Friday, September 15, 2006

Constituent Relations - Ledger - Booker sets a model

Published in the Star-Ledger, Friday, September 15, 2006

Booker gives new meaning to 'chat room' in Newark

Star-Ledger Staff

Retired corrections officer William Elmore wasn't planning to take advantage of Newark Mayor Cory Booker's open office hours yesterday, but after waiting four hours to get a report because his wheelchair could not get into the police station on Green Street, he decided a conversation with the city's top guy was in order.

"I was hoping to bring to his attention that even City Hall is not as accessible as it should be," Elmore, 47, said yesterday. "I shouldn't be treated like a second-class citizen."

Sitting in a conference room in the basement of City Hall, Booker listened to Elmore's complaints and dozens more from residents in the first of what is being billed as a bi-monthly opportunity to chat with the mayor.

Inside what looked like a tan confessional booth, more than 80 people sidled up to Booker and talked about everything from supporting the Central Ward Jazz Drill Team to offering a reward to find out who murdered a sibling.

"This gives people a chance who want to see their mayor," said Booker during a brief break. "If I can do it during election season, I can do it when I'm an elected official with the authority to do something."

After entering City Hall, visitors were greeted and a form detailing their concern was filled out by a staff member. Enough chairs to form a waiting room were set up in the rotunda. From there, residents moved into the conference room where they sat outside the booth to talk with Booker. Various department heads also were lined up outside to provide follow-up.

Although each person was allotted three minutes, Booker often spent more time chatting than that. The mayor often bounded outside the booth to greet each resident as he did with Ervin Mathis, a machine mechanic with a conviction on his record who is now working but trying to get a higher-paying job.

Mathis asked Booker to write him a letter of recommendation. After reviewing his résumé, Booker told Mathis he was on the right track and agreed to write a general letter. He also was referred to the personnel department.

"Brother Mathis, God has plans for you. Feel it?" Booker said.

"It went well," Mathis said afterward. "It's a crowd of people so you can't get everything you want but he's trying hard to serve."

Alieu Shariff came to City Hall to talk to Booker about the murder of his brother Mohammed Bamba, 33, last week. Bamba, a street vendor from Liberia, was found shot several times inside his residence on Longworth Street.

"We are asking the city of Newark to help us to get the killer," Shariff said.

The family also wanted the city to offer a reward to help find Bamba's killer and financial assistance to bring his mother over from Liberia.

Shariff said he received assurances from Booker that some of the city's best detectives were on the case and that he would investigate the possibility of a reward.

"We are hopeful something will happen," Shariff said.

Terrance Bankston, director of constituent services, said senior staff were concerned about having Booker sit down with so many residents and thought about devising alternative formats, but the mayor insisted on "seeing every person." At 7 p.m., Booker had met with about 80 residents.

There was also concern that meeting with residents would be difficult if there were controversial issues afoot, such as Booker's proposed 8 percent tax increase and the reduction of 10 to 20 percent of the city's employees.

"We got calls asking would the open hours be canceled because of those issues," said Bankston. "He has to stand up to the hot-button issues. We are not going to play politics with the open hours."

What will really make the program work is the follow-through, said Bankston. Every issue will be divided by topic and then tracked until resolved.

Booker said he realizes he's not going to be able to solve every problem but that he's trying to be honest with residents about what the city can do for them. The plan is to have two open hours sessions a month from October to December and then evaluate the program.

Elmore, the retired corrections officer, said he left his conversation with Booker slightly optimistic. He said Booker invited him to join in more talks about accessibility issues.

"I know how politicians work. Everyone is saying what they are going to do, but they've only been in office a few months so we might have to wait and see," Elmore said.

Jeffery C. Mays covers Newark City Hall. He may be reached at or (973) 392-4149.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.