Sunday, December 29, 2013

Back to the future

Looking past United States vs. Mack et al
Monday, January 6, 2014. That is the date that has been designated as the start of the trial of Trenton Mayor Tony F. Mack. That trial, expected to tale a month or so to conclude, will serve as the denouement in the farce that has played out in the three and half years since Mack took office. The proceedings will bring to a close the three ring circus that has to be, hands down, the worst administration in Trenton’s 300+ year old history.

While the bettors, hecklers and staunch defenders ready themselves for the big finale, the cast of the next show to hit the stage of Trenton politics will be assembling in the wings.

On Thursday, January, 2, 2014, the office of the municipal clerk is likely to be overrun with those seeking elected office in the May elections. That is the first day that the mayoral and council wannabes, along with incumbents, are able to pull their paperwork and initiate their candidacy for public office.

At the outset, the armchair handicappers are calling for a full ballot. As of eight or nine months ago, there were already five individuals who had announced their intention to run for mayor. That’s half the size of the field from 2010, but there are likely to be one or two more names in the hat before all is said and done.

On the council side, filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission indicate that the six of the seven current office holders are running again.
Challengers to the current council are already surfacing. Currently, the NJ ELEC website shows three individuals have filed paperwork indicating they will run in 2014. Another has announced to some individuals that he will run and at least two more are presumed to be candidates. Again, expect more names to be added to the list once the process gets underway.

Filing with NJ ELEC and filling out paperwork in the municipal clerk’s office is not all it takes to get on the ballot. The first big hurdle for all candidates is to obtain enough nomination petitions equal to 1% of the registered voters in the district they seek to represent (city wide for mayoral and council at large candidates; respective ward for those seeking a ward seat).

The deadline for filing the petitions is March 10. That gives the candidates just about two months to capture valid signatures from registered voters.
Voters, for their part, can sign only one petition for mayor and their ward council candidate, three for at large council candidates.

The electorate has other responsibilities besides just signing a petition and voting. Before they do either, they need to ask themselves, “Is this person truly fit for the office he or she seeks.”

This is where the weeding out process starts.

Don’t be afraid to start asking questions of the candidates (or their representatives) who are seeking your approval for them to be on the ballot. Start the vetting process now, the city you save may be your own.


One of the problems the city has been having in elections is low voter turnout. Less than 1/3 of registered voters voted in the 2010 mayoral election and the June runoff.
Rudy Rodas had a guest Op Ed in the Times on Friday, December 27, 2013. It is a thoughtful piece that encourages mayoral candidates to address the concerns of the diverse groups that make up Trenton’s population. It’s good advice that all candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, should heed.


Everyone agrees: Trenton has great potential. Its location, its history; its manageable size are all plusses.
Why, then, has the capital city struggled so much of late?

The city seems to lack vision, a sense of innovation. We’ve become too addicted to handouts from the state, county and federal governments and then complain we don’t get enough money. We have not investigated ways to improve the city’s bottom line; ways to create real economic development that gives the city more ratable and more job opportunities.
To date, none of the announced mayoral candidates have set forth any real concrete plans to pull Trenton out of its tale spin. Maybe they are being cautious, not wanting to reveal their hands too early in the process. Or maybe they are stumped for real innovative ways of moving the city forward.

Perhaps one of them will reach out to the recently announcedBloomberg Associates for help.

Headed by outgoing NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and seeded with members of his staff, Bloomberg Associates is offering urban consulting services FREE OF CHARGE to other cities.

Yes, the three term mayor has done some controversial things, but he appears to be leaving New York City in as good, if not better shape, as he found it. It might not hurt to at least give his group a listen. The price is certainly one that Trenton can afford.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Must be something in the water

By this time, it is no secret that Trenton’s indicted mayor is no fiscal wizard. His personal financial problems have been discussed and dissected ad nauseum over the past few years.  His mismanagement of the city’s funds has incited outrage from the city council (at times) and the public (repeatedly).

In recent weeks we have been treated to reports about the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed contractors for work done for the city. 

The now out of business Jonico firm is suing for $600,000 for work done on South Broad Street, interest and attorney fees.

Diamond Contractors is owed $122,000 for the installation of handicap access ramps in sidewalks around town.

