Saturday, August 30, 2014

We have all been here before

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
---George Santayana 

This week, Trenton's city council is scheduled to vote on the approval of a proposed contract with Long Marmero and Associates of Woodbury, NJ. Resolution 14-490 would award a contract "not to exceed $20,000" to the firm for work on "general municipal and defense litigation matters."

This is the same contract that was pulled from the August 7 docket after questions were raised about whether or not the Long Marmero firm violated the city's pay-to-play ordinance.

(For background on this matter, we refer you to Kevin Moriarty's blog entries for August 4, August 5 and August 7.  You can also read stories in the Times and the Trentonian.) 

Here's a synopsis of the facts of the matter:
  • The Initiate Civic Empowerment Political Action Committee was formed by members/employees of the Long Marmero firm. 
  • The ICE PAC shares its business address with that that of the Long Marmero firm
  • The ICE PAC had somehow neglected to file the required reports with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission from 2012 until June of this year. Those reports were filed exactly one day AFTER Kevin Moriarty blogged about the failure to file.
  • The ICE PAC recently changed its designated treasurer from Albert Marmero, one of the partners of the Long Marmero firm, to a "scheduling secretary" who is an employee of the firm.  
  • The ICE PAC has contributed money to and paid consulting fees to the Mayor of Delran, who in turn chose the Long Marmero firm to serve as the township's solicitor
  • Doug Long, a partner in the Long Marmero firm, is a Cumberland County Freeholder who has received contributions and reimbursements from the ICE PAC that Long alleges his law firm does not control. 

The resolution is back on the docket after the DCA declared that the Long Marmero firm was "qualified to perform the services and their price is reasonable.

The DCA has NOT ruled on whether or not the firm violated the city's pay to play ordinance.

So, it is up to Trenton's governing body to decide if they want to approve this contract or not.

We remind everyone of a similar situation that arose in late 2010 and early 2011. The administration of the now incarcerated Tony Mack lobbied extensively to have the city council...essentially the same city council minus newcomer Councilman At Large Duncan Harrison...to go with a new provider of IT consulting services.

Ignoring the obvious shortcomings of Lynx Technology Partner's low bid in response to the city's RFP for IT services, the governing body voted in favor of the newcomer.  In explaining his January 2011 vote in favor of the Lynx contract, Councilman Zachary Chester cited a "letter" from the DCA approving this choice. That "letter" was in fact merely a form from DCA signifying that indeed Lynx had submitted the lowest bid. It stated nothing about the firms qualifications.

The choice of Lynx Technology Partners was later challenged in court and tossed out in favor of the city's long time IT services provider, ADPC, Inc. 

The governing body was advised by many to NOT approve the contract with Lynx Technology Partners. Yet they did and the city ended up fighting and losing a court battle over it.

Many are now urging essentially that same body to NOT approve the contract with the firm of Long Marmero and Associates. Whether or not the firm has found an actual loophole in the city's pay-to-play ordinance, the appearance of a violation is enough to taint any contract with Long Marmero.

We hope they do not repeat the past. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We're (still) waiting

On February 7, 2014, Trenton’s then mayor, Tony Mack, was found guilty of six federal counts of corruption. Due to a quirk in New Jersey state law, Mack was able to hold onto his office for nearly three more weeks until Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson heard a motion brought by acting State Attorney General John Hoffman. 

Indeed, Mack had actually continued in office for a year and half after the FBI had raided his home and city hall; 16 months after he was officially arrested and charged; and 14 months after he was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury.

On February 21, 2014, the Times of Trenton ran a guest Op Ed by Jim Carlucciand Kevin Moriarty.


In that piece, they wrote:
“Mack’s criminal odyssey highlights critical problems with New Jersey law that the Legislature must address if other communities — or the state as a whole — are to avoid an experience similar to Trenton’s and retain trust in their public officials.”
“Public officials need to be reminded that if they act appropriately and conduct themselves ethically, they won’t find themselves indicted or convicted.”
The writers understand that, as Americans, we are innocent until proven guilty. They also argue that, “without making pre-judgments about guilt or innocence, it can be safely said a criminal indictment, at best, is a major distraction to the execution of an official’s duties.”

