Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Time to hang up on Blackboard Connect

For the past several years, the city of Trenton has paid for a telephone and seldom used email notification system. The system was "sold" to the residents as a way for city officials to keep the community at large notified in the event of an emergency. 

Not a bad idea.

Not bad, if used correctly.

Almost from day one, the system has been abused.

Those who signed up for the service were soon treated to such frivolous messages as then Mayor Doug Palmer's daughter telling you not to put trash out or the Mayor himself promoting ticket sales for the "Trenton Jazz Festival" (another boondoggle we'll tell you about sometime).

People quickly grew aggravated and frustrated with the abuse of the phone contact system. They were annoyed at the fact that it was overused and mostly for the wrong reasons.

This caused people to want to be removed from the notification list, a task that seems to be nigh onto impossible to complete.

When the administration of Mayor Tony Mack took the reins of the city the situation got worse.

During the "brown water" crisis of October 2010, the use of the phone notification system was inadequate to keep the public up to date on the situation at the water works.

Strangely, as that crisis passed and we neared the date of the city's poorly planned and executed Thanksgiving parade, residents were treated to repeated rounds of calling inviting them to attend the event.

In recent weeks, residents in the South, East and West wards have been treated to phone calls inviting them to attend the opening of the Mayor's Learning Centers and encouraging them to volunteer to help operate said centers.

Last night, however, when there was an electrical problem at the city's water pumping station on Pennington Avenue that caused low pressure issues across the water system, not a peep was uttered via the Blackboard Connect system.

After several years of this stuff, maybe it is time to reevaluate the cost effectiveness of this mayoral toy. 

Documents obtained via OPRA request in December of 2010 show that the city of Trenton pays $58,000 per year to provide the telephone notification system to up to "29,000 households."  Any numbers over the 29,000 limit would be charged $2 per number per year.  Anything fewer than 29,000 households, and the city pays more per number.

Curious as to just how many households there might be in Trenton, we looked up the census data from 2010. According to the census quick facts page for the period 2006 - 2010, the city of Trenton has only 27,901 households  That is about 1,100 fewer than we are allowed under our contract with Blackboard Connect. And remember, Trenton has been losing population not gaining it.

Keeping this in mind, we propose the city of Trenton ditch the contract with Blackboard Connect and work out an agreement to use the Mercer County Reverse 911 for real emergencies.  This will cut the abuse of the system and save the taxpayers $58,000 per year.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Who is minding the store?

Mayor Mack continues to do what he pleases when it comes to city resources.

Besides the costly, sparsely attended and almost completely un-advertised or promoted so-called Heritage Days Festival held this past weekend, two other items have come to light.

Yesterday afternoon, this unbelievably unfitting and inappropriate sign was erected over the main entrance to Cadwalader Park. (written about so well here by Kevin Moriarty).  Notice, that, ugly as this sign is, it is graced with a completely out of context "Mayor Tony F. Mack" sign dangling beneath. 

Photo by Kevin Moriarty
Were all the proper sign-offs and approvals granted for this work?

Who gave our mayor's the right to "tag" every piece of city property possible with their name?

Yes, Doug Palmer did it too. And we didn't like it then. For a man who purports to want to be everything Doug Palmer wasn't, Mayor Mack sure likes to emulate his former boss.

Maybe it is time for the governing body (that is you, City Council), to introduce and pass an ordinance banning this kind of "naming" of city property, vehicles and such. It will be a cost saving measure because signs won't need the extra verbiage and we won't have to change them each time the mayor changes (no matter how infrequent that has been in the recent past).

Another abuse we're noticing is the mayor's seeming arbitrary policies with regards to who can use city buildings, when and how. 

If you remember, the Mack administration sent consultant/volunteer Lisa Whitaker around to various city buildings to collect the keys and kick out the non-profits who were using them under agreement with the city.

Shortly thereafter came the big controversy over the Team Hope boxing program that was using the old fire house at S. Broad and Bridge Streets.  Mayor Mack had the program removed from the building in response to unfounded allegations of drug use/dealing on the premises. 

Now, two months after the building was emptied and the program relocated, we suddenly find boxing equipment has again been installed in the building.


A conversation we had with former Trenton police officer and Team Hope manager, Bill McLaughlin revealed it doesn't belong to him. 

