NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — When City Councilor Luis Quintana was sworn in as Newark’s interim mayor in November, he was expected to keep a steady hand on government.
Instead, he’s shaking up City Hall.
A month after taking over for Mayor Cory Booker, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in October, Quintana has asserted his independence, moving to fire some of Booker’s closest advisers and differentiate himself from his predecessor.
“I’m not here for a beauty contest. I’m here for a job,” Quintana told The Associated Press.
Quintana is a study in contrasts to the 44-year old Booker, a Rhodes scholar who, with his 1.4 million Twitter followers and regular appearances on national television, was one of the nation’s most famous mayors.
Quintana, 53, doesn’t “twit,” as he put it in October. He’s the longest-serving member of the City Council, a student of its minutiae and a creature of the city’s insular, rough-and-tumble politics. He has no plans to ascend to higher office or leave the city where he’s lived since arriving at age 8 from Puerto Rico. Quintana got his start in city politics working for Booker’s political rival Sharpe James. James beat Booker in the 2002 mayor’s race. He was appointed City Council president in September.
Quintana will only serve as the city’s chief executive until a new mayor, elected in May, is sworn in.
Darrin Sharif, one of three City Council members running for mayor, said Quintana is well-positioned to govern how he sees fit.
“He knows how the city works,” Sharif said. “He knows all of the departments and directors and everyone below those department and director levels.”
City Council members frequently clashed with Booker. Some have said he spent too much time improving the downtown district at the expense of outlying neighborhoods, and he didn’t do enough to reduce crime. Quintana said he knows the City Council’s frustrations firsthand and has a mandate from his colleagues to take the city in a new direction.
Booker’s knack for courting a national audience drew rebukes from some City Council members. Quintana said he’s the anti-Booker while taking a thinly-veiled swipe at the former mayor.
“I’m a different person. I’m not a grandstander. I’m not a picture guy taking pictures. I’m not on TV. I’m a guy who wants to be hands on,” Quintana said, noting that he bought Christmas wreaths and lights for City Hall with his own money at Home Depot.
Quintana and other City Council members on Monday are protesting the state control of Newark’s schools and say Superintendent Cami Anderson has not fixed the district’s many chronic problems. While the state appointed Anderson, she was Booker’s top choice.
Council members, all longtime Newark residents, chafed at Booker hiring outsiders like Anderson, who came from New York City. Quintana said the Council asked him to “bring Newarkers back” to City Hall. He said he wants to build his own team to manage city departments.
Quintana would only confirm that he’s “sent some notices out” about terminating some employees and that others are being reassigned. He said they include Booker’s spokesman, finance director and fire chief. The Newark Star-Ledger reported at least eight people were given pink slips the day before Thanksgiving. Quintana said the city still has to prepare a press release on the personnel changes.
“I’ve got to look at what’s best for the city and what I need,” Quintana said. “Basically it’s nothing personal against no one. It’s just what we’re doing to move in a different direction.”
But Quintana might not be able to move as fast as he wants. Newark is under a state monitor, and officials in Trenton must clear hires under an agreement put in place as a condition of the city receiving state aid. The city received $32 million in state aid in 2011 and $10 million in 2012 after it ran a surplus.
A letter from the director of the state division of local government services tells Quintana that the firings may violate state law and that statutes require certain procedures to remove a municipal budget official.
Quintana said he’s meeting with city lawyers and has a meeting set up with the state.
He said that he has been _ and always will be _ his own person and that he needs to feel comfortable with all the people in key positions.
“It’s like you tell me to fix your car, and I fix your car and use only screwdrivers and a pair of pliers,” he said. “I have to have the right tools moving forward.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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