With throngs of people in Newark today to see President Obama, there’s one group that won’t be found anywhere: the City Council.
The City Council, which has welcomed every sitting President to Newark for as long as anyone can remember, was reassured yesterday by Mayor Ras Baraka that the governing body would have a role in the visit to discuss reforms in the criminal justice system.
But, this morning, Baraka’s staff informed them that they’ll be looking in from the outside, as the mayor and Sen. Cory Booker host the President.
“I am stunned and deeply offended that my colleagues and I were not formerly asked nor invited to participate in one of the most important discussions facing America since Reconstruction taking place in our own city,” said Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins.
“We are really confused after being assured by the mayor that the council will be included,” Chaneyfield-Jenkins said. “Mayor Baraka said we were included. Then his staff turns around and said we aren’t. They are obviously doing their own politics.”
Invitees from across the state line up to hear President Obama's speech at Rutgers Newark. Noticeably absent? The Newark City Council.
Efforts to reach Baraka’s communication office were pointless, as the focus today is on the President’s visit. But the councilwoman and many of her colleagues want answers from the mayor’s office about the Presidential snub.
If she had been given the opportunity to meet the President, Chaneyfield-Jenkins would have congratulated him on his bold actions to bring the issue of massive incarceration to the forefront of America’s consciousness.
“As elected officials in New Jersey’s largest city, my colleagues and I understand first hand the impact of men and women trying to rebuild their lives, only to be prevented from becoming productive citizens because of a criminal record,” she added.
Council Vice President Augusto Amador echoed Chaneyfield-Jenkins' indignation. "The city council is fuming over being snubbed by those who have a responsibility to invite us," he said. "It's not every day that the President comes to Newark... I'm very, very upset by this snub. I just found out that the Mayor of Hillside was invited. I'm the Vice President of the City Council... for them to ignore that fact speaks volumes."
Another council member expressing dismay at the cold shoulder from Mayor Barak is Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr., who represents the North Ward. "We know it's a historic occasion for the president to be in Newark, especially to talk about such an important issue like prisoner re-entry and creating opportunities for former prisoners, especially coupled with important legislation sponsored by Senator Booker on this issue," he said.
"It's disappointing that the mayor and his staff would not include the council. My office did reach out to Senator Booker's staff and the mayor's staff to get information... we heard back from Senator Booker, but got nothing from Mayor Baraka."
Councilman Luis Quintana, meanwhile, will be spending his day at his office on Mount Prospect Avenue, talking to constituents and running out for lunch. He was amazed to learn that vendors who do business with the city will have the opportunity to participate in the visit, but that the City Council was left out.
“I have been an appointed and elected official in Newark for 30 years and am amazed that this is happening,” said Quintana, who served eight months as mayor. He recalled when President Bill Clinton visited Newark and the City Council was promptly invited.
“I support President Obama and have always supported him,” Quintana said. “But when you are cleaning a house, you clean every room in the house. You don’t pick and choose what rooms to clean. In this case, we should have all been included. We are all part of the same team, trying to make Newark a better city. We are the local establishment.”
Who else is upset?
“You could add me to the list,” said Councilman Joe McCallum. “Such disrespect. I don’t blame the mayor, but some of the people around him are very unprofessional and don’t know what they are doing. There’s no way you can have the President here and not involve an equal arm of the local government.”
McCallum said he was shocked to learn that Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson received an invite. “But they don’t invite me? I represent 65,000 people in the West Ward. She represents one-square mile in some other town. This is totally disrespectful. It’s ridiculous. It shows a lack of respect for the council.”