Kevin Moriarty addressed this in a recent blog post.  

Another contractor, Marshall Technologies, tried for years to collect a $19,000 bill for work done at the city’s main library. The city administration claimed it should be paid by the library out of the annual stipend received from the city. The library board felt differently and wouldn’t pay. While the two entities argued, the vendor didn’t get paid. After going through mediation, the $19,000 bill nearly doubled to $31,000.  The inflated amount could have been avoided if the administration had just paid the bill when due and worked it out with the library board.

Speaking of the Trenton Free Public Library, we noted this item in the correspondence section of the January 2, 2014 city council docket:
1n Letter for Katz & Dougherty, LLC copy of letter to Mayor Tony Mack, dated December 13, 2013, re: Todd Geter, R.A., Unpaid Invoices for Learning Center Improvements.

Mr. Geter was, ironically, a listed member of themayor’s committee that determined it would be best to reopen the four former branch libraries and keep them under city (as opposed to TFPL) control. Mr. Geter, as a licensed architect, apparently provided the necessary plans, drawings, etc. required to get the permits to allow vendors to do the work required to get the buildings up to code and reopened. But he hasn’t been paid.

A side point, Marshall Technologies did a lot of the work on the mechanical systems in the four buildings. They were paid on time…even though the city council questioned where the money was coming from to pay those bills.

These are just a few examples of the city’s (not just the mayor’s) fiscal failings.

Also on the docket for January 2 is this:
1g Tort Claim Notice filed against the City of Trenton for Damages by Frey Engineering, LLC, 1117 State Route 31, Suite 4, Lebanon, NJ 08833

According to prior newspaper reports, Frey did work for the city that was authorized by Charles Hall, III. Hall never got the proper city council approval for the contract with Frey. Frey did the work and expects to be paid over $43,000.  The city council has not approved the payment because they did not authorize the contract. Further, since the authorization came from Hall and he is a cooperating witness in the federal case against Mayor Mack, some members of council are reluctant to touch the matter.

The list goes on. Former recreation department “contract” employee Lisa Whittaker was essentially paid off in 2012. She performed work and submitted bills that had never been approved by the governing body, but the decision was made to pay her rather than go to court.

Michael Morris, the former lead park ranger, was laid off to make way for Mack confidant Chico Mendez. After a long, drawn out (and costly) fight through the civil service commission, Morris was reinstated, Mendez “removed” and back pay ordered.

And yet the city seems to have no problem paying expenses such as:
1) Former mayoral aide, Billie Hayes, received $250 for his work providing secretarial assistance to Councilwoman Kathy McBride
(Note: All council members are granted a stipend to pay for a clerical assistant. We just find it curious that Ms. McBride has retained the services of one of the mayor's former aides).
2) Flashing Blinky was paid $524.39 for what we presume to have been table decorations and favors for the "City of Trenton Senior Gala" held on December 9.
Who, one might rightfully ask, is minding the store? Who in the administration is it that continually makes these bad, too often expensive, decisions and why?


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Much ado about nothing

(Edited, 6:17pm, 12-18-13)
Trentoncity councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward has introduced a resolution requesting that all candidates for elected office submit a copy of their credit report to the city clerk (13-678 RESOLUTION REQUESTING CANDIDATES FOR MUNICIPAL OFFICE TO FILE A CREDIT REPORT WITH THE OFFICE OF THE CITY CLERK). Those reports would become public records and the suggestion is that a bad credit report could be one indication of a person’s suitability to hold public office.

The proposal has generated a lot of discourse. Judging from some of the commentary posted in social media, it has also generated some confusion.

