Councilman says he was pressured to fire employee who criticized Baraka appointment

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on August 11, 2015

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is denying allegations of political retribution by At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, who claims he was pressured to fire a top staff member who was critical of Baraka appointee Jacqueline Quiles.

 

NEWARK — Mayor Ras Baraka is denying allegations that he tried to force the firing of a longtime city council employee for criticizing a high-ranking member of his administration.

At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana made the claims last week in an interview with NJ Advance Media, saying Baraka's brother and chief of staff Amiri "Middy" Baraka approached him and pressured him to get rid of his own top staffer, Nelson "Butchie" Nieves.

"His brother told me that Butchie should go. I can't fire somebody because they're doing something. I have to fire people because I have a reason," he said. "It's all tactics."

Quintana claims the move was spurred by Nieves' repeated and outspoken criticism of Jacqueline Quiles, Baraka's deputy mayor for community engagement.

The veteran councilman says he declined the alleged request to fire Nieves, and claims Baraka reacted by rescinding a letter recommending he be appointed to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.

City spokeswoman Marjorie Harris said the allegations were "all untrue."

"No one was told to fire anyone. And as far as we know, council member Quintana's name is still at the state for one of the appointments," she said.

The allegation, however, speaks to what officials and community members say is a deep divide between Quiles and some members of the city's Puerto Rican community.

Named to her $87,916 post in Baraka's administration in April, Quiles is a former Miss Puerto Rico New Jersey whose resume also includes time as a social worker and a degree in business administration.

The city has traditionally employed one Puerto Rican deputy mayor as liaison to the city's large community with roots on the island. When she was hired, the city touted her experience with various Latino organizations, including six years as president of the Newark Puerto Rican Heritage Statewide Parade.

Many questioned the move, however, largely on the basis that Quiles had not been living in Newark prior to being hired, which they considered at odds with a Baraka campaign promise to hire city residents to key posts. Before accepting the position, she was a resident of Perth Amboy, where she had a position in the town's Office of Aging, and has close ties to Mayor Wilda Diaz - one of the state's most prominent Puerto Rican officials.

It is her time with the parade, however, that has drawn ire from Nieves, who has since taken over as president of the annual event. He and others involved with it say she abandoned the position in 2012, leaving them with tens of thousands in unpaid bills to both the city and Essex County that had accumulated for years.

In a letter to Baraka's office in early June, community activist Ramonita Rivera and parade co-founder said she was "disgusted" by her appointment.

"Not only is she not a resident of Newark, she is not respected in our community for the damage she caused as President of the Puerto Rican Day Parade during 2006-2012," she said.

Documents provided to NJ Advance Media include a bill from 2012 signed by former city business administrator Julien Neals, showing that the organization owed $29,380 for police security and other expenses during the prior year's parade — balances Nieves and others said remain unpaid.

The statewide parade was not held during 2013 or 2014, though the city has still put on a smaller event to honor Newark's Puerto Rican Day.

Harris said Quiles had no comment on the allegations.

Since being hired, Quiles has made regular appearances at press conferences and other events aimed at the Hispanic community, including the introduction of a municipal ID program that helps undocumented immigrants obtain bank accounts and other services. She also spearheaded the city's Latino Festival, which attracted thousands when it was held on Bloomfield Avenue Aug. 2.

Irving "El Coqui" Linares, a former parade president and the editor of weekly newspaper El Nuevo Coqui, submitted that she does have supporters in the Puerto Rican community, but that overall opinion remained deeply divided.

"The people, they're surprised why the mayor picked her. We have a lot of women that he could have appointed for that position," he said.

Nieves also complained said the Latin Festival has drawn sponsors away from the city's Puerto Rican Day Parade, and that permits for the event have been repeatedly delayed by City Hall — leading him to allege that it's fate may now be caught in the shifting political tides.

"I know what political retribution looks like. I see it straight in my face. I lived Ken Gibson. I lived Sharpe James. I lived Booker. Now I'm living Ras Baraka," he said.

Quintana said he was aware of "a lot of issues" between some members of the community and Quiles, though he said he harbored no personal ill will toward her. However, he said he felt Nieves, a longtime friend who has been on his staff since he joined the council in 1994, had a right to voice criticisms where he sees fit.

"The whole problem is because Butchie has an opinion. I'm tired of people telling people, 'my way or the highway'," he said.

"Ninety miles off the coast of Miami, there's a place called Havana. They haven't lifted the embargo yet. But I live in Newark, New Jersey. I don't have to be subjected to no one telling me."

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