Interview with Councilman John Sharpe James

Tuesday, 02 September 2014 14:43 Local Talk News Editor


Continuing our series of interviews with leaders in our area, Local Talk recently sat down with the son of a Newark legend, South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.

Dhiren Shah: What made you run for city council again?

John Sharpe James: I ran for South Ward council initially in 2006. I was unsuccessful. In 2010, I was asked to run as part of a team. Instead of running again in the South Ward, they asked me to run for an at-Large and allow Ras Baraka to run for the South Ward seat. I believe he deserved the opportunity. He ran numerous times before and was part of the community. I supported the community team concept, so I took that risk.

DS: How does your background in the military and working with the county help in being South Ward Councilman?

JJ: On the military side, I understand law enforcement. The city of Newark is an organization, which needs to be run a certain way. We need to be professional and disciplined in our duties. Those duties, done the right way, will reflect in better resources and opportunities for the community. On the county side, it has allowed me to have more exposure in the community. We run the sheriff's department. I work at a psychiatric hospital which has afforded me the opportunity to meet with many Newarkers who have family members there.
Over the years, it's government experience, it's experience with large agencies. Now as a Newark councilperson, I'm able to say we need to work on these departments, customer service, and quality of resources to the citizens of Newark. They voted for us, and they deserve the best.

DS: Do you believe in more policing or community programs to reduce crime?

JJ: I believe you have to look at the all-around process; everyone has to be involved. You can't just have a bunch of police on the street. You can't have a city with no programs for the youth, because they would tend to go in another non-law abiding manner. There needs to be a good balance along with faith. We need a certain number of police officers to deter those who would commit crimes and respond when crimes are committed. But, we need to have programs for youth and training for teens and those returning from college. We can't have a police state. If you pit the police against the community, the police are going to lose every time. The community will feel disrespected and not included because they overpowered by this law enforcement agency with guns, like the issue in Ferguson, Missouri right now. We need to bring back some of the programs which prevent youth from going astray, and focusing on getting a degree, gaining employment, starting and sustaining a family.

DS: Do you have any programs for the working middle and working poor class?

JJ: The One-Stop Center at 900 Broad St. is open to all ranges of Newarkers. Not just low-income, not just reentry. If your job skills meet the needs of a job, they will give you a call. It's for every resident of Newark.
DS: As a new member of the city council, what has been the most surprising aspect of the job so far?

JJ: The budget is the most surprising because we were led to believe that the prior administration had balanced the budget. It wasn't until we picked up the newspaper in March or April that we had a $93 million deficit, which the Booker administration still refuses to acknowledge that they had a $38 million deficit left over from 2013. We didn't get to $93 million because of the current administration, which just took office July 1st. Former Mayor Quintana was only in for six or seven months, so you can't blame him. Because of the mismanagement and failure to plan properly by the Booker administration, the same mismanagement that led to 167 police officers being laid off in 2010, the same mismanagement that led to rampant corruption with the Newark Watershed, has resulted in the 2014 deficit from the 2013 budget. Being elected to a full term as a councilman, I'm facing possible layoffs of police and fire, city hall personnel, no money, and a State takeover. That was the most traumatic issue I face. We're going to be held back because of financial reasons and State oversight.

DS: What do you feel is Mayor Baraka's biggest asset?

JJ: Commitment to and communication with the community. He had forums prior to and after becoming mayor. He's been in the community his entire life, and been upfront and forward with every issue that's affected the community. We've been together since 2006 and I support him on all of his positions. He doesn't want to take the shortcut or the quick answer, and that is the biggest thing we can put forward about him. He's direct and straightforward. There are no gimmicks or games that can get us to the next level, as we've seen from nearly eight years of the Booker administration, which did such a poor job in my eyes, given the amount of resources they had.
All the big names backing them; $15 million in campaign funds that was spent over two campaigns; a complete council behind him from 2006 to 2010, and 90 percent of the council from 2010 to 2014. And, when you look at the finances of the city of Newark, if you look budget by budget, if you look year by year, we never balanced the budget. In 2007, he didn't raise the taxes. In 2008 (and since then), we needed aid from the State. Consistently, he never was able to balance the budget. He never put Newark on a better fiscal ground to move forward. Now we're faced with the after effects of mismanagement, neglect, him being out of town 25 percent of the time. Baraka will be a full-time mayor, 24/7, and that's what Newark needs right now, commitment.

DS: What should be done about the tense education situation in Newark? Do you support the One Newark Plan or an alternative?

JJ: I think it's a horrible plan. After 19 years of State control, for them to automatically ramp up charter school creation, using the Facebook money only to help charters instead of traditional public schools - some schools of which are exemplary - is just poor judgment, poor choice. Talking about reform, some people are talking about term limits. Why after 19 years is the State all of a sudden going to do something right that they haven't done already? It was poorly thought out. Now it involves busing of students, which we didn't previously rely on. It splits families up because it destroys neighborhood schools. It's bringing in teachers from Teach America who have never been in an urban environment and don't know the community. It's absolutely horrendous. So, I'm really against it. We're working with the anti-One Newark organization. We're allowing them to use our South Ward youth center on Clinton Place to get petitions to keep the community notified of rallies and other events. We going to keep opposing this, and we hope the Federal investigation into the One Newark Plan moves forward. This is a detriment to our community, and I'm very much against it.

DS: Where do you see Newark in five years?

JJ: That's a trick question with the fact that we hope that the State approves the aid package. If they give us the money requested by the mayor, $31 million, we will have a chance to streamline operations in the city. We will not make any expenditures which are unnecessary. We'll just have to tighten our belts and support the residents the best we can now and find new revenue sources, such as the Port Authority. We have the right every five years to review the books. We have a right to a certain percentage of the subleases they have with various entities. Our five year window is coming up in 2015. If from that we can gain $10-$15 million in additional revenue, that's a plus.
We need to look into the tax abatements. Some companies have presented their annual information. Some have presented old paperwork, numbers that aren't correct. We need to go in and evaluate each of those tax abatements. Instead of keeping with the PILOT payments from day one, the payments should have increased with the profits. We need to make sure they're paying their fair share. We cannot keep raising taxes. It will tax people out of our city. It'll tax seniors who are on a fixed income. They wouldn't be able to afford living here.

DS: How can you apply what you learned from your father Sharpe James? Also, do you aspire to be mayor one day?

JJ: I'm just here as South Ward Councilman. I want to serve them and ultimately, the city of Newark. I'm not into planning future titles. I believe it takes commitment, love for the city, love for the residents, and community involvement. That's what I learned growing up when my father progressed from being councilman to mayor. I like being with the people; I love being in the city of Newark. No person can be assumed to be unimportant. Everyone has something to contribute. If you wrongfully distance yourself or not want to associate with certain people because of how they look or how much money they make, you're really doing a disservice being a public servant in the city of Newark and other places.
The word on the street is just as important as the word in the boardroom. I have the patience, respect, and decency to meet and speak with anyone. I have an open door policy, and I meet with any resident that wants to speak with me as well as going on to various community events. You have to be visible and present; you have to love the city you work in.

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