EAST ORANGE, NJ — When former East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor was sworn into office in January 2013, he took over a city whose water commission and water utility in general were in disrepair, due to what he and others later cited as mismanagement by Executive Director Harry Mansmann and his deputy director, William Mowell.
After Mansmann and Mowell were indicted and charged with fiscal improprieties and mismanagement, Taylor moved to replace them with Department of Public Works Director Chris Coke, who took on those additional duties and the title of East Orange Water Commission executive director. Four years later, Taylor and Coke have left the EOWC and the city’s water utility in much better shape than they found it, with the support of the East Orange City Council. Former Chairman and 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green, who was sworn in as the 14th mayor of East Orange on Monday, Jan. 1, assisted in that transition.
“While serving as 3rd Ward councilman and council chairman, I worked closely with my colleagues to gain support for the investment needed to repair the East Orange Water Commission and the East Orange Golf Course,” Green said recently. “Accountability, transparency and open communication have been critical to regaining the trust and confidence of our residents and business owners. As mayor, I look forward to further enhancing these two valuable assets with strategic long-term planning, sound fiscal management and excellent customer service.”
East Orange’s water supply comes from artesian wells located in the area of Livingston, Millburn and Short Hills. Together, Taylor and Coke worked with Green and the council to rehabilitate those wells and the city’s water system, following the scandals involving failed state Department of Environmental Protection tests; failure to repair and upgrade broken, unused wells; allegations of mismanagement; and rumors of a tainted and possibly toxic water supply.
The scandals also led Taylor to summarily dismiss the EOWC Board of Directors for its alleged mismanagement and lack of oversight, when it seemed to refuse to go along with his plans to fix the problems at the city’s water department. But the scandals also provided Taylor and Coke with opportunities to address longstanding issues, including installing air-stripper devices, which remove volatile organic compounds and help improve the quality of the local drinking water.
Taylor and Coke said they are glad they were able to repair the city’s water supply woes.
“Rebuilding the East Orange Water Commission and restoring its reputation has been a tremendous undertaking that required true teamwork and trust among all of our stakeholders. Not only did we commit to making long-term investments in our aging infrastructure to improve efficiency, quality and taste, but we also invested in our employees to enhance the overall customer experience,” said Taylor on Friday, Dec. 8. “The short-term, public-private partnership we established with Veolia North America was a sound business collaboration that worked incredibly well within our model for transformational change. I am extremely proud of my administration and the work we’ve been able to accomplish with the support of the East Orange City Council and the East Orange Board of Water Commissioners.
“Our successes have received significant recognition and I’ve been honored to share our best practices in municipal water management as an invited guest panelist for a number of water infrastructure panels throughout the United States and in Canada. Together, we’ve built legacy based on investment in our assets and a vision for the sustainability of the world’s most valuable natural resource.”
In 2014, Taylor overcame the $3.9 million budget shortfall that he said was the “result of years of misguided business practices, including not billing services at market rate, lack of investment, improper training of personnel and failed leadership,” by instituting an emergency temporary rate increase on residents’ water bills, which lasted from August 2015 through February 2016.
Taylor’s move drew scrutiny and public outcry, as rates were increased by 80 percent, averaging $43 more per month per average household, based on factors that included use and plumbing fixtures. A study showed that EOWC rates had been well below industry averages for more than 10 years, long before Taylor was elected in 2013.
“Our successes have received significant recognition and I’ve been honored to share our best practices in municipal water management, as an invited guest panelist for a number of water-infrastructure panels throughout the United States and in Canada,” Taylor said. “Together, we’ve built a legacy, based on investment in our assets and a vision for the sustainability of the world’s most valuable natural resource.”
Coke also said he’s, “very proud of the work I’ve been able to do to assist in turning around such a valuable public asset” for the city.
“We transformed an entity whose reputation was nearly destroyed by issues of malfeasance in 2012-2013 to becoming one of the best-run public utilities in the state and quite possible the country,” said Coke on Friday, Dec. 8. “This is both a personal and professional achievement for me, especially as other municipalities are either selling their resources to private companies or going through major compliance issues with (the state Department of Environmental Protection), similar to those East Orange experienced in the past. I want to thank the mayor, council president, council members and East Orange Board of Water Commissioners for believing in our plan and giving us the tools needed to provide the best possible resource to the constituents of East Orange.”
Coke and Taylor reiterated they could not have accomplished anything alone.
“Ultimately, the longtime employees of the East Orange Water Department are to be highly commended for taking on the challenge of helping to create a better performing utility,” Coke said. “Sound leadership and integrity is and will be integral to keeping this utility thriving well into the future.”