Thursday, November 29, 2012

TWW redux

The Times this morning ran an article about the many vacancies at the Trenton Water Works. The jobs run the gamut from laborer to licensed technicians.

Part of the article discusses the difficulty in filling the technical positions with qualified city residents.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t mention that some of the vacancies were created by the demotion and then subsequent dismissal of qualified technicians in apparent retribution for their testimony against Stanley “Muscles” Davis, the half-brother of Tony Mack.

Davis, you will recall, is now serving time for his role in a scam where he did “side jobs” for TWW customers using TWW materials and equipment on TWW time while pocketing the cash payments for the work.

TWW, a money making city asset that many of us fought hard to keep intact, has been abused and ignored under the current and past administrations. It has been used as a source of patronage jobs.  One just has to look at the hires made after July 1, 2010 to see that.

Names like Terrance Bailey, Dave Briegle, Charles Hall, Henry Page (now out on disability we understand), Rodney Washington and, later, Paul Harris and Linda Gundy were all added to the payroll under the current CO. Briegle and Hall were recently laid off in a corrective action because they should have gone in the September 2011 layoffs but were passed over so the administration could target the technicians mentioned above. Hall, as we now know, did precious little work for TWW. Instead he was “loaned” to the city to oversee multi-million dollar projects in the parks and is alleged to have been involved in the federal case against Mack et al.

Paul Harris, at first an “intern” with the city was moved to TWW earlier this year although he still seems to spend most of his time in and around city hall and not the utility supply shed where he is supposedly assigned.

This is the kind of inept and inappropriate management that needs to stop. While we understand that patronage is a time honored political tradition, it is costly and it serves no one well…except those getting the jobs.

As quoted in the article, Councilman Muschal certainly supports an increased effort to fill the jobs with residents.
“There’s a lot of job opportunities we can put out there. I would certainly like to see priority put toward the vacancies in the water utility.”

There are some simple, straightforward steps that can be taken to attract, develop and retain and qualified workforce for TWW.

  1. Promote and execute a job fair specifically for the utility. Tap into the local trade associations, chambers of commerce, tech schools and such to seek out candidates for the vacancies.
  2. Institute a training and development program for TWW employees to help them become more proficient at their jobs.
  3. Encourage those with interest and aptitude to get appropriate certifications so they can advance. Consider holding training and coaching sessions to help them prepare for the required tests. Reimburse those who successfully obtain certification for the fees involved in return for a commitment to remain with the utility for a set number of years.
  4. Consider settling the pending lawsuit by rehiring the employees who claim they were wrongfully dismissed because of their testimony in the Davis case.

And we cannot ignore the fact that we need to reorganize the city departments to put water and sewer in their own department. Councilman Chester reportedly brought this up again at the recent budget meeting.

We wrote about this previously and how easy it would be to achieve.

It only takes five votes, council. Five votes.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fact check

Towards the end of yesterday’s public session, the CO of the office of mayor stated that the city has decreased the amount of money given to the Trenton Downtown Association to carry out its mission.

The CO, yet again, does not know what he is talking about. The principle funding source for the TDA is the special tax assessment levied upon all properties within the district. The money is collected by the city and turned over to the TDA.

The CO’s statement can be heard in Part Four of the video posted on the Times website, starting at about 5:11 and running to about 5:38. The key statement comes right about the time Anthony Roberts' phone rings.

Here’s a transcription of what he says during that segment, with emphasis on the part about reducing the amount TDA receives.
“We’re trying to work with TDA now to do some of our tree lightings and Christmas enhancements and ornaments and things of that nature. Um. So. Yeah. We need to do that. They’ve been. Um. Working with less. We’ve decreased the amount that we generally give to them. And we, we know they are doing the best they can with limited resources.”

The city simply cannot reduce the amount of money given to TDA out of the special assessment collected specifically for that purpose.

We verified with Christian Martin, the executive director of the TDA, that the city hasn’t reduced the funding.

Mr. Martin did add that TDA has stepped up and is “doing more in the sense that we are cutting grass and weeds, maintaining public spaces, managing waste inside and outside our district. We had to do this because the city completely stopped working on that front.”