First off, this is a resolution. It is not an ordinance. The difference is often misunderstood. Stated simply:
  • A resolution is a statement, opinion, appointment, etc. made by a municipal body.
  • An ordinance is a law, enacted by the governing body, signed by the Mayor (or adopted over his/her veto), and enforced by the police and courts.
So, resolution 13-678, if passed, would merely be the “opinion”of a majority of the members of the council that candidates for municipal office be requested to submit a credit report. It is not required. It is merely a request.
Some people seem to be equating the credit report disclosure with the financial disclosure form required of elected officials and other public officers. These are two different things.
The financial disclosure form requires municipal officers to declare sources of income in an effort to avoid/eliminate conflicts of interest. The financial disclosure information and the credit report have no direct relationship to one another. The former strictly looks at income and where it comes from while the latter deals with an individual’s overall financial health (NOTE: health does not necessarily equate to wealth).
The financial disclosure form has to be filed annually once someone is elected or appointed to an office.
The credit report is being looked at ahead of time as one of several gauges of a candidate’s over all fit for office. It is not meant to serve as the be all and end all, sole deciding factor. It is just one, optional, item that voters can use to help vet candidates.
We confess, we didn't so we researched it. According to the Federal Reserve website a credit report includes:
  • Your identity. Your name, address, full or partial Social Security number, date of birth, and possibly employment information.
  • Your existing credit. Information about credit that you have, such as your credit card accounts, mortgages, car loans, and student loans. It may also include the terms of your credit, how much you owe your creditors, and your history of making payments.
  • Your public record. Information about any court judgments against you, any tax liens against your property, or whether you have filed for bankruptcy.
  • Inquiries about you. A list of companies or persons who recently requested a copy of your report
No one has stated that a bad credit report automatically disqualifies someone from seeking municipal office. Just like a lender uses the information to determine the credit worthiness of an individual, a voter would be able to use the report as a tool to help construct a more complete picture of a candidate’s potential success as an elected official.

Another similar measure might be a candidate's ability to properly complete and submit the required reports to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission. The inability for a candidate to properly file on time would not necessarily disqualify them from holding office. At the same time, repeated failure to meet the filing requirments might be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not that candidate is worthy of a vote.
Many people have pointed out reasons beyond an individual’s control that would negatively impact his or her credit report. If there was an instance of identity theft or a sudden/prolonged health occurrence that caused an individual to run up debt, that individual did nothing wrong. They simply need to provide a concise explanation if and when asked. Easy.
On the other hand, an individual with poor credit and a history of liens, bankruptcies, etc that are not explained or that are due to repeated poor decision making probably indicates that person is NOT a good candidate for public office.
If you think this is all nobody’s business, that’s fine. However, it should be noted that there is a lot of information available to the public that can, and most likely will, be discovered and revealed during the course of a campaign. Candidates can provide their history willingly or wait until it is revealed some other way.
Of course, certain items on the credit report should be redacted before being made public (social security number, date of birth and the like). This is standard procedure for the release of information to the public.
A lot has been made about the fact that all of the information contained in a credit report is personal and should not have to be revealed. A candidate for office is putting himself or herself out there as someone worthy of the public’s trust. Is it wrong to ask them to be open and transparent?
Any number of websites can provide access to a person’s criminal history, record of judgments, liens and such. It is a safe bet that all candidates in the upcoming municipal election will have their records looked at and anything questionable or controversial will likely be made public.
Some have pointed out that there is a movement at both the state and federal level to ban credit checks of prospective employees by employers. The bill already approved by the state senate (S455) does make exceptions for employees whose jobs will include activities of a financial nature (not merely handling money in a retail exchange).
Obviously, the legislature understands that a credit check can be an effective tool in gauging someone’s fit for a particular job. Since elected officials make decisions regarding the municipal budget, why shouldn’t their credit check be available to use when deciding who to vote for.
People have suggested that this resolution smacks of nothing more than “silly season” politics. They have thrown up a variety of reasons why this resolution should be voted down. They have not provided any suggestions on how the voter might better measure a candidate’s worth, his or her fiscal fitness, to serve.
We’re listening.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


In a recent article by Times reporter Alex Zdan, readers were treated to tidbits from the transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings that resulted in the indictment of Stanley “Muscles” Davis and others.

Davis, you will recall, pleaded guilty in a scheme where the Trenton Water Works employee would do private plumbing work while on the city clock, using city equipment and materials.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office conducted an investigation and sting operation that resulted in an undercover officer paying Davis for doing work on a Home Avenue residence.  Davis and two others were arrested in December of 2010. The Grand Jury heard testimony later that month and into January 2011.

Zdan reports that the transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings reveal the jurors asking questions about the possibility of indicting Mayor Tony Mack, Davis’s half-brother, as part of the case.

