond Ordinance No. 27 deals with excess bond proceeds seemed to be the reason Holman initially voted against Bond Ordinance No. 17 on the second and final reading. She later changed her vote.
“I asked: ‘Why are we borrowing so much if we don’t need that much?’ ” asked Holman. “The answer was it’s a draw-down account. My concerns are the $23.1 million bond. We have no strings on that money. If the Water Department is not in a position to repay that bond, then the city has to pick that up.”
Holman said her concern was: “does the water commission have the ability to repay that” $23.1 million? She said she understands, “There are some things that need to be done so that the state doesn’t come in and take over the Water Commission,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean city taxpayers should foot the bill without any assurances of how the funds will be spent and how the bond’s debt obligation will be repaid.
“The good thing is we can stop buying water from Newark but we need to be able to sell water to other municipalities too,” said Holman.
Green and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Jacqueline Johnson, the council’s official liaison to the East Orange Water Commission, said that though the council doesn’t have any “strings” attached to the $21 million being bonded for the EOWC, they did manage to get the commissioners to sign a memo of understanding with the council that gives the governing body the power and right to review how that money will be spent.
“We pushed hard for this memorandum of understanding, because this is a lot of money,” said Johnson on Monday, June 27. “Review is what we have. We can’t oversee the water commission unless they become in a deficit position and then it’s the council’s job. That’s not what we want to do. Now we have a new commission, they have consultants and, as I told Director Chris Coke tonight, They work for us.”
Johnson said she doesn’t mind “carrying the water for her residents,” literally and figuratively, which is why she’s served as the council liaison to the East Orange Water Commission for the last seven years. Coke said he was glad for her support and that of the other council members for the past two years.
Coke, the EOWC’s interim executive director, also thanked Green, Holman, Johnson and the other governing body members for approving the bond ordinances the EOWC needs to ensure the city will continue to own and manage its own water supply for “the next 100 years.”
“On behalf of the Water Commissioners, I would like to say, ‘thank you’ to the council for being brave and taking this vote based on our last experience with the water commission,” said Coke on Monday, June 27. “But I’m happy to say, with myself at the helm, along with the new president, Michelle Antley, (and) Vice President Anthony Jackson, that we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve been using the money wisely so far and efficiently and we expect to do the same to make sure that we have this water resource for another 100 years for ourselves, our kids and their kids.”
Coke said he had no problem signing a memorandum of understanding with the council as a guarantee for getting the much-needed bond ordinances passed at the meeting. He said he understands the need for as much transparency and accountability as possible at the EOWC, in the wake of recent turmoil.
“We’re open to that; we have nothing to hide,” said Coke. “I personally have nothing to hide. I’m invested personally into this. It means something to me, because the people I care about and love are in this city and I want to ensure that they have an asset that we can all be proud of, especially in a town that looks like us. This is not Flint, Mich., far from it.”