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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The second-highest-ranking elected official in city government admitted he will have no decision-making authority when it comes to renewing the city’s controversial water privatization deal with NJ American Water.
Even though Council President Kevin Egan voted for the existing deal, and is one of five Council members who will presumably get to vote on any renewal contract, Egan said he considers himself to have “zero responsibility” for the decision.
“I will not be involved in the decision-making of if we are going to stay with American Water,” Egan told New Brunswick Today under questioning at the September 2 City Council meeting, saying he was “exercising leadership.”
New Brunswick Today asked who would be involved in the decision.
“Who’s going to make the decision?” Egan responded. “It’s going to be a bunch of different people who make the decision, I believe. The Water Director, the Mayor, the Administrator.”
Under questioning, Egan admitted he did not want the city to continue using NJ American Water as a contractor.
But Egan also said he would not be involved in the decision about whether to end their involvement in the city’s water system after their existing contract expires on September 30.
“I don’t want to stay with American Water, but why would I be involved in something that I’m not in the day-to-day operations with?” Egan asked. “I’m not in the day-to-day operations. What testimony am I gonna give?”
The city first hired the private company in July 2014, when Mayor James Cahill took over as Water Director and implemented the privatization deal without consulting the Council or the public.
In September, the City Council approved a 1-year, $868,000 contract with the company, needlessly depriving many opponents of the deal their right to speak against it before the Council’s unanimous vote.
Since then, the company has assumed responsibility for 11 water treatment violations, which came on the heels of even more serious violations from the years 2010-2013.
In those cases, a longtime city worker was caught falsifying records, misleading state regulators and the public about the safety of the water, and thus failing to tell city residents to boil their water before use several times when the water was more likely to contain dangerous microbes.
On seven different occasions in those three years, boil water advisories should have been issued, but instead no one was told.
New Brunswick has also seen a number of water directors since the departure of Frank Marascia, the whistleblower who supposedly first discovered the record falsification scandal that rocked the utility in 2013.
After months with Cahill at the helm, the City Council hired Alexei Walus to the important job. But he didn’t last long.
Walus was demoted after using a racial slur on the job.
As we reported, City Council members admitted they had never met him or spoken with Walus, and still approved his appointment to the powerful position.
“I have zero responsibility as far as hiring the water maintenance person–of the Director–OK? That was done by the Mayor, and the Administrator, and we hired a third-party person,” said Egan, referring to Chicago-based Carpenter Shackleton, a firm that was curiously hired to help the city find its last three Water Directors.
After Walus was demoted for the slur incident, Cahill served another term as Acting Water Director, and then hired Mark Lavenberg to take over the job in July.
Activists have criticized the City Council for exercising little if any oversight over the dealings with American Water.
“The city really needs to break free from our relationship with American Water,” said Rita Yelda, a city resident and organizer with Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group.
Yelda told the Council that the company “failed to live up to expectations and put the health of New Brunswick residents at risk,” citing “operational malfunctions” and “insufficient water treatment.”
“American Water is a corporate entity that has been buying up water sources across New Jersey and the United States. They are taking advantage of communities that can’t afford to manage their own water utility.”
In December, the City Council voted to increase the water and sewer rates by 5% per year, for the next three years, citing the privatization agreement and other factors.
Despite all the controversy, the City Council President says he will leave it to others to decide the future of the city’s embattled Water Utility.
“I care and I believe in the people that we have in place to do the job. They’re hired to do these things,” said Egan.
“Mr. Loughlin, the Water Director, the Mayor: They’re the ones that are supposed to be doing, taking the stuff out, take a look at this stuff.”
“And I believe in what they’re doing. And I believe when they tell me that the time is right that we’re gonna stay away from American Water or stay with American Water,” said Egan, “Then I take them at their word and I believe what they’re doing is right and the work that they’re doing is good.”
Egan declined to say whether the city would allow the contract to expire on September 30.
“Do you know when you’re going to have that decision made?” asked Yelda.
“No,” Egan said.
“We’re having internal discussions amongst ourselves to see how we proceed come October 1, with or without the assistance of some outside party,” said Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin.
Loughlin served as Acting Water Director for over five years after the suicide of Director Shawn Maloney in 2007, despite Loughlin having no experience managing a water utility.
“I’ve had not one minute of water treatment training in my career,” Loughlin was quoted in the Daily Targum. “At the request of the mayor, I stepped in and attempted at the best of my knowledge to manage the utility when it was in a very bad situation.”
Despite the reality that the City Council will likely be asked to vote on any contract extension, Egan claimed he would not be involved in the decision-making at all.
“Are you going to be involved?” asked this reporter.
“You’re not going to be involved?”
“Then why are you on the City Council? Why did you run for office?”
“I only did this so I can talk to you every other night,” joked Egan. “Why do you think I’m doing this? I’m doing this so I can meet with you! Are you kidding?”
Egan repeatedly invoked the phrase “conspiracy theory” and accused this reporter of being “subjective” as he deflected the questions about the embattled utility.
“Obviously, you believe that we’re all into some kind of cover-up and some conspiracy theory here in New Brunswick with the Water Department. I disagree with that.”
Egan also attacked this reporter for not owning real estate in New Brunswick, and argued that no one else agrees with our concerns, citing the half-empty meeting room.
“Where’s the rest of ’em? Who’s behind ya? Anybody else wanna agree with Mr. Kratovil?!” Egan yelled.
“I don’t see anybody else here but you. Who else is agreeing with ya?” the Council President exclaimed.
“Yea, exactly, go ahead Mr. Kratovil. I don’t see anybody else here,” Egan said, repeating the same line of attack. “So you’re speaking for people who aren’t even here?”
“Absolutely I am sir, and you should do the same!” this reporter responded.
“I am,” said Egan.
“No you’re not,” responded this reporter.
“That’s your opinion! I don’t see anybody else here but you.”
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 6:30pm on September 16, on the top floor of City Hall at 78 Bayard Street.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article previously worked for Food & Water Watch, and has opposed the privatization of the city’s water utility.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.