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What I Learned on June 29th, 2015

Tonight was an educational experience. I learned quite a bit. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

I learned that prisoners run their prisons…

This evening’s set of committee meetings included the personnel committee. On the agenda was a proposed ordinance to eliminate the requirement that men and women with a criminal record disclose such on their application for a job with the city of Newark. As part of the national “ban the box” movement, the local effort – spearheaded by an organization called the “Newark Think Tank on Poverty” - has set their sights on the state and local governments as well as our local private sector. Prior to the meeting, the brave group of economic justice activists convened at a local restaurant to strategize. It was my honor to be a part of this gathering.

There and at the Council Meeting afterward I learned about the individual struggles experienced by a number of our fellow citizens. Beyond the obvious hurdles of escaping recidivism and a corollary life of crime, this interaction taught me to look at the missed opportunities for those attempting to reintegrate into society. Perhaps the most important less I took away from all of this was that our prisoners – who are effectively treated as slaves of the state working for less than a worker in most third world countries – are performing a great number of tasks while behind bars on a regular basis which really ought to be cited as work experience as opposed to being brushed aside alongside their application once it is revealed that they did time to begin with. As I said to the committee tonight, not only should one’s time served as an inmate not hinder their job search, but the valuable work experience they gain whilst they are imprisoned should be utilized to assist in securing a job!

Thankfully, the legislation proposed was unanimously passed on to the full council. It was a pleasure to speak as part of such a heroic group of people. Everyone reading this really ought to take the time to watch the video of the Think Tank’s testimony before council once they get a chance.

I learned that an emergency trip longer than 4 minutes can mean the loss of a life…

Also on the agenda of both the safety and personnel committees tonight was the controversial issue of establish 20 part-time firefighter positions to offset the need for overtime. Following the Administration’s presentation to council, the President of the local I.A.F.F. – David McElfresh – offered a powerpoint presentation which made the case that the reductions in staffing levels (which haven’t been matched by any reduction in the need for services) as well as so-called cross-staffing (where firefighters have to serve as members of the EMS team) have strained the provision of Newark’s fire services. Part of the presentation included an important bit of information pertaining to why response time is so vital. Essentially, it all boils down to keeping the trip of these men and women from the fire station to a citizen to no more than four minutes.

No doubt the attention to this detail factors in to the placement of our various fire station “companies” in certain parts of the city. Moreover, this makes alarming the fact that the station in the poorest part of our city has been closed much of the time as of late. Reducing staffing levels to balance a budget may be a typically necessary part of a city’s responsibilities, but it has to be asked: what are we doing in order to avoid this? Have we truly and fully explored all alternative options? Or, are we all too entirely locked into our ideological positions to work on a solution?

I learned that you don’t ever dare to question the Hall Administration…

Emotions ran high on the firefighter issue on both sides, but I would dare say that the Safety Director himself took the emotions a bit too far. On more than one occasion tonight he took it upon himself to condescend the safety committee’s chairman, scoffing at his inquiries, and even going as far as to question the chairman’s credentials in managing the affairs of a fire station. No matter what you think about the chairman – Alex Rolletta – on this or any other issue, the fact remains that he is an elected official empowered by the people of his respective ward and given his rank by his fellow elected officials to look at all the facts and ask the necessary questions so as to ensure that we are properly served. In attempting to close the committee meeting, Mr. Rolletta was stating his position on the issue complete with some of his reservations about bringing in part-time workers as well as some missed opportunities in the past where the city failed to apply for helpful grants.

Once Chairman Rolletta was finished with his commentary, the Safety Director rose his hand and then proceeded to berate Rolletta for not having the experience that he or the fire chief had. It was as if he – the Director, speaking as a member of the Hall Administration and a chief spokesman for its “cut, cut, cut” agenda – was declaring that anyone on council who dared to second guess the Mayor’s plot should be ashamed of themselves since they hadn’t served decades in public safety. This despicable display only ceased when a member of the audience spoke up telling the Director that he was “out of order” and that he ought to sit down and shut up so that the meeting could proceed. Don’t want to take my word for it? Watch the video for yourself when it becomes available.

Ultimately, when the personnel committee convened and considered the legislation, it was tabled – much to the chagrin of its supporters - until August. I applaud the delay only because this is yet another change which requires more input as well as respect for the collective bargaining process. Regarding the Safety Director’s conduct, I can only reiterate my disgust. How is the public being served when we can’t show respect towards one another in our differences of opinion? Furthermore, how can we ensure that our government is functioning in the best possible manner when dissent is scorned in such a way?

We deserve better than this. Our democracy requires better. Stay tuned…

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