WATER PRIVATIZATION IN NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ
November 14, 2013: New Brunswick Today breaks the story that a state and federal investigation has found that the city had been covering up water quality violations for over three years, repeatedly hiding the fact that the city violated federal drinking water standards.
December 9, 2013: The city hires Keith Smith, the same man who was brought in after a water quality cover-up in East Orange to be the new Water Treatment Plant Superintendent.
April 29, 2014: A city housing inspector who was suspended without pay for allegedly using a racial slur to describe a co-worker wins the fight to keep his job. After a three-month suspension, Ronald Bellafronte is assigned to work in the Water Utility instead.
May 15, 2014: Howard Woods and Associates issue their sixth and final progress report for the Comprehensive Technical Assistance required by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection.
May 26, 2014: New Brunswick’s Water Utility Director Frank Marascia, the man who first reported irregularities to state regulators, tenders his resignation after being offered a higher-paying job with NJ American Water.
The resignation is scheduled to take effect on June 2o, but Marascia’s departure from the city is pushed back another week.
“He provided 4 weeks notice to the city, which was then extended by another week,” said an American Water spokesperson.
June 5, 2014: Bellafronte, the ex-housing inspector, returns from his suspension and begins training to be a water meter reader.
He is found to be medically unfit for the job, and then given a desk job in the Utility’s business office, located in the basement of City Hall.
June 6, 2014: Smith, a crucial employee in light of Marascia’s impending departure, submits his resignation to Marascia. Curiously, the letter is not received by the city’s Personnel Department until June 17.
Smith is taking a job with Butler Township, leaving the city with no employees who are legally able to operate the 15-million-gallon-per-day treatment plant. His resignation takes effect on June 27.
June 11, 2014: After consulting with the NJDEP, Loughlin issues a solicitation to private companies. Instead of publically advertising it as a formal request for the proposals, the solicitation is sent exclusively to eight parties.
June 16, 2014: The Cahill administration takes more than a dozen officials from private water companies on tours of the city’s water treatment plant.
The companies represented on the tour included American Water, Middlesex Water, United Water, Aqua America, and CH2M Hill.
June 20, 2014: Outside the guidelines of the city’s RFP process, Middlesex Water Company submits a proposal to the city, one that it says will cost $2.3 million per year.
June 23, 2014: American Water President David Choate writes to Loughlin to say that they were “unable to submit a compliant proprosal,” due to the “very tight time constraints.”
Choate says that if the city hasn’t found a suitable arrangement, “do not hesitate to contact me to discuss how American Water might be able to provide support to the City through an alternative arrangement.”
United Water also writes Loughlin to decline.
June 27, 2014: As Frank Marascia leaves his city job after just 18 months, Mayor Cahill takes over the utility, naming himself as “Acting Water Director.”
American Water submits to the city a 23-page “Proposal for Interim Operations Suppor Services.” The proposal quotes two prices: $82,752 for 30 days, and $964,100 for 365 days.
July 2, 2014: The same day that a water privatization deal is signed by Mayor Cahill, New Brunswick Today exposes the plan at a City Council meeting. Council member Kevin Egan says the Council was not consulted about the decision.
The agreement is supposed to last “about 45 days” and has been signed off on by state regulators.
That same day, Sean Faust, another licensed employee submits his resignation, citing that he will be moving out of state. His resignation is effective July 18.
July 4, 2014: Activists organized by Food & Water Watch, a national group with a big presence in New Brunswick, organizes the first in a series of anti-privatization protests.
The small group stood outside the State Theatre, where a city-sponsored event was held celebration Independence Day.
July 16, 2014: Opponents of water privatization descend on the City Council’s first meeting since the privatization scheme was exposed.
Questions and pushback regarding the deal with American Water would become a fairly regular occurence over the next year.
August 6, 2014: The City Council votes unanimously to spend $19,725 on Carpenter Shackleton, the same Chicago-based consultant that helped them find Marascia, to find his replacement.
August 16, 2014: Forty-five days into the American Water agreement, Mayor Cahill dodges questions from New Brunswick Today about the future of the privatization deal. The exchange is captured on video, and makes the administration look bad.
Hours later, Cahill releases an update via the city website saying the city was still negotiating for a one-year deal.
In that statement, he said he hoped to have a privatization deal ready to be voted on for the Council’s September 3 meeting.
September 17, 2014: Before hearing from members of the public who came to speak against extending the city’s contract with American Water, the City Council voted to do just that.
Rebecca Escobar, the Council President, prematurely called for a vote on the agreement but decided to abstain from it, saying she was not aware prior to the meeting that the deal would be up for a vote.
The one-year deal is predicted to cost ratepayers $868,000, even though the city is getting close to hiring a properly-licensed person to the Water Director job, which would eliminate the need for the privatization.