So who does this equipment belong to? And how did it get into the building? Has the administration issued another lease or use agreement to another entity? Has city council had the opportunity to approve of any agreement to use this facility as outlined under state statute N.J.S.A. 40:69A-36:

N.J.S.A. 40:69A-36 Legislative power
The legislative power of the municipality shall be exercised by the municipal council,  subject to the procedures set forth in this plan of government. Legislative powers shall be exercised by ordinance, except for the exercise of those powers that, under this plan of government or general law, do not require action by the mayor as a condition of approval for the exercise thereof, and may, therefore, be exercised by resolution, including, but not limited to:
a. The override of a veto of the mayor;
b. The exercise of advice and consent to actions of the mayor;
c. The conduct of a legislative inquiry or investigation;
d. The expression of disapproval of the removal by the mayor of officers or employees;
e. The removal of any municipal officer for cause;
f. The adoption of rules for the council;
g. The establishment of times and places for council meetings;
h. The establishment of the council as a committee of the whole and the delegation of any number of its members as an ad hoc committee;
i. The declaration of emergencies respecting the passage of ordinances;
j. The election, appointment, setting of salaries and removal of officers and employees of the council, subject to any pertinent civil service requirements and any pertinent contractual obligations, and within the general limits of the municipal budget;
k. Designation of official newspapers;
l. Approval of contracts presented by the mayor;
m. Actions specified as resolutions in the "Local Budget Law" (N.J.S. 40A:4-1 et seq.) and the "Local Fiscal Affairs Law" (N.J.S. 40A:5-1 et seq.); and
n. The expression of council policies or opinions which require no formal action by the mayor.

The mayor does as he pleases. The council is not acting as the governing body. Once again, there is nobody left minding the store.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

She said, He said

On May 17, 2012, Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward introduced a resolution stating that in an attempt to bring the governing body into compliance with the city code, they would vote on whether or not to extend the status of any acting directors who had been serving in that capacity beyond the 90 day limit.  This vote would take place at the June 7 meeting, giving the administration and/or those acting directors adequate notice to prepare to come before the council and make their case for continuing in the acting capacity.

The resolution passed, 6 – 0 with one abstention…Councilman Alex Bethea.

You may find a copy of the audio recording of the introduction, discussion and vote upon that resolution here.

Apparently, members of council and the administration have problems with short term memory. Listening to the proceedings a mere three weeks later makes one think that Councilman Bethea and Council President McBride had just flown in from some extended time away. They seemed to not recall the prior discussion and vote.

Worse, the Mayor, the Business Administrator and the acting department directors all seemed to forget (ignore is more likely) what was supposed to transpire on Thursday, June 7.

That day, Mayor Mack appeared before the city council to give a brief status update on the general state of affairs in the city and to take questions from the members. Councilwoman was somewhat surprised to find out the Mayor appeared to have no clue of what was about to take place:

Councilwoman Holly-Ward: …and then the other one was, you do know that we are having that 90 day review today?

Mayor Mack: Which one is that?

H-W: That the directors are coming before us for their review

MM: Yes. I ‘m hopeful that we will have that resolved before that time comes. When is that date?

H-W: It’s today.

MM: Today?

H-W: Today.

MM: Ok. Are the directors aware of that?

H-W: You’re business administrator, the clerk…

MM: Is that on the agenda?

H-W: Yes.

MM: Ok.

Later, after the Mayor had left and the governing body reached that point in the agenda:

Municipal Clerk Leona Baylor: The next item on our agenda is regarding 90 day review for acting directors.

Council President McBride then yielded to Councilwoman Holly-Ward. She in turn asked if the resolutions had been prepared.  The Clerk explained that she had drafts, but nothing that had yet been reviewed by the law department. Copies of the draft resolutions are passed around.

Council President McBride: And so, Mr. Denson, I just want to know the legal status as far as the resolutions are concerned.

Acting Law Director Walter Denson: Thank you Madame President. The city code section 2 – 4 it provides for  90 days for temporary appointments. It simply says those positions terminate after 90 days unless council passes a resolution to extend the time period.

H-W: For one, I wanted to say that just for us, as a body, this was done way back on May 17 which gave us more than enough time to have this together. And I know I put in a specific request which is almost two and half weeks ago for these to be individual resolutions and to state the language. So I will just say I am truly disappointed that we are at this juncture.
I guess it would take us to read them individually and not to mention we don’t even know if all the directors are here and once again the mayor obviously didn’t even know that they were coming before us to even have this issue addressed. He’s not here so once again for me it just takes it as another time where since nobody cares why should we?

Once again, McBride asks for Denson’s input. He just repeats what he has already stated, that the acting positions terminate after 90 days unless extended by council resolution.

Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson arrives and Ms. Holly-Ward addresses him:

H-W: I’m glad Mr. Hutchinson is here so we can ask Mr. Hutchinson what happened. He was here when we did it so what happened between him and the Clerk. Something didn’t connect.

Sam Hutchinson: Relative to what? Excuse me.

H-W: Why the resolutions for the acting directors weren’t presented....