To date, nothing has been done to change the law in New Jersey that allows these indicted officials from continuing in office.



Many saw where the Mack administration was heading simply by reviewing his election reports. In fact, there are still open “reviews” of his reports even while he is currently a resident of a federal prison.

The February Op-Ed included a recommendation to increase the resources of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission so they could better stay on top of the questionable practices too often employed in the state’s political theater.
“Illuminating and correcting wrongdoing on the campaign trail could help reduce the number of indicted officials down the road. The Legislature needs to allocate more resources to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Regular users of the ELEC website know that it is down as much as it is up. The problems, reported in the minutes of the November 2013 meeting of the commission, are an outdated and overtaxed computer system and a lack of funds to make the necessary upgrades.”


This matter has come to light again with recent questions about potential violations of the city of Trenton’s Pay-to-Play ordinance by contributors to newly elected mayor Eric Jackson’s campaign.
 
On March 10th, 2014 Moriarty blogged about Jackson’s long overdue reporting on the 2010 campaign for Mayor. In a follow up piece from April 22  Moriarty noted that Jackson had updated some of his reports but raised some other questions about excessive contributions from former senator Robert Torricelli. On June 3 and yet again this month on August 4,  August 5,  and August 7, Jackson's campaign reporting was called into question on Moriarty's blog. 

The legislative response to all of this has been…crickets.

Another point made in the February Op-Ed by Carlucci and Moriarty was the need to rework the recall process in the state.

“A practical and effective recall process will allow New Jersey voters to exercise greater control over elected officials and must be considered a weapon to fight future public corruption.”

The legislature needs to take a serious look at these issues and pass amendments to our current laws that will eliminate the “wiggle room” that allows corruption to continue.  Yes, some have made noise about this but nothing has gotten any traction.

Again quoting the February Op-Ed:
“In 2012, Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson introduced a bill which would automatically suspend, without pay, public officials upon indictment. If convicted, the official forfeits his or her office, pay and pension credits from date of indictment. If found not guilty, the official would be reinstated, and back pay and pension would be granted upon successful petition. State Sen. Linda Greenstein followed with a companion bill. The assemblymen pre-filed their bill for the new legislative term (A1024).”
“In October 2012, Sen. Shirley Turner proposed amending the state constitution to achieve the same goal. Nothing has become of that.”
“Assemblyman Reed Gusciora has stated he will seek to change state law to allow automatic forfeiture of political office upon criminal conviction, regardless of where the conviction occurs.”


The people of New Jersey are still waiting. 



Thursday, July 03, 2014

Alice doesn’t (have to) live here anymore.

Shortly after taking the oath of office on Tuesday, July 1, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson announced four appointments to his cabinet. Three of the four appointees are NOT city residents and are therefore, technically, not able to hold the positions on a permanent basis.

Now we have learned that the state, through the Division of Local Government Services oversight of the Transitional Aid, has made changing the city’s residency law a requirement in the recently signed MOU for the current fiscal year.

This is not new. The state has suggested these changes before but the governing body has been reluctant to go along.

Instead of following the law we get out of town people who, at best, rent apartments or homes in the city in an effort to feign compliance, while escaping home to Maryland or North Jersey or wherever on weekends and holidays.

Since 1972, the City of Trenton has had an ordinance requiring all cityemployees except police, fire and teachers to be bona fide residents. After 15 years of continuous service, employees could move out of the city without losing their jobs. The idea, of course, was to help retain a middle class by making residence in the city mandatory for anyone seeking employment with the city. The rule applies from directors down to the maintenance people.

In 1987, the ordinance was amended to allow for a waiver to be granted to give individuals who were not residents at the time of hire a defined window in which to become bona fide residents of the capital city.

The ordinance was increasingly applied in a haphazard manner. There were numerous examples of people who maintained a Trenton address merely to appear to comply with the law while the administration “turned its head” to look the other way.

The ordinance was also at times used to punish those who had fallen out of favor with the administration. There are various individuals who were railroaded out of their city job for “non-residency” that actually were residents. Some fought and retained their positions; others took the hint and walked away.

We cannot continue to ignore the law when it is convenient to do so and apply it selectively when it suits the whim of the administration. We either have to live with it, and the consequences, or we must change the law.