October 15, 2014: The City Council approves Alexei Walus, Mayor Cahill’s choice to replace himself as the city’s Water Utility Director.
Under questioning from New Brunswick Today, the Council members admit they have never met Walus, nor have they spoken to him.
December 6, 2014: For the first time since the scandal, the city commits a serious violation.
The Water Utility does not adequately treat water distributed to its customers, failing to meet the requirements for chlorine contact time.
Although the plant’s licensed operator, who worked for American Water, was supposed to check the numbers daily, but instead they were checked monthly.
The Water Utility repeated the violation on December 7, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 21, 26, 31 and January 3, 2015. The public was not informed until four months later.
December 30, 2014: In front of a small crowd, the City Council voted to raise the water rates for its customers, as well as the rate for sewerage. Both rates were increased 5% each year for the next three years, over the objections of members of the public.
March 1, 2015: New Brunswick Today reveals that neither the state’s nor the city’s cases against Edward O’Rourke, the man officially blamed for the water quality coverup, have proceeded beyond the initial stage. He remains suspended without pay, and his license remains suspended.
Meanwhile, the city government is attempting to get out from paying a $355,000 fine assessed by NJDEP.
March 16, 2015: The NJDEP settles their case against O’Rourke for $8,500, or half the fine amount they had originally sought. O’Rourke, who has also worked at BrunswickZone bowling alley the entire time, agrees to have his water treatment license suspended for five years total.
March 27, 2015: After just five months on the job, Walus is demoted after the Mayor learns he used a racial slur at work. Unlike Bellafronte, he receives no suspension, but his salary is cut by $10,000 per year.
Cahill again makes himself Acting Water Director and the city government again hires Carpenter Shackleton to find a new Water Director.
April 13, 2015: Tom Loughlin sends a memo to the City Council about the water treatment violations, but Council President Kevin Egan does not read it.
According to the memo, American Water has accepted responsibility for the violations.
April 15, 2015: The City Council votes to approve $11,000 to again hire Carpenter Shackleton to recruit a new Water Utility Director.
April 17, 2015: The city finally alerts the public to the violations that took place in December and January.
May 15, 2015: New Brunswick Today reveals the nature of Walus’ racist comment, specifically that he used a slur and that it occurred on the job in front of his subordinates.
May 16-17, 2015: A chemical feed issue causes the half of the treatment plant to be taken offline for hours. Neither Cahill, Walus, nor American Water employees showed up on the scene.
July 1, 2015: Another employee is quietly suspended from the utility, and as Acting Water Director, Mayor Cahill signs off on it. Loughlin is actually behind the move.
July 6, 2015: New Water Utility Director Mark Lavenberg takes over, ending Mayor Cahill’s second stint as Acting Water Director.
July 22, 2015: On the same day that the largest fire in the history of North Brunswick Township erupts, the city’s water plant coincidentally struggled to pull out of a emergency that began when regular maintenance went wrong.
August 5, 2015: City Council member Elizabeth “Betsy” Garlatti criticizes an activist with Food & Water Watch who is speaking out against the privatization, raising her voice and downplaying the most recent water treatment violations.
August 25, 2015: In an exclusive interview with New Brunswick Today, Mayor Cahill admits his administration had suspended someone else from the Water Utility in addition to Edward O’Rourke. But Cahill did not recall signing off on the suspension without pay, saying it must have happened under Lavenberg’s tenure, and said he could not recall what position the person held.
Public records would later prove him wrong, and show that Cahill was the Acting Water Utility Director when the suspension was approved.
September 2, 2015: Facing tough questions about the actions of the newly-suspended employee, city officials were hesitant to answer whether or not the public had been endangered by the mysterious cause for the city’s actions.
At the City Council meeting, it was the City Council President who lost it this time, jumping to the defense of the Water Utility and eventually going on the attack against the author of this article, pointing out that this reporter does not own property in New Brunswick.
Asked how many homes he owns, Council President Egan tried to end the meeting.
Egan also said that he took “zero responsibility” for the decision of whether or not the city will continue with privatization.
Egan said the decision about the American Water contract would be made by Mayor Cahill, Loughlin, and Lavenberg.
September 16, 2015: With two weeks left in the controversial water privatization deal, the City Council announces that the administration will not be renewing the contract with American Water, effectively ending the privatization.
As Egan predicted, he had nothing to do with the decision. When he announced the news, Egan referred to a phone call he had received earlier that day from someone only identifed as “the Administration.”
Editor’s Note: The author of this article previously worked for Food & Water Watch, including a successful campaign to prevent the sale of Trenton’s water system to NJ American Water, and was a vocal opponent of the company’s involvement in New Brunswick.
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.