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.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Contrast

The news spread quickly yesterday. Representative Rush Holt will not seek reelection this year.

Representative Holt has been a rarity in any elected office. He is incredibly intelligent, soft spoken, and more than competent. And there has never been a whiff of any scandal about him or the way he conducts his business.

Regardless of your partisan beliefs or opinions of his positions, Rep. Holt has been a model politician. His term of service is the kind that you almost wish would continue forever.

While part of us wishes he would stay on, we applaud his decision to not become one of those elected office holders who chooses to hold onto their seat forever simply because they can.

Contrast that with the man who holds the title of mayor of the city of Trenton even though he was convicted in a federal corruption trial over a week and a half ago.

Here’s an individual who is not bright, is not competent and whose every move carried the heavy stench of abuse of power and worse. He should have been removed from office long before the FBI came knocking on his door in the middle of a July night in 2012.

Incompetent. Convicted. Yet still holds the title of mayor.  He’s the one who should be announcing that he is leaving office. Immediately.

There are no clearer examples of the two extremes of American politics.

If only we had more Rush Holts.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Here's the thing

Here are six things you need to know regarding the status of Trenton Mayor Tony Mack now that a federal jury has found him guilty in the corruption case. Some of this information we have posted before but it bears repeating.

# 1:  He is still mayor unless and until he resigns OR the office is deemed vacant. The state law covering this is as follows:

§ 40A:16-3. When office deemed vacant

The office of a mayor or a member of the governing body of a municipality shall be deemed vacant:

a. Upon its being so declared by virtue of a judicial determination;

b. Upon the death of the mayor or a member of a governing body;

c. Upon a determination of the other members of the governing body that the mayor or a member of a governing body no longer resides within the corporate limits of a municipality or ward from which he was elected;

d. Upon the refusal of the mayor or member of a governing body to qualify or serve;

e. Upon a judicial determination that the mayor or member of a governing body shall have become physically or mentally incapable of serving;

f. Upon the filing of a written resignation with the municipal clerk by the mayor or a member of the governing body, except a resignation filed following the filing of a recall petition;

g. Whenever the mayor, when required by law to attend meetings of the governing body, or a member of the governing body, fails to attend and participate in any meetings of the governing body for a period of 8 consecutive weeks without being excused from attendance by a majority of the members of the governing body, at the conclusion of such period; provided, however, that the governing body may refuse to excuse only with respect to those failure to attend and participate which are not due to legitimate illness; or,

h. Upon a determination that the office comes within the purview of R.S. 19:3-25.

Got it? In this particular matter, Tony Mack must resign or a STATE judge, upon petition from the NJ Attorney General or the (Mercer County) Prosecutor sign an order vacating the office. Otherwise, Mack is mayor until Judge Shipp declares the office vacant upon sentencing.  

(NOTE: when we say the office is vacated, that refers to a permanent situation, not a temporary absence. Temporary absences can not continue beyond 60 days and would lead to a possible declaration of the office being vacant).

Currently, both the Trentonian and the Times are reporting the order is not likely to be signed until sometime Monday. So, we wait.

# 2: Who becomes the mayor upon the office being vacated?

§ 40A:9-131. Acting mayor 

In every municipality, unless otherwise provided by law, if a vacancy occurs in the office of mayor, by reason of death, resignation or otherwise, the presiding officer of the governing body shall become the acting mayor until a successor is elected and qualified.

So, South Ward Councilman George Muschal, would become the acting mayor upon the vacation of the office.

# 3: How long does the Council President serve as acting mayor?


§ 40A:16-12. Appointment to fill vacancy where incumbent was not nominee of a political party; time to fill vacancy 

If the incumbent whose office has become vacant was not elected to office as the nominee of a political party, the governing body may, within 30 days of the occurrence of the vacancy, appoint a successor to fill the vacancy without regard to party.

The governing body has 30 days to appoint a successor to fill the vacancy.

# 4:  How many votes does it take to fill a vacancy in the office of mayor?

§ 40A:16-6. Vote required to fill vacancy in office of mayor

An appointment to fill a vacancy in the office of mayor shall be by a majority vote of the entire membership of the governing body.

There are seven members of council. A majority is four. The “nominee” can vote for him or her self.  

# 5: What happens if council fails to appoint someone to fill the vacancy in the office of mayor within that 30 day time span?

§ 40A:16-14. Special election to fill vacancy in the office of mayor; limitation on authority to appoint

If a governing body shall fail to fill a vacancy in the office of mayor as provided in N.J.S. 40A:16-4a or 40A:16-5a within the 30-day period prescribed by N.J.S. 40A:16-11 or 40A:16-12, the municipal clerk shall forthwith fix the date for a special election to fill the vacancy to be held not less than 45 days nor more than 50 days after the expiration of the time fixed for the filling of the vacancy. If the date fixed for a special election shall fall within 20 days prior to the holding of any general election, regular municipal election or any other election within the municipality, the vacancy shall be filled at that election. If the date fixed for a special election shall fall within 20 days after the holding of any general election, regular municipal election or any other election within the municipality, then the special election to fill the vacancy shall be held not less than 20 days nor more than 25 days from the date of that election.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, if a vacancy in the office of mayor occurs in the final 6 months of the term of the mayor, no special election shall be held to fill the vacancy.

No appointment shall be made by a governing body to fill a vacancy occurring in the office of a mayor after the fixing of a date for a special election to fill the vacancy pursuant to this section.

So, if the governing body fails to appoint someone to the vacancy within the 30 day window, the council president remains as the acting mayor because we are within the final 6 months of the term.

# 6: What happens to the council president’s seat on the governing body when he becomes the acting mayor?

To answer that, we look at the following court case:

DeSoto v. Smith, 383 N.J. Super. 384, 891 A.2d 1241, 2006 N.J. Super. LEXIS 54 (App. Div. 2006)

As the result of applying Section 40A:9-131, a municipal attorney was terminated by the Council President who became acting mayor and council president temporarily pursuant to N.J. Stat. Ann. § 40A:9-131. In an effort to defeat the acting mayor’s dismissal, it was argued that section 131, which allowed the council president to serve as both acting mayor and council president, violated the “separation of powers” doctrine. However the Court ruled that the doctrine of separation of powers was not generally applicable to a Faulkner Act mayor-council government, because the design of the Faulkner Act provided for checks and balances which would enable the Council by a 2/3 majority vote to nullify the acting mayor’s dismissal under N.J. Stat. Ann. § 40:69A-43(c).

So, the succession in office law (40A:16-12) provides 30 days within which the council is to select an acting mayor pending the holding of an election (or for the unexpired balance of the term of the former mayor, depending on the time of the vacancy). Pending that, the Council President becomes acting Mayor as well as Council President.

Muschal would serve as both acting mayor and south ward councilman/council president.