Monday, March 08, 2010

Trenton’s electoral pickle

Bound to leave a sour taste
The abnormally large number of candidates running for Trenton’s elected offices (the mayor and seven city council seats) has raised the specter of a messy campaign season.

Mix in the totally incompetent way the current council went about replacing Acting City Clerk Juanita Joyner with a temporary, non-resident, Deputy Clerk and you have a recipe for complete electoral meltdown.

Even hiring in former city clerk Anthony Conti as a consultant to help the clerk’s office get through the May 11 election appears to be too little, too late.

In an interview with the Trentonian, Conti allows that even with an all out push, the clerk’s office may not be able to certify all candidates by the March 18 deadline.

It’s a mess. A complete and utter mess. A true case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth.”

Appointed Acting Municipal Clerk after Conti retired in 2007; Ms. Joyner has apparently completed all the required course work for the position but has yet to take the certification exam. Suddenly, this past fall, there was a big push to replace Joyner.

On the surface there appeared to be some questions about her competency, but there was also the coincidence of Councilwoman Cordelia Staton expressing interest in the position. (After serving two terms on council, Staton is not running for re-election this year).

This raised some eyebrows because the City Clerk oversees the election process on behalf of the city (the County Clerk and the County Board of Elections also have a role in the process, but the City Clerk is the primary authority). If Staton had been named clerk, her council seat would most likely have remained vacant until after the election. In the meantime she would be called upon to “referee” a Mayoral race featuring three of her council colleagues as candidates.

Many people were uneasy with the idea of Ms. Staton…who twice ran, and won, on the Palmer ticket with Paul Pintella and Manny Segura. Both are running for Mayor, but Segura has positioned himself as far from his former slate mates as possible.

There was reportedly considerable infighting amongst council regarding the suggested removal of Joyner just to replace her with Staton. After a couple of false starts to the process Staton withdrew her name from consideration.

Still, council suddenly and abruptly decided to not extend Joyner’s appointment. At the same time it was wisely and correctly pointed out that the incoming council should be the ones to appoint the next City Clerk.

One reasonable solution might have been to extend Joyner’s appointment through Labor Day at the latest. A certified, experienced individual…such as Mr. Conti, could then have been hired as a consultant through the elections to ensure a fair, transparent process.

Instead, council voted to end Joyner’ tenure as Acting Municipal Clerk effective Feb. 28 and retained the services of an Acting Deputy Municipal Clerk starting March 1...a mere three working weeks before the candidate certification deadline.

The person hired, Leona Baylor, is certified and has worked in the clerks office in Hightstown Borough. Baylor is not a city resident and that has raised some questions about the legality of her contract appointment.

Not to oversimplify, but if she is an appointee, she needs to be a resident; if she is truly a contract employee, she might be exempt. It all depends upon how you define the Acting Deputy Municipal Clerk position? And that definition may ultimately have to come from the courts…and cost the city more of our tax dollars to defend the case, not to mention possibly delaying the election process.

Candidates…many of which are running for office for the first time, are wondering where this all leaves them.

If the clerk’s office staff can’t adequately and accurately complete the certification process by the March 18th deadline, what will happen?

Legal sources have suggested that the courts can and probably would extend the certification deadline.

But even that may not be enough for some of the candidates. Especially in the city wide races where 385 certified signatures are required for a candidate’s name to appear on the ballot. Trenton voters can only sign one petition for Mayoral candidates and there are 10 running. That’s 3,850 separate individuals required to sign if all candidates are to get on the ballot. Not likely under any circumstances..

In the At Large Council race, voters can sign petitions for up to three individuals…one for each of the seats. With 11 people running for the three seats, odds are a little better that the candidates can get the number of required signatures. It will still be a daunting task.

What this really means is that, under the best of situations there would have been some attrition in the number of candidates come certification deadline day.

The screw-ups, fumbles and delays by council in filling of the City Clerk position almost guarantees a far from fair and even-handed election process.

The candidates will lose out. But more importantly, the city will lose out, yet again.

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