We’ve been here before.

As recently as April of this year an ordinance was brought forth for council approval that would have allowed the Trenton Water Works to recruit and hire non-Trenton residents to fill key vacancies at the utility. 

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered TWW to bolster its staff of licensed technicians. The fact is that there just aren’t that many in the state, let alone Trenton proper.

While it is a great idea to train current employees and residents for the positions, the process is a long one and, per TWW Superintendent Joe McIntyre, there have been few if any people willing to take the required courses.

Hence, the request to amend the residency requirement to allow TWW to recruit from beyond the city borders.

The ordinance passed its first reading but was tabled before the second because members of council were concerned about shutting Trentonians out of good paying jobs at TWW. Even then candidate, now councilman Duncan Harrison was against revising the ordinance.

Residency or rather the lack thereof was what finally caused controversial police director Joe Santiago to leave the city of Trenton’s employ.

It really isn’t much of a surprise that any attempt to find the “best and brightest” candidates to stock any administration’s cabinet or fill vacancies in various departments must reach beyond Trenton’s 7.5 square miles.

In April 2011, the city wanted to amend the residency ordinance so that former State Treasurer David Rousseau could be appointed Trenton’s chief financial officer. Council balked and a year later Mayor Mack decided not to renew Rousseau’s consulting contract. This came on the heels of Rousseau showing the governing body the path by which it was able to cut the funding for and eliminate the Mayoral Aides. Had the ordinance been changed a year earlier and Rousseau actually appointed to the Mayor’s cabinet, the council could have (and we guess probably would have) overruled his dismissal by the petty tyrant Tony Mack.  

The sad fact is that as Trenton’s fortunes have flagged, the supply of residents with the requisite “world class” abilities and qualifications has decreased. Additionally and to be brutally honest, the city’s long decline makes it unattractive for individuals with the desired skill set to relocate here to take a job that could vanish with the next round of layoffs or at the whim of some elected official.

So what is the water works superintendent or new mayor supposed to do when they are looking for capable and qualified candidates to fill positions?

The Times editorial board has gone on record suggesting a rethinking of the residency requirement. Civic activist Dan Dodson and others have raised their voices in concert with this line of thought.
Certainly the Division of Local Government Services in its role as recruiter for cabinet level appointees has sought candidates from beyond the city. Recently departed Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson and Police Director Ralph Rivera are but two examples.

If we truly want to turn Trenton around and need to go outside the boundaries to get the kind of personnel needed to do so, then fine.

We just caution the new mayor and the new (old) council to do it legally. If we are going to hire from outside the city, than lets craft and adopt a proper ordinance that allows us to do so.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Further investigation required

We really were not that surprised to learn that the now convicted former occupant of the office of Mayor somehow managed to create a“secret” bank account. After all, it fits the mold and methods of a man who used the city treasury as his own.

The revelation does leave many unanswered questions:

How was it accomplished without the knowledge of or approval from anyone in the finance department? If the auditor could find it, shouldn’t the checks and balances in the financial systems have picked it up sooner?

How much money was involved? Is there any left in the account? What was the money spent on?

Most importantly, will the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office open a full investigation into this? Will they bring the matter to a grand jury?

We should not concern ourselves with the fact that Mr. Mack has already been tried and convicted on Federal Corruption charges. This is about making someone fully accountable for the wrong they have done…at all levels. It is doubtful that Mr. Mack acted alone in this and anyone else who aided and abetted this deception needs to be charged accordingly. It is also about showing others that this kind of corruption will not be tolerated…at any level.

The above referenced article also revealed that there have been some issues with personnel working “out of title” and lack of controls over authorized overtime.

The audit covered the period of SFY2013 (July 1, 2012 – June 30, 2013). The report is just being made public to the city council. Sam Hutchinson, the city Business Administrator, admitted there were issues due to the massive layoffs but that things had been corrected “now.”

State statute 40:69A-44 describes the qualifications, powers and duties of the Business Administrator.