So there you have it. The city has not reduced the funding given to TDA.

The city has reduced services that it previously provided.

What say you to those facts, Mr. Mack?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A lesson to be learned

The recent bribery trial of Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo continues to send ripples through the normally placid pond of township politics.  Bencivengo rightfully resigned one day after a federal jury convicted him on all counts of accepting money in exchange for offering his political influence. 

Filling the vacancy created by the resignation has caused lawyers to examine and re-examine state law to ensure proper process is followed. At the same time, it has generated its own set of controversy and questions.

Under the Mayor/Council form of government the presiding officer of the municipal governing body (council president) assumes the duties of mayor immediately upon the vacancy of the office.

The governing body then has 30 days to appoint an acting mayor to hold the office until a special election can be held to choose a replacement to complete the term. If the vacancy comes after a certain point in the final year of the term, the acting mayor chosen by the governing body completes the remainder of the term (no special election held).

In the case of municipalities with partisan elections, such as Hamilton, the party whose nominee held the vacated seat (the GOP in the current example) has 15 days from the creation of the vacancy to submit three names to the governing body to consider for the appointment as acting mayor. In municipalities with non-partisan elections, the governing body selects the individuals for consideration.

Watching the second act of this political soap opera is not just about the entertainment value. Sure, it offers us lots of opportunity for sarcasm and snarky comments. It also provides a valuable lesson in why we must all get involved in carefully vetting and choosing our elected leaders.

For Trentonians who have already learned the hardships of making poor choices in leadership it provides a very real case study of what we may ourselves be going through in a few months time.  Should Mayor Mack be indicted, go to trial and be convicted, our city will be faced with the very same scenario, but with some complicating twists of our own making.

The elevation of the council president to acting mayor upon the vacancy of the office will most likely set off a pyrotechnic display not witnessed in Trenton since Dec. 26, 1776. Any decision made by the person assuming the mayor’s chair is likely to be questioned/challenged by the governing body, the members of which can rarely agree on what day of the week it is let alone actions to be taken. (Example from Hamilton: the dismissal of Business Administrator John Ricci by acting Mayor Kevin Mears is generating comments and criticisms according to press reports).

Complicating matters will be the oversight on hiring and firing granted the DCA via the state aid MOU. No mayor of Trenton, acting or elected, currently enjoys a free hand in making key personnel decisions such as department directors and the business administrator. There are, however, other appointed (non-contractual) employees who could be, and probably should be, immediately dismissed by any acting mayor.

The selection of a replacement mayor, whether temporarily until a special election is held or to complete the remainder of the current term, will be the real battle.

Who will guide the process?

Our governing body is short on experience and, in some individual cases, completely void of comprehension of their rights and responsibilities.

The legal department, also short on knowledge and experience with municipal law, has to date not been particular assertive in matters of technicalities.

The deliberation over who should be appointed acting mayor will likely be a comedy of errors and omissions. With no local party committee to winnow down the choices to three, any and all interested and legally qualified parties will have to be given their due before a group of finalists are put up to a vote.

There are already two individuals who have filed with NJ ELEC to run for the office of mayor in 2014, a third has announced an exploratory committee and at least a fourth who has previously expressed an interest in running. That list does not include any sitting council members who may be eyeing “the big chair.”  

How many more names might be tossed into the hat? How will individual loyalties and personal plans of members of council figure in the decision making?

Can we expect a smooth, orderly and proper decision to be made by at least five members of a governing body that has been largely stalemated on any major initiative over the past 27 months?

What will happen to the “business” of the city while the above battle is fought? For over two years the city has been adrift due to the incompetency of the Mack administration, the inexperience of the governing body and the inability of the two branches of government to get the simplest things done (remember the toilet paper crisis of last spring?)

The events of the past couple of years in Trenton and Hamilton show just why it is so important for all voters to actively participate in the election process. Researching the background, experience and qualifications of all candidates before heading into the voting booth is the beginning. Keeping elected officials accountable and our government transparent is equally important.

