Sunday, January 11, 2015

Clean it up

Excerpts from the Trenton City Code:

[HISTORY: Adopted by the City Council of the City of Trenton 9-7-1967 as § 12-19 of the Revised General Ordinances. Amendments noted where applicable.]
It is found and declared that there exists in the City of Trenton structures used for nonresidential purposes which are, or may become in the future, substandard with respect to structure, equipment and maintenance; further that such conditions, including, but not limited to, structural deterioration, lack of essential heating, plumbing, storage or refrigeration equipment, lack of maintenance or upkeep of essential utilities and facilities, existence of fire hazards, inadequate provisions for light and air, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, constitute a menace to the health, safety, morals, welfare and reasonable comfort of the citizens and inhabitants of the City.
It is further found and declared that by reason of lack of maintenance and progressive deterioration, certain properties have the further effect of creating blighting conditions and initiating slums, and that if they are not curtailed and removed, such conditions will grow and spread and will necessitate in time the expenditure of large amounts of public funds to correct and eliminate the same, and that by reason of timely regulations and restrictions as contained in this chapter, the growth of slums and blight may be prevented and the neighborhood and property values thereby maintained, the desirability and amenities of residential and nonresidential uses and neighborhoods enhanced and the public health, safety and welfare protected and fostered.

§ 56-2. Purpose.

The purpose of this chapter is to protect public health, safely, morals and welfare by establishing minimum standards governing the maintenance, appearance, condition and occupancy of nonresidential premises; establish minimum standards governing utilities, facilities and other physical components and conditions essential to make the aforesaid facilities fit for human habitation, occupancy and use; fix certain responsibilities and duties upon owners and operators, and distinct and separate responsibilities and duties upon occupants; authorize and establish procedures for the inspection of premises; and provide for the repair, demolition or vacation of premises unfit for human habitation or occupancy or use. This chapter is declared to be remedial and essential for the public interest and it is intended that it be liberally construed to effectuate the purposes as stated herein.

§ 56-9. Duties and responsibilities of owner and operator.

The following duties and responsibilities are imposed on every owner and operator of any building covered by the provisions of this chapter:
It shall be the responsibility of the owner of a commercial establishment to supply suitable trash containers of a minimum size of 30 gallons at each entrance/exit to the establishment as a convenient means for customers to dispose of discarded products that were purchased within and to prevent the accumulation of trash and debris in front and around said commercial property.
[Added 6-20-2002 by Ord. No. 02-53]

Sunday, January 11, 2015
No trash receptacle as required. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Trash has been on the curb since Friday, January 9. No Trash receptacle as required.

Sunday, January 11, 2015. Trash from former bank building at Broad & Market.
Note to sack of stucco mix on the ground to the right of the utility pole. It has been there for weeks. 

And lest we think it is just commercial establishments, there are also rules for residences:

Chapter 248. SOLID WASTE

Article I. Garbage Collection

§ 248-3. Provision and use of containers.

One- or two-family dwellings. A proper and sufficient number of approved containers, as herein defined, for the storage of garbage and rubbish between collections shall be provided by each family residing in a single-family dwelling or in a two-family dwelling. It shall be the duty of the occupants to maintain such containers in good repair, in a clean and satisfactory condition and to store rubbish and garbage properly therein.
[Amended 1-6-2001 by Ord. No. 03-8]
Multiple dwellings. In the case of a building housing three families or more, the owner, lessee or agent of the premises shall provide a sufficient number of suitable approved containers, as herein defined, for the storage of garbage and rubbish. In the case of buildings housing 75 units or more the owner, lessee or agent of the premises shall provide front-end-load containers and maintain them in good repair and in a clean and satisfactory condition.
[Amended 1-6-2001 by Ord. No. 03-8]
Commercial and nonresidential establishments. The proprietor, manager, agent or person in charge of a commercial establishment, professional office, church or any other premises where occupancy is nonresidential in nature shall provide proper and sufficient approved containers as defined herein.

And this is just one small corner of the city.

Where is the enforcement?

How can we make the city better if we don't make property owners honor their responsibilities?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

We know what it says, we just don't care

Lack of adherence to vehicle ordinance driving us crazy

City of Trenton Ordinance 10-007 was passed passed by the governing body on January 21, 2010. It was signed by then Mayor Douglas Palmer on January 25, 2010. It has been the law of the city since then.