SH: I was not aware of that either. My understanding was that at the last council meeting what council was asking was for an opinion from legal with respect to the Mayor’s 90 day appointment authority. That was my understanding.

H-W: No. We took a vote to have them come before us.

There was more discussion on how to proceed. Then Councilwoman Holly-Ward addressed Mr. Hutchinson again.

H-W: Mr. Hutchinson, do you want to do a presentation as to why they should stay as acting directors? Do you want to tell us what a wonderful job they are doing?

SH: What I will do a presentation on is the authority of the mayor to make appointments even in an acting capacity. I don’t think it is appropriate to discuss before council each individual unless of course you are going to “rice” them. And I certainly don’t think it is appropriate in a public session.

At this point Alex Bethea chimes in and the pitch is made for delaying, yet again, the action.

There was a lot more back and forth but a motion to reschedule the vote for a week later was defeated 5 – 2 (Bethea and McBride voting for it). McBride left and Council Vice President took the chair. All five resolutions were introduced and voted on. They passed 5 – 0 with Bethea abstaining.

You can download the full audio of the 35 minute discussion and vote on this matter as well as Mayor Mack’s surprise at finding out the 90 day review was scheduled for that day at this link.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The morning news...and more

The Trentonian’s front page is screaming about the fact that one of Mayor Tony Mack’s properties is on the current tax sale list.
It is a shame.  Public officials should set a better example.

But what is a larger shame is that this Hampton avenue property has sat vacant and burned out for years with nothing being done. The city has never moved to forced Mack to fix up the building or tear it down. Never mind that he is now the mayor and CEO of the city. What does this say about Trenton’s ability to operate effectively as a city?

The Trentonian article mentions a few other names that appear on the tax list: Raphiel Mack, the mayor’s brother, for one. Jo Jo Giorgianni, a Mack confidante and supporter, for another.

What wasn’t mentioned was that Bayville Holdings, the owner/developer of the Broad Street Bank building, is also on the list. They owe $15,992.65 a combination of their payments in lieu of taxes and their assessment for being in the Trenton Downtown special improvement district. 

Bayville, you will recall, financed their extensive and expensive renovation of Trenton’s first skyscraper in part with state funding that resulted in an income cap for prospective renters of the buildings apartments. This meant that what could have, should have been a pricey, desirable urban enclave turned into just another high rise filled with subsidized tenants.  At the same time, the developer twisted the city’s arm to get a lengthy PILOT on the property taxes.  Payments they apparently aren’t making anyway.

Good deal (NOT!) that the Palmer administration stuck us with. 

The Times has an interesting story by Alex Zdan about Mercer Countytaking back control of the TMAC grant from the city because of non-compliance with the terms of the funding agreement.

The TMAC grant is state money passed through the county to municipalities to fund alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs for children.  Since the Mack administration took over, there has been the typical lack of attention to conforming to the terms of the grant agreement. The monies have been used, at least in part, to pay friends of the administration, like Lisa Whitaker, with no reported work product being shown.

In April, the city convened the required steering committee in a last ditch effort to retain control over the funding but the county was not impressed.  In this morning’s article, Zdan states that the county will select the program providers, taking the decision away from the city.

Interestingly, the article also states that Joyce Kersey was named the coordinator for the grant.  This is a paid position. It begs the question: if the county is now running the grant, why is it paying, through the city, someone to coordinate the program?

Is Ms. Kersey, who was recently singled out as the individual Mayor Mack used to inform two school board members that he was rescinding their appointments (which, it turns out, he can’t do), yet another “Friend of Tony’s” grabbing a few extra taxpayer bucks for no real reason?

Not reported in the article was another little tidbit we heard re: the TMAC steering committee meeting. One Ms. Linda Gundy was chosen to chair this committee to steer the program that the county has now taken control of.  As ridiculous as that sounds, it gets better.

Ms. Gundy is a friend and supporter of Tony Mack.  She was listed in TMAC grant documents asbeing a “concerned citizen” that was appointed to the steering committee. (It should be noted that many people who were named on this list weren't even aware of it until Anthony Roberts convened that April meeting. It should also be noted that Ms. Kersey's name is not on this list.)

Ms. Gundy may very well be concerned, but she is also on the city payroll.

Since January, Ms. Gundy has been employed by the TrentonWater Works.  Prior to that, she was listed on documents as “an intern” in the recreation department.  She was paid as an independent contractorfrom September of 2011 until she was placed, full time, at TWW.  Interestingly, in August and September of2011, Ms. Gundy was also listed and paid as a “seasonal employee” of theTWW. 

This means that during September of last year, she was a city employee and a paid city consultant. This would appear to violate state law, not that the Mack administration has ever appeared to be concerned about following such law.

Being a friend of Tony Mack’s sure has its advantages.