NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Questions from an activist about the city's controversial water privatization deal prompted a City Councilwoman to lose her cool during an August 5 public meeting in City Hall.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Garlatti lashed out at Food & Water Watch's Rita Yelda, calling her "part of the problem."
Garlatti defended the embattled New Brunswick Water Utility, which has been plagued by water quality and treatment violations, problems finding a steady Water Director, and fallout from the secretive move to privatize some of its functions last summer.
The longtime Councilwoman repeatedly raised her voice, shouting as she downplayed the importance of water treatment technique violations that the city's private contractor, NJ American Water, took responsibility for earlier this year.
In December 2014 and January 2015, the agency admittedly did not properly treat water that was distributed to customers on eleven different days.
"People could get nauseous. People could get sick. That's people's health," Yelda said in response to Garlatti's unexpected attack. "How abrasive to not care about the residents of New Brunswick that you are said to represent."
Yelda had already gotten Council President Kevin Egan to declare that "eliminating American Water" was the Council's goal, when Garlatti jumped into the conversation.
Egan had also said that the city government was not currently negotiating with American Water to renew the existing agreement, which is set to expire on September 30.
But that point was quickly contradicted in Garlatti's epic rant against Yelda.
"This is a legal negotiation process and an internal administrative evaluation process," began the clearly irritated Councilwoman, "that if you force us to conduct these negotiations in public it will frustrate the city's flexibility in dealing with this contractor."
"And you are increasing or facilitating the misunderstanding among New Brunswick citizens about the services that American Water is providing, so you are actually part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution."
Garlatti said she thought the consumer advocate was "exaggerating" her concerns over the eleven days when water that had not been properly treated was distributed to the city's residents and businesses.
"How am I misinforming? What's misinformation?" asked Yelda.
"Uh, you're telling the citizens of New Brunswick that their water isn't safe," said Garlatti.
"There were eleven days when it was not safe," retorted Yelda.
"Eleven days!" shouted the exasperated Councilwoman. "Eleven days. Not eleven years! Not eleven months! You are ex-agg-er-a-ting!"
"You even exaggerate–I'm exaggerating with my voice the same way you exaggerate with your voice!"
"Just let the process move forward. You already have the assurance of the City Council President that we want to remain a public water system," Garlatti continued.
"What more do you want from us, blood signatures? Please!"
Audience members were visibly concerned by Garlatti's passionate but dismissive views toward the violations, especially in light of the history of the city's Water Utility.
After Water Director Sean Maloney took his own life in 2007, amid a federal bribery investigation, the utility went without a director for more than five years.
During that time, the city failed to disclose at least seven different occasions when the water being distributed was so dangerous that residents and businesses should have been boiling it before use, or not using it at all.
So, what exactly was it that Yelda had said that had gotten under the Councilwoman's skin?
The activist, who recently moved to New Brunswick from Buffalo, New York, began her remarks by repeating an accurate account of the situation that included a word that bothers some officials: "privatization."
Because the assets of the Water Utility are still owned by the city, and the government still handles some of the agency's functions like billing and water main repairs, many city officials don't like to use the p-word to describe the situation.
"American Water's not running our Water Department," said Egan, at one point during Yelda's remarks.
But advocates contend the single most important function of the utility, running the massive treatment plant that turns millions of gallons of raw water into drinkable water every day, is supervised by the outside company.
"With high costs and water quality violations, privatization has failed New Brunswick," Yelda said. "The city needs responsible public management and operation to best serve its residents."
"In terms of who is treating our water right now, it's American Water," Yelda told Egan.
"Be real. It's American Water and they're the ones responsible for this eleven days, and that does put our health at risk."
Yelda's prepared remarks made a strong case against continuing the deal with American Water.
"The Water Utility has experienced various problems since bringing in American Water into the mix, including operational malfunctions and improper or insufficient water treatment," she said.
"When chlorine contact times are too low, water can contain disease-causing organisms known to cause cramps, nausea, diarrheea, and associated headaches," she said.
Yelda accused the city keeping the violations a secret for "more than three months after the city learned that the violations had occurred."
Thomas Loughlin, the city's Business Administrator, served as Acting Water Director for five years, during the period when much more serious federal water quality violations were being committed.
Loughlin is still involved in the dealings with American Water, and said that the DEP decided not to fine the city for its most recent violations.
American Water paid the cost of mailing out the public notices of the violation, and took responsibility for it.
The city is currently attempting to negotiate its way out of a six-figure fine levied by the state agency for the violations from 2010-2013, before American Water was brought in.
Loughlin also downplayed the role American is playing in New Brunswick.
"They are providing W4 services and they are providing us with management of our operators in the form of two T3 operators," said Loughlin, saying that was "what the contract turned into over time."
Kevin Egan said the Council members "want to go back to the public-producing water treatment center that we had."
"We all wanna go back there and we're just not comfortable at that point yet," said Egan. "Hopefully, we're gonna get there very soon," Egan said.
"Things just don't happen overnight like we'd all like to," said Egan under further questioning from New Brunswick Today. "I mean, in a second, I wish I could snap my fingers and a lot of things could happen, but they don't."
Egan told Yelda that American Water provided the "best price" for license coverage after the departure of Frank Marascia, the Water Director who discovered the massive violations in 2013.
"We've since had some bumps in the road, and we've continued and strived to provide the safest water to the residents of New Brunswick," Egan said.
"We will and we do wanna go back to a public water system. We do wanna sever our ties with American Water, but we want to make sure everything's in place."
Editor's Note: The author of this article previously worked for Food & Water Watch, and has been a vocal opponent of water privatization in New Brunswick and Trenton.