That ordinance reads in part:
Passenger Motor Vehicle use
A. It is the policy of the City of Trenton that the cost of purchasing, leasing, maintaining, insuring and fueling non-specialized passenger automobiles for use by civilian public employees be reduced to the greatest extent compatible with the safe and efficient provision of municipal services. To that end, it shall be the duty of the Business Administrator forthwith to enforce the restrictions on on the acquisition, maintenance and assignment of non-specialized passenger motor vehicles as set forth below as of the effective date of this Ordinance. 
The ordinance goes on to enumerate various things the BA is responsible to submit to the Mayor and City Council including, under items number 3 and 4: 
3. For each vehicle listed, the name, office, or position or employment or agency of each person who has been or is currently assigned or otherwise permitted to operate it shall be set forth, stating the date or date range of each person's usage of that vehicle. 
4. For each non-specialized passenger vehicle on the list, the Business Administrator shall provide a concise explanation as to the purpose served by continuing the City's ownership and maintenance of the vehicle and by not requiring the assigned user or users to use personal vehicles on a reimbursement basis. 
 We've written about the abuse of the unnecessary vehicle fleet before. You can read it here, here and here.

For at least the third time in four years, we requested the vehicle list AND the "concise explanation" as to why it is better for the city to own maintain the specific vehicles than reimburse the employee for using their personal cars.

The initial response was a general inventory of vehicles and where they were assigned. But there was no explanation given as to why it is a good idea for the city to maintain the fleet. We reminded the City Clerk's office that the response to the OPRA request was incomplete and asked for the explanation to be provided.

This is the response we received:
"According to the Department of Public Works; The City of Trenton limits the assignment of vehicles to personnel depending upon their daily responsibilities and necessity to respond during emergencies.  Under the direction of the Business Administrator, each department Director reviews their respective employees’ assigned tasks to determine and establish the vehicle use limits based on the same.  Directors are also assigned vehicles which are used at their discretion."
 Thanks, but that is not what we asked for.

Mr. Mayor, Mr. BA, Ms. Chief of Staff, and Mr. Council President:

Does the Administration and/or the Governing Body of the City of Trenton ever intend to follow the procedures spelled out in plain English regarding the non-specialized passenger vehicle fleet? It is, after all, the law!

For all the lip service given to new beginnings, accountability and such, to date, on at least this one matter, you are no better than either of the two Administrations/Councils to come before you.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Now you see it, now you don't. Now you see it, again.

As you know, the budget committee of Trenton’s City Council has been meeting with department directors to go over the proposed numbers for this fiscal year (which btw is half over).

Did you know that there is still a line item for a Director of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture?

There is.

Why can’t the administration figure out what it wants to do with regards to this department?

Mayor Jackson’s transition team took the position that the city might be best served by reorganizing city government and doing away with the department altogether. This would be accomplished by dividing up the work of that department amongst the remaining departments. It is an idea that has beenfloated here and elsewhere for the past few years.

Last month, the preliminary budget included money for hiring a director of DRNRC and three staff people in seeming conflict with the transition report. Then, in a November 21, 2014 article by Times reporter Jenna Pizzi, city spokesman Michael Walker stated the idea was scrapped.

"The mayor is not moving ahead with the department of recreation," Walker said. "He is rethinking the way the city is moving forward with recreation." 

Or so we thought.

Turns out, page three of the budget reviewed at the Monday, December 22 hearing included the line items for salaries of a recreation director's and staff. (See image above). This completely contradicts Walker's statement made last month. 

Sources say the administration doesn't know yet how it wishes to proceed with the recreation department but wants the money in place just the same. 

Sounds indefinite and undecided. Kind of like the guy who was running things a year ago this month. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Consider this

Imagine you are department director for a small Northeastern city. Imagine that city is Trenton.

Let's say you have a problem employee. He's been disciplined at least once, very recently, for failing to properly carry out his duties. His job will be in jeopardy if he has any more problems. He knows it. You know. The whole department knows it.

One day you find out that he is accused of violating the very rules as a private citizen that he, as an employee, is charged with enforcing on every other citizen.

