Newark council upset over attempt to oust top economic official

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for
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on February 18, 2016

Newark Community Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Otis Rolley, pictured here during his 2011 campaign for mayor of Baltimore. An attempt to oust Rolley from his position has sparked conflict between the Newark City Council and the city's administration.


NEWARK — A surreptitious effort to oust the head of one of Newark's top economic development agencies has sparked conflict between Mayor Ras Baraka's administration and members of the City Council.

At a preliminary council meeting Wednesday afternoon, local activist Tyrone "Street Counselor" Barnes accused West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum of approving unauthorized bonuses for employees of the Newark Community Economic Development Corp., and signed off on a "lavish" contract for its president and CEO Otis Rolley.

McCallum was not present at the meeting, and police eventually removed Barnes after council members and Corporation Counsel Willie Parker attempted to keep him from speaking.

The councilman struck back Wednesday night, claiming the accusations were part of an orchestrated attack by Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Baye Adofo-Wilson.

Multiple sources in City Hall said Wilson has been among a number of administration officials negotiating to oust Rolley and his chief financial officer, Kevin Seawright, to leave the CEDC.

"I don't appreciate the director of economic development giving someone a script to try to impugn my integrity, and I won't have it," McCallum said. "I'll put my integrity against anybody. They should have known that before they came at me with that nonsense."

City Communications Director Frank Baraff said Wilson had no relationship with Barnes and categorically denied any influence on public comments during Wednesday's meeting.

While funded by Newark, the CEDC is a quasi-governmental agency governed by its own board, and the council and other city officials have no direct power regarding personnel decisions. Its board of directors was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting Thursday morning.

Rolley, who ran for mayor of Baltimore in 2011, was handpicked by Baraka's administration to run the Brick City Development Corp. in August 2014, and Seawright followed shortly thereafter. Three months later, the agency was re-launched under its new name.

Rolley is also a sitting member of the city's Central Planning Board.

In an interview, Barnes — a vocal Baraka supporter who was among a number of activists involved in a December anti-violence protest turned skirmish - denied that anyone had influenced him into making the comments.

"I think this is a misuse of public trust," he said. "If you suck from the poor and serve your own interests, you're going to hear about it."

Both Rolley and Seawright remain in their positions as of Thursday. Neither could be reached for comment, and current CEDC chairwoman Joyce Harley did not return calls from a reporter.

After McCallum's comments Wednesday night, other council members also expressed their dismay at what they viewed as underhanded tactics by the administration.

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins noted that Barnes was reading from a sheet of paper during his comments, and wondered aloud how he became privy to discussions held during private CEDC board meetings.

"We live a public life so we know that we're going to be attacked. But when you get set up by somebody from the inside to attack you, then that should teach all of us a lesson," she said.

Councilman At-Large Luis Quintana urged Business Administrator Jack Kelly to "take charge" of his team of directors, warning that the airing of personal grievances in public forums could lead to legal disputes.

Many also took issue with what they felt had been an attempt to bypass the executive body's authority.

"If there are some concerns on the city side, the administration's side, than rather than feeding this chatter of campaign, then come before this body...and have a conversation with the council about what your concerns are," said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.

"The fact that there is this kind of chatter campaign going on is what leads to what happened here today."

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