Shortly after taking office in July of 2010, Mack made changes to the overtime rules at the water utility that would allow Davis to work more hours and raise his income. This change also provided Davis with the opportunity to access more of these potential installations done on city time with city resources while receiving direct payment from the homeowners.
While rumors of this scheme began circulating in the summer of 2010, the Mayor chose to do nothing about it.

At one point, Councilman George Muschal recounted in testimony before the Grand Jury that he approached the Mayor about the allegations against Davis. The Mayor’s reported response was,
George, my brother is a career criminal. If he gets caught, it’s on him. It’s not on me. You got to remember, I’m the mayor of Trenton. I’m Teflon. I can’t be touched.”

With all of this, Assistant Prosecutor Jim Scott warned the jury off of indicting the Mayor.
Zdan’s article includes the following quotes from Scott:

“If there are two plausible explanations that could exist, you should give the target of your investigation the benefit of the doubt and not return an indictment” Scott said, according to the transcript from the Jan. 14, 2011 hearing.

“But I would submit to you at this point that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the mayor at this point,” Scott told the grand jurors.

Scott told the jurors that Mack’s lack of action on those complaints was “the closest call” that could lead to an indictment, but that inaction could be attributed to the “amount of issues that were facing the mayor” shortly after he took office.
“In this particular case, I would submit to you that Mayor Mack has a tremendous amount on his plate,” Scott said, according to the transcript. “He inherited an administration where there was complete turnover. And the budget issues that the city of Trenton faces are enormous.”


Upon taking office on July 1, 2010, Mayor Tony F. Mack knowingly and deliberately dismissed key personnel who had experience in running the city. Even IF, and it is a huge IF, the Mayor was intent on remaking the administration, common sense would call for a gradual transition in order to guarantee the continued smooth operation of city functions.
The mayor did not INHERIT a vacant administration. He caused it.

Further, the mayor had at his side a seasoned and knowledgeable acting Business Administrator in the person of William Guhl. Guhl, who was volunteering to help get the Mack administration off on the right foot, left one month into the term. Why? Because the mayor would not heed the sage advice being given to him.
For Assistant Prosecutor Scott to suggest that the problem of turnover in the city administration was “inherited” is just plain wrong.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sound familiar?

The trials and tribulations Trenton has been through for the past several years often make us feel like we are the only city to experience so many severe problems. 

Although extreme, many of the city’s financial problems and the actions of Trenton officials fit two patterns seen in many small and very poor local governments. First, events in Trenton demonstrate a perfect storm of structural insolvency, low internal capacity, poor political leadership, and bad financial choices that often occur in such governments. The city’s structural insolvency, which is extreme by any standards, developed over many years of decline in its economic base. This trend is difficult for any city government to change as its causes and solutions are often beyond the direct control of its officials, and maintaining financial condition in this situation through fiscal policies and practices implemented by that government alone can be close to impossible. However, the story of Trenton clearly demonstrates how officials’ policies and practices can exacerbate current structural deficits and lead to more serious financial trouble.

To some extent, the city’s bad financial choices and poor leadership can be attributed to their
governance system, which is more inherently political than many other types of systems found in
suburban governments. Its history of machine-style politics based on an aldermanic structure with separate wards promotes a very political approach to policy making that is most often associated with older and larger central cities.

Sometimes, though, we can take comfort in knowing "we are not alone." Yesterday, we wrote about the HBO series "The Wire" and its relevance to not only Baltimore, Maryland, where the show was set and filmed, but to Trenton and other post-industrial cities.

Another, not flattering, comparison that comes to mind is with the hard-luck city of East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis has been experiencing severe financial distress and drastic population loss for decades. It is just now about to emerge from under a quarter of a century of oversight from the State of Illinois. But, truth be told, East St. Louis' fiscal issues can be traced back over more than a century.

In 2008, Rebecca Hendrick wrote a five page paper on "The Story of the City of East St. Louis." She quickly and succinctly sums up the fiscal follies and failures of the city.