What would you do to that employee, if you judge the accusations are true?

Would you mete out a more severe punishment?

Would you suspend the employee? Would you fire him?

Whatever action you took, how would you feel if your decision was overruled by your boss against your objection?

That seems to be the core issue at last month’s dismissal of the city’s inspections director, Cleveland Thompson.

Sources indicated at the time that Thompson’s departure was brought on by his insistence that an employee in his department should be terminated and the administration, for whatever reason, did not agree.

Thompson, who has since been brought back to his old title of electrical sub code official, reportedly either quit or was fired by the Jackson administration over a disagreement on the handling of a disciplinary matter concerning housing inspector Ken Bullock.

Citing the usual “we don’t comment on personnel matters”; the Jackson administration has refrained from providing any details. There are some things we do know via the results of some requests for public information.

  • Kenneth Bullock, a barber since 1978, was hired by the city of Trenton in July, 2006. He was known to be an avid supporter of Doug Palmer who had just started his fifth and final term at the time Bullock was hired. In fact, Palmer was one of three references listed on Bullock’s employment application. The others were Palmer Public Information Officer Kent Ashworth and then East Ward Councilman Gino Melone.
  • In September of 2011, Bullock apparently was laid off along with many other city employees. He was rehired in July of 2013. 
  • In March of 2014, Bullock issued a Certificate of Occupancy to a house on Bayard Street that was being sold. Work was being done in the house that required permits yet Bullock failed to cite the seller or buyer and issued the C of O.
  • Payroll records show that Bullock was not paid for two days in April of this year. This corresponds with a disciplinary suspension Bullock served for failing to perform his duties in that case. 
  • Also in March, Bullock inspected 216 Rusling and approved a rental and sale final C of O. Due to complaints received a re-inspection was conducted on May 9 and several violations were discovered.
  • Bullock granted a rental C of O for an apartment on Grand Street on April 29. On May 5, another inspector responding to a complaint by the tenant, inspected the apartment and discovered a dozen violations that were not included in Bullock's inspection report. Included in the overlooked violations was the lack of carbon monoxide detector and access to the electric panel box. 
  • On May 13, inspectors acting on an anonymous tip went to 218 and 220 Dickinson Street to investigate the dumping of construction debris in the former lot after the installation of a deck and stairs on the back of the house at the latter address. Indeed, there was evidence that a deck had recently been built on the rear of 220 Dickinson and there was debris from that job in the lot next door. 
  • The 220 Dickinson property is owned by Kenneth Bullock. He bought it from the city for $15,000 at an auction in May, 2010. When the inspectors approached the house they noticed a recently added deck and stairs and the debris on the property next door. When they went to the front door of the home, they were confronted by Bullock who allegedly told them to “tell Cleveland that he needs to stop thisThe report by Inspectors Joe Pratico and Ray Bucchi states Bullock also said: “Listen to me carefully. I have reached my boiling point. Do you understand what I am saying? I’ve reached my boiling point and I will go back to prison.
  • Bullock was issued a summons for allowing the dumping of the construction debris leftover from the construction of the deck on the adjacent (218 Dickson) vacant property. The matter has been transferred to Ewing Township out of Trenton Municipal court because of potential conflicts of interest. 
  • Bullock paid $900 for not taking out a permit for the construction of the deck. The initial violation of not having a permit cost him $500 and there was an additional $50 fine per week for eight weeks until he got the permit. 
  • Once the permit was issued and the deck inspected, violations were noted. They were to be corrected by September 12, 2014. We currently have no information on the status of those violations. 

As a result of all of this, we are told that a disciplinary hearing was held.

Reportedly, Director Thompson felt strongly that Bullock’s cumulative actions should result in immediate termination.

The administration, on the other hand, wanted to suspend rather than terminate Bullock.

Thompson is alleged to have refused to sign the suspension paperwork which resulted in him no longer being the Director of Inspections.

What would you do?

You have an employee with a record of failing to perform his duties. He’s already served one suspension. He obviously disregarded the very construction code he is employed to enforce by not obtaining a permit for work on his own property. It certainly appears he allowed construction debris from the project to be dumped on an adjoining property.

What would you do?

A tip of the cap to Kevin Moriarty for his input on shaping the opening of this piece. 

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 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.