ORANGE, NJ — With a hearing in Lincoln Avenue School on Monday, March 14, the Orange City Council kept its promise to host a public meeting before voting on whether to approve Mayor Dwayne Warren’s deal to switch the management of the city’s water utility from Suez, formerly known as United Water Company, to the Pennsylvania-based Pennoni.
But at times the meeting seemed more of a primer on the Faulkner Act, which dictates how public service contracts are awarded in New Jersey, than a discussion of the merits of the proposed deal to hand over management of the city’s water supply to Pennoni. Warren said the company submitted the lowest bid after the city had solicited bids and proposals, according to state regulations for awarding municipal contracts to private vendors, and was awarded the contract, as per the Faulkner Act.
“I understand the Faulkner Act; I think you did do your due diligence in that,” said resident Ashley Comeray at the meeting. “I’m going to be honest: I’m here because of that flier that was placed in my building, where we have well over 200 residents, and we want to know: Did people die; is the water safe; and if we do leave United, will it remain safe? That’s what I want to hear about. I don’t want to hear the back and forth about a contract, because I understand the bidding process and, for those who don’t understand it, there is an (Open Public Records Act) that you all do act upon. I want to know if the water is safe. That’s it.”
The answers given by the Warren administration and Pennoni employees to similar questions at a Feb. 22 meeting, when the deal first came up, did not satisfy members of the audience then, and did not appear to satisfy the audience at the March 14 meeting, either.
“They don’t answer the questions directly,” said Janice Morrell, a former Zoning Board member and current 2016 mayoral candidate Monday, March 14. “It’s all political theater. And that’s unfortunate, because water is a very precious resource. It’s a life-sustaining resource. Without water and air, you ain’t living.”
Morrell said Request for Proposals should have been issued in 2013, when the contract with Suez expired. Instead, Warren admitted his administration has been paying that company on a month-by-month basis to continue managing the water utility, without negotiating a new contract with Suez or other potential vendors.
“Why was the RFP issued now to become a political item in an electoral campaign?” asked Morrell. “The silly season has begun and everybody’s getting all good and righteous right now and jumping on this. But there are two critical facts and you have to divide it in half. One is the administrative function, in how this whole process has been mismanaged from beginning to end. The other issue is the issue of the water quality. United Water should have notified the city when there was an issue with the water quality long ago.”
Warren said politics and fear-mongering are behind the uproar regarding the legitimate deal with Pennoni. He said his administration played by the rules and stuck to the letter of the law laid out by the Faulkner Act, when it chose Pennoni to take over management of the Orange water supply.
But on Monday, Feb. 22, when the deal was submitted to the council for approval, Warren administration members revealed that only two vendors had submitted bids in response to the RFP: Pennoni and Suez, with Pennoni’s bid being the lowest.
However, on Monday, Feb. 22, Suez Project Manager Steven E. Houst said his company only found out about the RFP by mistake, and that the Warren administration had not informed Suez about it. According to Houst, Suez therefore did not have the time to do its homework to come up with the best bid possible.
West Ward Councilman Harold J. Johnson and other members of the seven-member City Council agreed with Houst that the Warren administration seemed to favor Pennoni, when it came time to award the new water management contract. Several members of the public at the council meeting on Monday, Feb. 22, including Derrick Henry of the nonprofit group Protecting Orange Water, said it seemed Pennoni was given chances to win the deal that Suez hadn’t been given.
Henry said the fact that there were only two bidders for the water management contract seemed suspicious, too. Johnson, East Ward Councilman Kerry Coley, Councilwoman at Large Donna K. Williams and council President April Gaunt-Butler agreed that there should have been more transparency and public discussion about the deal before it was presented for approval to the council. For this reason Gaunt-Butler and the council majority agreed to table the resolution to approve the deal with Pennoni until after a public hearing for Orange water customers.
But the presentations by Pennoni and Suez and the explanations Warren gave for choosing Pennoni over Suez didn’t convince most of the audience, and Gaunt-Butler said she wasn’t satisfied either.
“I need to make two announcements to the public: You need to know that this is not on the council agenda for tomorrow,” said Gaunt-Butler on Monday, March 14. “The second is, we have been out of contract since 2013. Why hasn’t there been any kind of presentation to the public or to the council colleagues prior to trying to put it on the agenda? It’s been three years and, if this has been in the process, why hasn’t there been full disclosure and transparency to the council and the public?”
“The bid was put before the council. The evaluation by the attorney, which was prepared by the engineer and Public Works, was put before the council as well,” said Warren on Monday, March 14.
“It was advertised the same way that public meetings are advertised in the newspaper. And all of the issues, including tonight, are for the public to ask any questions. If there are any questions that you have, the experts are here. The current water servicer is here; the high bidder for the water services is here; the administration is here. All of those questions can be asked now.”
South Ward resident Murphy Wilson said the meeting didn’t answer all her questions or put her fears about the Pennoni deal to rest.
“I think it’s the beginning of people getting really involved and being very concerned about something that impacts them,” said Wilson on Monday, March 14. “Obviously, at the end of it all, we all agreed that there was not enough information and there certainly wasn’t enough timely information for the council for them to deliberate on this. They need more material.”
Wilson said she was glad Gaunt-Butler announced the Pennoni deal would not be on the agenda for the council’s consideration at the March 15 meeting. Henry agreed.
“This meeting, I think, is just appeasing the public, generally speaking, at this point,” said Henry on Monday, March 14. “If it wasn’t on the website, there’s a potential it may not have been advertised, as far as changing the date and the time. We have a full-time water problem with a part-time answer.”