Baraka defends appointees caught in snowstorm backlash

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 27, 2016

NEWARK — Mayor Ras Baraka is defending key staff members some critics are claiming contributed to a lackluster response to this weekend's record-setting snowstorm.

While the mayor has taken the brunt of widespread complaints about the slow pace of plowing and snow removal in the city, many residents have taken to social media and other forums to place blame at the feet of officials they say are in place due to personal and political connections rather than professional qualifications.

"This administration has a history of hiring their friends, people who they like," said Veronica Branch, a city resident and former School Advisory Board candidate.

"Not necessarily somebody who would be qualified to get the job done."

Much of the invective has been directed at Director of Neighborhood and Recreational Services Patrick Council, who is charged with developing and executing the city's snow removal plan.

On Wednesday morning, East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador initially refused to vote for a resolution presented by Council's department to establish a fee schedule for non-residents to use certain city facilities until Council could share details on his response to the storm.

"In view of what has happened in the last weekend, he needs to appear before us and give us some explanations to a lot of questions that I, for one, have," he said.

"We were in a reactive mode, not in a proactive mode. Someone has to be accountable for some of the mistakes that were made."

A prominent pastor and current head of the South Ward Democratic Committee, Council was named acting director in August 2014 — one of two unsuccessful City Council candidates backed by Baraka to get city jobs following his inauguration.

Prior to accepting the $136,599 job, Council served as recreation director for Newark Public Schools — experience Baraka has cited as key to his appointment. In an interview Tuesday, the mayor said he had also proven more than capable of overseeing snow removal.

"It's a plan that's been in place before we got here. Maybe some minute changes here and there...Most of it is about management," he said. "Patrick Council is highly qualified."

Attempts to reach Council directly Tuesday were not successful, but Baraka attributed any calls for his removal to motives that had more to do with last year's campaign than the safety of residents.

"Many people are taking advantage of this situation. They didn't say all of this last year when we had snowstorms," he said. "To make a judgment about them because we're having a bad snowstorm now, it's politically motivated. Ultimately there are going to be a few people who use this as an opportunity to campaign."

Baraka also defended Juba Dowdell, an admitted longtime friend who was named the city's deputy emergency management coordinator in January 2015. The city's Department of Emergency Management took over storm operations once a state of emergency was declared on Saturday.

A fellow poet who has performed at local tributes to Baraka's famed father, Amiri Baraka, Dowdell served six months in federal prison in 1994 for a small role in a tax fraud scheme while attending Hampton University in Virginia. He later returned to Newark to complete college and began teaching at Central High School, where Baraka also taught before becoming principal in 2007.

In an application obtained by NJ Advance Media through an open records request, Dowdell lists no previous public safety or emergency management experience, disclosing only his time as a teacher. Newark school personnel records indicate he left the teaching position to take a leave of absence before accepting his current $89,932 position.

City officials said he went through six months of training with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other state and local entities before fully taking the reins.

On Tuesday, Baraka said Dowdell's role is focused on helping to apply for grants and reimbursements for overtime and other expenses incurred during local emergencies, and he played no direct role in coordinating the city's storm response.

"It's strictly administrative," he said. "He is in no way strategizing any public safety response."

Since taking office, Baraka has hired a number of political allies from the South Ward and beyond, as well as family members, though the moves drew little to no public criticism at the time.

Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, who oversees the city's police, fire and emergency management operations, called Council a "highly competent executive" and said Dowdell, while not directly involved with snow removal, was "one of the most valuable and hardest working people (in OEM)."

"I wish I had 10 Juba Dowdells," he said. "Snow removal is a team effort, and Pat and Juba are valuable members of the team."

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