The department of administration shall be headed by a director who shall be known and
designated as business administrator. He shall be chosen solely on the basis of his
executive and administrative qualifications with special reference to his actual experience
in, or his knowledge of, accepted practice in respect to the duties of his office as
hereinafter set forth. At the time of his appointment, he need not be a resident of the
municipality or State, but during his tenure of office he may reside outside the
municipality only with the approval of council. He shall have, exercise and discharge the
functions, powers and duties of the department. The department, under the direction and
supervision of the mayor shall:

(a) Assist in the preparation of the budget;

(b) Administer a centralized purchasing system;

(c) Be responsible for the development and administration of a sound
personnel system; and

(d) Perform such other duties as council may prescribe.

(e) The governing body of the municipality may provide, by ordinance, that
the business administrator also shall, subject to the direction of the mayor,
supervise the administration of each of the departments established by ordinance.
For this purpose, he shall have power to investigate the organization and
operation of any and all departments, to prescribe standards and rules of
administrative practice and procedure, and to consult with the heads of the
departments under his jurisdiction; provided that with respect to any department
of law or department of audit, accounts or control, the authority of the business
administrator under this subsection shall extend only to matters of budgeting,
personnel and purchasing.
 L.1950, c. 210, p. 476, s. 3-14. Amended by L.1954, c. 68, p. 422, s. 2; L.1981, c. 462, s. 40; L.1981, c. 465, s. 19, eff. Jan. 9, 1982.

While it is true that Mr. Hutchinson did not come on board until April of 2012, “the development and administration of a sound personnel system” is one of the BA’s duties as enumerated in the state statute. 

When did Mr. Hutchinson become aware of these issues? How and when did he address them? Was the governing body made aware of the problems and corrections prior to the auditor’s report? (It certainly doesn't seem like it from the newspaper account)

In August of 2006 Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini removed former chief financial director and comptroller Christine Stankiewicz from city hall amid allegations of payroll fraud.

Has the prosecutor’s office been notified of the auditor’s recent findings as outlined above? If not, why not?

We hope and hereby suggest that the Mercer County Prosecutor open a full investigation into both of the matters outlined in the Mercadien report immediately. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Recycling redux

Just when you thought you had heard the last of Tony Mack, Charlie Hall, and others, they pop up again in this latest story of unpaid debts incurred due to poor management.

For years there have been rumors of an expensive piece of equipment purchased by the city of Trenton for its long defunct recycling program that sits somewhere. It was, so the stories went, ordered and paid for but never installed or used. No one seemed to be able to say where the equipment went or cared to find out.

Through some online searches and requests for public records, here’s what we have come to find out.
The City of Trenton ran its own recycling program and from 1992 until 2004, Tony Mack was the head of the recycling bureau.

The recycling bureau was disbanded when the city joined the county wide program run by the Mercer County Improve Authority in 2004.

Tony Mack was dismissed from his position with the city at that time.
That dismissal became the subject of legal action as Mack claimed his dismissal was politically motivated because he was going to challenge then Mayor Douglas H. Palmer in the May 2006 election.  A copy of the Appeals Court decision in the matter of Tony Mack vs. the City of Trenton can be found here.

In that document the following passage can be found:
Eric Jackson, the Director of Public Works, testified that in mid-2001, Mack recommended the purchase of a new sorting machine for recyclables. Mack claimed that the sale of unsorted recyclables would generate $40 a ton, while the sale of sorted recyclables could bring $200-250 per ton. He asserted that the new system "would have reduced [Trenton's] solid waste landfill budget by another million or $2 million. This was the overall objective of the conveyor system, to reduce the amount of money we pay for landfill costs." The sorting machine, which Trenton purchased for over $200,000, was never put into operation and remained with the manufacturer for resale.

The sorting machine, which Trenton purchased for over $200,000, was never put into operation.

Further along in the document there is mention of a December 19, 2002 email from Budget Officer Elana Chan to Eric Jackson that reads in part:
In the last five months, the Recycling division has charged 3 big items against this old Trust:
(1) Recycler Box Truck $59,900
(2) 10% deposit with Mayfran Sorting System $21,810
(3) 40% deposit with Mayfran Sorting System $87,239

Items (2) and (3) represent a 50% payment towards a $218,098 system, meaning you still owe the company another $149,049. Let me ask you, how do you plan to pay for it? Upon full payment of this system, there won't be much money left in FY 2004 to absorb part of the salary cost towards city positions (estimated to be $80,000 annually), then what do you plan with the staff situation in Recycling?
So, the city appeared to have ordered a $218,098 piece of equipment and by December of 2002, half of the purchase price had been paid. That much of the rumor was true.