If we want better government, we all need to be better citizens. Otherwise, we are likely to see repeats of the disasters we are living through right now.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Stop playing games

Trenton Mayor Tony Mack is insistent upon staffing up the department of Recreation, Natural Resources, and Culture that has been a quagmire for the past two years. Soon after taking office in July 2010, Mayor Mack cut staff and demoted some of the remaining employees, ultimately gutting the department in the 2011 layoffs.

In the meantime, the “department” has run through its budget and then some with little to no accountability. There have been inquiries and investigations into use of facilities, splintered contracts that avoid the bidding process, time sheets and more. Festivals and parades have been produced with no real oversight as to what was being spent, who was getting paid and what the real benefit was.  Favoritism has been shown in funding certain sports leagues over others.

Now, the mayor and business administrator Sam Hutchinson have proposed to city council that the city hire a department director and staff to run the various programs and events that the mayor wants.

Here’s a simple counter proposal, and it is not a new idea.

The department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture should be done away with. The maintenance functions should be moved into the division of public property (part of the department of public works) and the rest of the functions rolled into the department of health and human services.  
It is not unheard of for municipalities to have a department of health, recreation and human (or senior) services. Indeed, Trenton used to have the department of health, recreation and welfare.  The last term probably fell out of favor because the county took over the administration of the assistance programs and because the word “welfare” started to have negative connotations.

The point is we have a competent director and staff in the health and human services department. It would be simple to add a couple of staff people to that department who would interface with the outside organizations to provide programming and services at the various city owned facilities.  From Artworks and Passage Theatre to the Trenton Museum Society at Ellarslie and the Trent House Association; from the Boys and Girls Clubs, CYO, PAL, YM and YWCA’s; from Babe Ruth League, the various Little Leagues, the NJTL, soccer leagues the health and human services staff would coordinate the use of facilities and help find money (but not totally fund) the programs. The city would lease or enter into MOU’s with these various organizations to do what they by design do. This takes the cost off of the cash strapped city for providing “recreation” programs.

An added bonus is that elimination of the department of RNRC frees up space for the splitting off of the water and sewer utilities from public works, an idea that has also been brought up before.

The creation of a separate department housing only the utilities makes sense. They have their own separate budget anyway. It will be easier to focus on improving the infrastructure and service provided. One would think it will make our suburban neighbors/customers happier to see the water utility operate more transparently and effectively. And it could isolate the utility staff from layoff or furlough actions affecting other departments.

This can all be accomplished with or without the mayor’s approval. Restructuring the city’s administration is done by ordinance.  As we have all learned recently, it only takes a solid five votes on council to make this common sense move be veto proof.

There is no reason this shouldn’t be taken on immediately. It would be an effective way to streamline the city administration while refocusing on the core functions of municipal government.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Here's your timeline.

This morning, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack had a press release posted on the city website villifying those "rogue coalition" of members of city council who voted "No Confidence" in his leadership and want to cut his salary by 52%.

Over the course of three pages, the paranoid, delusional and obviously stressed out man that Kevin Moriarty has dubbed the "Current Occupant" (CO for short) of the mayor's office lays out a timeline of  quotes and actions of members of council that he is upset with.

"Their efforts to denigrate the Office of Mayor will not succeed. Our roots of commitment remain firmly planted and we are more than prepared to deal with the winds of political theater," stated Mayor Tony F. Mack.

