With Jeffery Jones, the city’s mayor, and Christopher Coke, the city’s public works director, present in the chamber, council members attempted to figure out what went wrong days following last week’s snowstorm, during Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Tell us what happened?” asked Julio Tavarez, the 5th Ward councilman and the chairman of the Department of Public Works Committee. “We have had an awfully lot of snow, followed by rain and freezing, and unfortunately no salt to be seen,” answered Jones, who, along with Coke, was invited on Friday to come before the council to explain the lack of an adequate response to clean up city roads after Tuesday’s heavy snowfall.
“The biggest factor why we were not as effective as we wanted to be was a lack of salt,” said Coke. The director said his department had ordered sufficient supply of salt prior to the storm, but that supply, which was supposed to arrive early Wednesday morning, did not materialize due to a State-wide salt shortage. “It wasn’t until Friday and Wednesday morning that we found out that we would not get the delivery we were promised,” said Coke.
“Snow and ice is a situation where you have to fight it from ground up. To drop salt on the ground after it freezes over doesn’t have the same effect as dropping it on the ground before it has a chance to freeze,” said Coke, explaining why even after some deliveries of salt made it to the city, the department was unable to get rid of the ice that had formed due to low temperature.
Despite the shortage, Coke said his department managed to employ whatever salt it had in a strategic manner, spreading salts on dangerous hilly sections of the city. “Our hills were not in bad shape,” said Coke. “We knew the area we had to concentrate on even with the amount of salt we had.”
“The state has told us this is a state-wide problem,” said Jones, reading an email he received from the State, explaining the salt shortage. Jones said other warm States that were having snow problems were snapping up salt, causing a shortage in the Garden State.
During the meeting Coke cited a document where he listed all the city’s equipment. Many of the department’s vehicles were outdated. The least old vehicle was eight year old; some were as old as 31-year-old.
Few trucks were down in need of repair, according to the report. “There’s no excuse why the trucks should be down,” said Rigo Rodriguez, councilman at-large. Rodriguez said contracts are in place and the department should repair its trucks.
The director said they were waiting for the salt prior to plowing thinking the snow would melt away with a little bit of salt, but when salt did not arrive as was promised almost every street in the city froze over. Department workers attempted to clear the snow aside using rubber blades, but the ice halted the process. Switching vehicles to steel blade, which Coke said does more damage to the roads, could not be done because the city’s streets were uneven and littered with potholes.
Ruby Cotton, the 4th Ward councilwoman and committee vice chair, asked Coke whether he knew about the salt shortage on Wednesday or the day prior. Coke, responded he only knew about it on Wednesday morning. Cotton asked why this was not communicated to the broader community and councilmembers.
“I didn’t realize there was a salt problem until Friday,” said Cotton, stating the department didn’t inform the public properly. “We did put a message out saying that, we’re low on salt,” said Coke, who posted a status update on the department’s Facebook page. “Nobody knew what was happening,” said Tavarez.
“You could blame it on the salt all you want,” said Rodriguez, councilman at-large, who is running for mayor. “Salt was one thing not bothering is another.”
Coke took offense to Rodriguez’s characterization that he doesn’t not care about the city. “I take it personally when people say I don’t care about this city,” said Coke. “This city is all I know!”
Rodriguez wanted to see paperwork of the orders. “You expected salt on Wednesday,” said Rodriguez. “To me you missed the bus.”
Coke said he would provide the order details and papers to the councilman.
“Bus stops throughout the city needs to be cleaned,” said Rodriguez, who read out a list of items that required attention. Jones responded he was not going to negotiate with Rodriguez leading a verbal scuffle between the two.
Rodriguez pushed his demands, while the mayor raised his voice. Tavarez, seeing the meeting is getting out of control, reigned in Rodriguez, saying, “Councilman you’re out of order!” Tavarez told Rodriguez to keep it strictly process based and avoid politics.
Councilmembers wanted to know what plans the department had in place to ensure streets would be properly cleared during the pending snow storm on Thursday. “In a normal storm we use 200 to 250 tons of salt,” said Coke. “For ice storm we’re talking about 300 tons of salt.”
Coke said the city only had 75 tons of salt in storage, and there were orders for 700 tons of salt that has yet to arrive. “Whether we get a delivery tomorrow is anybody’s guess,” said Jones.
“I think we all have a better understanding of what happened,” said William McKoy, the 3rd Ward councilman. “We’re still not happy with it.”
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, wanted the department to figure out a way it could clean up streets so as to free up parking space on the roads. Morris suggested the department employ the current street cleaning times and figure out a way to declare local emergencies forcing residents to move their vehicles to one side of the street after heavy snow fall at a certain time of the day to clear snow from both sides of the street.
“These past couple days I had to hold my head low because of the job that was done,” said Morris. Many residents too expressed shame and disgust at the poor job that was done.