Was it ever delivered? Did the city pay the balance? What happened to the machine after the city got out of the recycling business?

In response to an Open Public Records request submitted to the city we found out that, indeed, Trenton’s City Council had approved the contract for purchase of the sorting machine on June 20, 2002.

We also have a letter from Dan Odenwelder of BE Equipment to the City of Trenton dated November 21,2002.  In that letter, Mr. Odenwelder details change orders and delays that are increasing the costs of the project. He asks for help in moving things along.

With the information obtained from the OPRA request, we were able to contact the equipment vendor, BE Equipment of Quakertown, PA. We received a brief letter from Mr. Scott Davis, the company president.

Mr. Davis reiterated the timeline that we were already aware of: contract approved in June, 2002, letter re: change orders and such, November, 2002 (unsigned copy provided).

Mr. Davis also provided an unsigned copy of an August, 2004 letter sent to the City of Trenton. In that letter, he summarizes a phone conversation he had with the Public Works Director. Apparently, the City had asked to cancel the contract but the manufacturer would not accept that because the equipment had been custom made to fit the city’s building in which it was to be installed. The letter notes that the city agreed to pay the balance due on the purchase price plus the amount of two change orders.

The letter was apparently obtained from a computer file and the invoice mentioned was not included in what was sent to us.

We followed up with an email asking Mr. Davis what the amount that was owed was. In response, he asked that we call him.

Over the course of a 35 minute phone call, Mr. Davis graciously and calmly recounted the history of this equipment contract and his dealings with the city since. He spoke warmly of his dealings with Tony Mack and just about everyone he ever dealt with at the city. Without complaining, he mentioned that his company had paid the manufacturer of the equipment, in full, ten years ago.

Mr. Davis recalled being contacted at least twice since the August 2004 letter by someone from the city asking about the equipment. Each time all contact fell off once the whole story was laid out for them. 

He related a story of being contacted by Charles Hall about the possible reboot of the city recycling program and doing work on repairing the baler only to have problems getting paid by the city. Only after a protracted and persistent effort did he get the city to pay for the work Hall had authorized. 

Those invoices and payments were included in the response to our OPRA request that also yielded the November 21, 2002 letter from Mr. Odenwelder. It did not include a copy of the August 2004 letter provided by Mr. Davis. 

Davis remains genuinely sorry that the professional relationship he and company had with the city has fallen apart over this situation.

During the conversation, Mr. Davis stated that he honestly did not know exactly how much the city owes BE Equipment. He figured the storage costs alone could run between $30,000 and $36,000 for the 10 years he has been holding the equipment ($250 to $300 per month). He would have to pull out the files to find out what the balance owed on the original equipment purchase. We know from the court records that could be as much as $149,049 (half of the original $218,098 cost). And there are the costs of the change orders.

So, it is true. The city purchased equipment a decade ago that sits, unused and unpaid for, in storage. The Palmer administration felt they could just waltz out of town without paying what was due. The Mack administration was only interested in the equipment for the short time it considered restarting the city recycling program.

This is how our elected leaders honor their commitments? How much longer is the city going to let this situation continue?

{Mr. Davis contacted us to clarify a point. Components of the system are in storage at his facility as the manufacturing process was stopped when Trenton cancelled the order. However, BE Equipment did pay the manufacturer IN FULL for the system and the city has yet to fulfill their spoken obligation to pay for the full order plus the change orders.} 

Friday, February 28, 2014

You can take your endorsements and ...

In the Times of Trenton’s Thursday, February 27, 2014 edition, local consultant Irwin Stoolmacher offered up an opinion on how to elect better candidates in Trenton’s local elections.

Under the headline “Trenton residents need endorsements and voting records to guide election of next mayor”, Stoolmacher advises that endorsements are similar to campaign war chests. He implies that the more of either a candidate receives raises them to higher level than their opponents.