Obviously, the CO (and/or his writer) have no more talent for written communication than he does for leading a city.
While he fumes and mumbles and mutters to himself about those plotting against him, let us take a look (yet again) at a timeline of the CO's focus "on moving the City of Trenton forward".
  • July, 2010 -- The CO dismisses all of the department directors of the previous administration, thus losing the institutional knowledge and experience required to keep the city moving along. He also nominates a convicted felon to his director of Housing and Economic Development. He also hires a man with a criminal past to be the director of the municipal courts and appoints as head municipal judge a woman with financial problems, a history of writing bad checks, and who refused to submit to the required background check. A an experienced and knowledgable volunteer Business Administrator quits before the month is out because the CO "doesn't believe in good government."
  • July-August 2010 -- Even though it is a known fact that the city is facing a huge budget deficit, the CO hires a full compliment of mayoral aides and puts other friends and allies on the payroll at places like the Trenton Water Works. Speaking of the TWW, the CO also saw to it that his half-brother was put in charge of the on call scheduling at the utility.
  • September 2010 -- The CO cuts the appropriation to the the Trenton Free Public Library but demands they maintain full hours at the main building and four branches. He later blames the decision to close the branches on the TFPL board and not his lack of funding.
  • October 2010 -- Heavy rains raise the turbidty and level of the Delaware river forcing the TWW filtration plant to go offline. Because of inadequate supervision by experienced personnel the switching from pump to reservoire and back results in several days of boil water advisories for the utility's customers. For the first two days, the communication from the city regarding the situation is infrequent and no clearer than the brown water coming from the taps.
  • November 2010--At a press conference, the CO announces that he "saved public safety" by NOT laying off any police personnel. The fact that he didn't reduce the force at that time most likely figured into the city losing a federal COPS grant early the following year, putting those "saved" jobs at risk.  The chief municipal judge the CO appointed was told to resign by the presiding judge of the Mercer vicinage because of the ethical questions surrounding the appointment.
  • December 2010 -- The CO's half-brother and accomplices were arrested for doing side jobs on TWW time using TWW materials and pocketing the payments for the work done.
  • January-February 2011 --- A controversy arose over a contract given to the Cooper Levenson law firm to do work for the city because of a sizable campaign contribution made to the mayor. The contributions were passed through a political action committee to the CO's campaign in violation of the city's pay-to-play ordinance. At about the same time it was discovered that a Pennsylvania developer had made an excessive contribution to the CO's campaign and was in-line to receive some three dozne city properties for $1 each. Unfortunatley, most of those properties were NOT located in redevelopment areas and could only be sold via public auction.
  • March 2011 --- A superior court judge strikes down a controversial contract issued to an IT consulting company citing the mayoral aide who made the decision on the vendor as "unqualified" to do so.
  • April 2011 --- Paul Sigmund, hired in March as the city's Chief of Staff (Deputy Mayor), is caught speeding in a city vehicle. Sigmund's driving privilege had been suspended in California where he lived prior to taking the Trenton job and had not been reinstated at the time of the traffic stop. The Mack administration was made aware of the suspended driving privileges but issued a city vehicle to Sigmund none the less.
  • May 2011 --- Chief of Staff Paul Sigmund was arrested after making a heroin purchase just blocks from city hall. The CO refused to dismiss Sigmund immediately, waiting instead for the Chief of Staff to resign. It was also revealed that there were payroll irregularities with some of the park rangers hired by the CO, including payment for time not worked, payment before the state approved the hires, handwritten time cards, etc.  In addition, it came to light that director of Public Property Harold Hall, a salaried, appointed position, was receiving overtime and paid comp time that he wasn't legally entitled to.
  • June 2011 --- Against long odds and a very high standard for participation, a recall effort against the CO was launched by five citizens who had already had enough of the CO's foibles. Law Director Marc McKithen resigns rather than cooperate with the CO's administration in its attempts to avoid responding to Open Public Records requests.
  • August 2011 --- A superior court judge finds that the Mack administration did not comply with the law regarding OPRA requests filed by two civic activists.
  • September 2011 --- The CO proceeds with massive layoffs of city employees, including over 100 police officers. His friends and supporters who were hired last and should have gone first were left on the payroll (with the exception of one of his aides).  By the end of the month, the Mack administration is on its fourth Police Director in 14 months, its seventh (or was it eighth?) Business Administrator, its fourth Housing and Economic Development director. Two of his allies, Harold Hall and Carmen Melendez were elevated to acting director status over the objections of the NJ Department of Community Affairs. Reports surfaced of Ms. Melendez having been paid for unearned sick and holiday time and a very troubled business history that included having lost her realtor's license at one point, defaulted loans and unpaid taxes on her properties.
  • October 2011 --- Former Recreation division employee Maria Richardson files a complaint alleging she was wrongfully dismissed because she wouldn't go along with the CO's improper procedures for purchasing, etc. Information surfaces about the "splintering" of contracts in order to circumvent the state public bidding laws. The CO jeopardizes a part of the state financial aid to the city by at first not agreeing to some of the terms of the MOU. He later agrees to modified terms but gives up recruitment and hiring authority to the state.
  • November 2011 --- The recall committee gathers some 8,500 signatures on petitions to recall the CO. While that was short of the 9,000 or so that was needed, it was more than voted for Tony Mack in the runoff election of June 2010.
  • December 2011 --- It is revealed that the CO refuses to entertain an offer to from a non-profit to lease, renovate and reopen one of the closed and vacant library branches as a community center with a small learning resource component.
  • January 2012 --- The Mack administration attempts to get the city council to pass a salary increase for the Mayor and Department Director positions. The CO announces grand plans for a "Commission" on international business affairs that is immediately downgraded to "committee" status and does nothing except hold a reception. He also announces a "Comprehensive Crime Initiative" that is neither comprehensive or much of an initiative. It is a document listing some vague ideas of ways to increase the city's crime fighting tactics, none of which were ever implemented.
  • February 2012 --- The city council takes a scalpel to the CO's proposed budget, including reducing the salary line for all of the remaining mayoral aides. The CO's request for increased state aide is denied because of a lack of fiscally sound management. An impasse between the administration and council over the approval of a "stale" contract for paper supplies leaves city buildings without paper towels and toilet paper. The story makes international news. A second complaint alleging violation of the state Open Public Records Act is filed against the Mack administration. A group of citizens drafts an ordinance that would reduce the salary for the office of mayor and asks the city council to introduce it. It stalls after the first reading.
  • March 2012 --- The CO incorrectly accuses the council of overstepping their legal bounds by cutting the salary budget for his staff. He alleges this will jeopardize the safety and security of the citizens. He was wrong on both counts. In his state of the city address, he announces plans to start reopening the closed library branches as "Learning Centers".
  • April 2012 --- The first of the four Learning Centers is opened. The CO gives varying cost estimates for what it will take to operate these centers.  He also inappropriately spent general maintenance funds to repair and equip these buildings.  A boxing/martial arts program running out of a city owned building and funded by a county grant of state money is shut down based on allegations of "drug use." This results in the discovery that the entire TMAC grant was not being properly administered per the terms of the contract with Mercer County. The County takes back some of the control of the grant funds.
  • May 2012 --- The CO continues to open his "Learning Centers." Two state legislators introduce a bill that would make recalling an elected official somewhat less difficult. (They must be part of a "rogue coalition" as well.)
  • June 2012 --- The CO insists on spending approximately $75,000 on the poorly promoted and sparsely attended Heritage Days Festival. Some of the fees included paying people to "organize" the event, paying a city employee to perform at the event (against state law), and paying a sound and light company in full in advance for this festival and a later music festival that was ultimately cancelled and (at last check no refund had been received.)
  • July 2012 --- The CO runs through a toll booth in Delaware while driving his city issued vehicle on a weekend. It is presumed he is using it for personal business since his son was playing in a baseball tournament in Delaware that weekend yet the city paid the delinquent toll and service charge. The FBI stages early morning raids of the CO's home and the residence of his brother Ralphiel, and campaign contributor/supporter JoJo Giorgianni. The next day, the FBI swarms city hall and removes files, computers, etc.
  • August 2012 --- More information starts to surface about the investigation into the Tony Mack administration. All of the rumors of questionable business dealings and improper procedures start to make sense.
  • September 2012 --- The CO is arrested, along with his brother and Mr. Giorgianni are arrested by the FBI on a criminal complaint alleging a conspiracy to use the CO's public office for personal gain. Mr. Giorgianni is also arrested on a complaint of running a drug distribution ring that has no relation to the activities of the CO.
  • October 2012 --- a newly organized group called "Majority for a Better Trenton" drafted a resolution of "No Confidence" and asking the CO to resign and asked the city council to place it on the docket. Council approved the citizen initiated measure 4 - 3.  At the same time, the council introduced its own ordinance reducing the salary for the office of Mayor. It passed the first reading, 5 -2.  The CO told the council and the people gathered in chambers that reducing his salary was illegal and violated the MOU with the state of NJ. Neither was true. At the very end of the month, the city was hit by hurricane Sandy leaving many residents without power and such for two or three days. The CO stayed home, never venturing out to meet with the emergency management team, tour the city, etc.
  • November 2012 --- The CO was absent from city hall while the BA and other directors gave reports to council about the implementation of the city's emergency plan. The CO knew the salary ordinance was up for second reading and was not present to defend against it. Four of the six individuals who spoke publicly about the ordinance before the vote were in favor reducing the salary. The ordinance passed on the second reading, 4 - 3. It is not veto proof, so the CO vetoed it and then posted the screed referenced above.