However, endorsements, like campaign money raised, are significant as they can help to separate the top-tier from the bottom-tier candidates in a race with many candidates, such as the eight at present: Wiley Fuller, Jim Golden, Patrick Hall, Eric Jackson, Oliver ‘Bucky’ Leggett, Kathy McBride, Paul Perez and Walker Worthy.

Stoolmacher asserts that sorting “can be helpful to the electorate” and requests many local officials to issue endorsements.

For this reason, I’d strongly urge County Executive Brian Hughes, Rep. Rush Holt, Sen. Shirley Turner, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, county clerk Paula Sollami-Covello, county surrogate Diane Gerofsky and the freeholders not to sit on the sidelines in the upcoming race for mayor. They should each make their views known as to which candidate they believe is best equipped to lead the city into the future and the reasons for their assessments.

We suggest that Mr. Stoolmacher has not been paying attention. If he has, he would certainly know that Mercer County Deputy Clerk Walker Worthy has been endorsed by many of the very people he has named.

Endorsements are, indeed, coveted by candidates. Unfortunately, they really don’t give any evidence of a candidate’s qualifications or likelihood of getting elected. Nor are endorsements any kind of indication of how the successful candidate will perform in office. We only have to look at those who endorsed our recently convicted and removed from office mayor, Tony Mack.

The fact is elected officials offering up endorsements only give the electorate an excuse to not do their homework on the candidates.

Stoolmacher as much as admits this when he tries to place the weight of endorsements on the continuum of candidates’ qualifications for the office sought.

I’m not suggesting that endorsements are more important than a candidate’s experience, position on key issues or performance in debates but, because they often garner significant press coverage, they can be significant.

Because they often garner significant press coverage, they can be significant.

There you have it. Endorsements are a PR tool. Nothing more. Nothing less. And they let the electorate off of the hook by providing a shortcut to choosing who to vote for.

The voter’s thinking might be something along the lines of “Oh. If the newspaper/county executive/assemblywoman etc. thinks so-and-so is good, that’s all I need!”

To his credit, Stoolmacher does state that when elected officials endorse a candidate they should explain why. He says the endorsements should include the candidate’s skill set, experience, temperament, education, etc.

What about the candidate’s plans? What about who they associate with; surround themselves with; take contributions from?

These are important things to know. Why doesn’t Stoolmacher encourage the electorate to access the public information available via campaign report filings? Why doesn’t he suggest ways and means for the voters to research and evaluate for themselves? Better informed voters will get us the best choices.

The second suggestion in Stoolmacher’s opinion piece is for Trenton City Council to provide voters with objective information that would help them decide whom to vote for.

I’d suggest it consider making candidates’ voter participation records available. Voting is a clear indicator of concern and interest in government. If a person believes in government, other than incapacitating illness, there is no good explanation for not voting.

Stoolmacher’s reasoning is that “It takes a lot of chutzpah to ask constituents to vote for you when you have not taken the time to vote in the past.

Agreed, but why is it up to the city council to provide this information to voters?

It is public information available from the county board of elections. It comes as part of the data set when you purchase the list of registered voters in the city. The data is extremely easy import into and manipulate with a spreadsheet program.

Yes, there is a cost associated with obtaining it, but any individual or group can purchase it, parse it, and publish it. Why does it have to be the city council? It is not in their job description. Or is the author suggesting that each candidate provide their own voting history as part of their campaign resume?

This doesn’t make a lot of sense and it really doesn’t matter.

We need an engaged, enlightened electorate. We do not need more spoon-fed, “show-up-at-the-polls-and-push-the-buttons-I’m-told-to-push”voters.

If, as Stoolmacher closes out with, the Mayor Tony Mack fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that who is elected really matters.

Relying on the same elected officials to tout their favorites, as they have done in the past, is not going to improve our outcome. Choosing based on somebody else’s recommendation is how the city of Trenton got to where it is today.

Looking at and critically evaluating what a candidate proposes, what they’ve done, and who they choose to surround themselves with is what the voters need to do.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

He's gone!

As of 12:32 pm (by the clock in the court room), February 26, 2014, Tony Mack is the convicted, former mayor of the city of Trenton.