So, Mayor Mack, after reading through the timeline above, just who is engaging in "political theater?"

Friday, November 02, 2012

Trenton's East's your councilwoman

The following was posted on the "Fans of Trenton's Irresponsible Blogger" page on Facebook. (reprinted with permission of the author)

I doth think she protests too much

It comes as no surprise that tonight's city council vote on the ordinance reducing the salary for the office of mayor passed 4 -3.

It is also no surprise that Alex Bethea, Kathy McBride (who both voted against the ordinance's introduction two weeks ago) and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson voted against the measure.
 What? Didn't Verlina vote FOR the intro...
duction of the ordinance last month?


The pundits and wags and odds makers said it wouldn't last. They were correct.

The East Ward councilwoman was all full of piss and vinegar tonight as she tried to explain away her change of vote. She wanted the measure pulled and made a motion to that effect.

The motion to table the salary cut was voted down along the same line as the ordinance itself later received.

Reynolds-Jackson pulled everything out of her bag of tricks to try and stop this measure from proceeding. While stating that she thought the mayor was not performing well in the job and declaring she wanted him gone as soon as possible, she invoked "due process" and worried that the salary reduction prior to the resolution of the federal case against Tony Mack might contaminate the proceedings. (Completely unrelated and no impact on the case)

She fretted over the "broad language" in the ordinance and how it might lead to future litigation. Reynolds-Jackson suggested the council would be hamstrung in adjusting the salary back up for someone "they really wanted" as mayor. (Little can prevent a lawsuit from being brought, but the odds are slim. Council would have to approve the contracts for attorney's on both sides of the case. The mayor certainly doesn't have the resources to press that case while fighting the federal case against him. And council has the statutory authority to adjust the salary either way.)

When pressed as to why she waited until just tonight to study the ordinance further, the councilwoman offered that she voted for the measure on first reading so that it could come up a second time and we could hear public comment on it.

Interesting. But there are some holes in that excuse.
  1. She could have voted against the ordinance at first reading and it would still have passed and come up for public hearing.
  2. Of the six individuals who spoke during the public hearing portion of the proceedings, only two spoke against cutting the mayor's salary. Four spoke in favor of it. And at least one additional person (Mike Walker) spoke in favor of the salary cut during the public comment portion of the meeting prior to the public hearing before the vote. More than twice as many people present tonight spoke in favor of reducing the salary for mayor as spoke in favor of it.
  3. Most interestingly, Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson asked to have the ordinance tabled for further study prior to the opening of the public hearing portion of the meeting. So she really couldn't have been all that interested in hearing what the public had to say, on the record, regarding the ordinance.
That is just the kind of misbegoten mental process that passes for "intelligent" thought for some members of this council.

Let us not overlook that tonight Ms. Reynolds-Jackson stated adamantly and repeatedly that she felt that Tony Mack has been an abject failure as mayor and she wants him gone a soon as possible. Yet, just two weeks ago, this same self-described "intelligent" elected representative who does her "due diligence" did not vote for the resolution expressing no confidence in the mayor and asking him to resign.

She had problems with the language of that piece of legislation that had no actual impact beyond being a statement of position.

It is pretty clear that Ms. Reynolds-Jackson is sitting on the fence. That is the least desirable trait anyone could want in an elected official.

My hope is that the people of the East Ward absolutely bludgeon her with the blunt instrument of her own words. She could not be more senseless.