She ends the piece this way:

“Although extreme, many of the city’s financial problems and the actions of East St. Louis officials fit two patterns seen in many small and very poor local governments. First, events in East St. Louis demonstrate a perfect storm of structural insolvency, low internal capacity, poor political leadership, and bad financial choices that often occur in such governments. The city’s structural insolvency, which is extreme by any standards, developed over many years of decline in its economic base. This trend is difficult for any city government to change as its causes and solutions are often beyond the direct control of its officials, and maintaining financial condition in this situation through fiscal policies and practices implemented by that government alone can be close to impossible. However, the story of East St. Louis clearly demonstrates how officials’ policies and practices can exacerbate current structural deficits and lead to more serious financial trouble.”
“To some extent, the city’s bad financial choices and poor leadership can be attributed to their
governance system, which is more inherently political than many other types of systems found in
suburban governments. Although the city has a council-manager form statutorily, its history of machine-style politics based on an aldermanic structure with separate wards promotes a very political approach to policy making that most often associated with older and larger central cities (Theising, 2003).”

Sound familiar?

It should.

The italicized paragraphs above are the same passage with "Trenton" substituted for "East St. Louis." In addition, the opening clause "Although the city has a council-manager form statutorily" was removed from the "Trenton" version because it was not correct.

Everything else that Ms. Hendrick wrote about East St. Louis could just as accurately describe Trenton.

We're not the only city that is in trouble. Let's look around and see what we can learn from our mistakes as well as those of other towns and cities.

What we have been doing has not been working too well, maybe we need to start thinking about making some changes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A reading by Pastor Coston

David Simon’s “The Wire” is regarded as one of the best TV dramas ever produced. The series, which ran for five seasons on HBO from 2002 through 2008, realistically depicted urban life in Baltimore.  Its examination of government, the drug trade, broken education systems and the media had universal application to post-industrial cities along the eastern seaboard and beyond.

During and since its run, many people have drawn comparisons between Simon’s Baltimore and contemporary Trenton.  This matchup was brought to mind again in a recent note received from former City Councilman and Baptist Minister Jim Coston.

Coston had dropped a quick line to inform us of a recently published book: Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy and the Wire. This collection of essays edited by Jonathan Tran and Myles Wentz compares and contrasts real life experiences of the various writers with the storylines and settings depicted in the TV series. Coston contributed the opening chapter of the book. {And per the good Reverend, he is not receiving anything more than a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for his submission} 

In “The Church in the Wire”, the writer reveals that he was a late convert to the show who became hooked after repeated urgings from friends to watch it.  His essay talks about the absence of the Church in Simon’s Baltimore and by extension, the absence of the Church as a positive force in America’s cities. Coston’s own experiences as an activist and pastor of a local church contrast sharply with the norm in Trenton and the norm as depicted in the show.
Coston references the political presence of the urban churches and their spiritual absence. In a footnote he explains the Leewood Village debacle that would have displaced hundreds of South Ward families for the benefit of a private developer and the politically connected pastors and their economic development corporation.
It’s a good piece. Good enough to have us reading more essays in the collection. And good enough to give us more to think about as the city faces its next silly season as the municipal election cycle comes around next spring.

Too bad Jim Coston isn't in Trenton anymore. This would have been a great book for his Urban Studies group to work through.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The rise and fall of Chambersburg's famed restaurant district

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on something I wrote a few months ago. Last August, a younger friend had emailed me asking if “the food in Chambersburgwas ever actually good?”

Here is a slightly reworked and expanded version of what I wrote back to him in response:

When evaluating "Chambersburg" of old, a few things must be kept in mind.

1. Range.

There was a wide variety of restaurants, everything from the workingman's bar with a dining room that served heaping portions of basic, comfort-type dishes to "nice" family-style restaurants, to high-end places with top notch service and quality (and top prices!).

2. Menu.

It bears remembering there weren't as many chains and but more "Mom and Pop" establishments to choose from. The food offered may have been more Italian-American than purely Italian, but there was a care in preparation and pride in the quality of ingredients that elevated it above the norm.

Veal/chicken/eggplant parmigiana are examples of dishes that might not be the epitome of high Italian cuisine but when prepared with a good, house made sauce and prime ingredients sliced and breaded and fried to order, the results were more than satisfying.

The American culture had not yet turned into the "foodie nation" we are today. Few of us knew about regional American cuisine, let alone the breadth and width of "exotics" like Italian (or Greek, Jewish, Polish, etc.). You knew what you grew up with and judged everything against that.

While I was obviously exposed to Italian cooking and dishes when growing up, we ate "macaroni" and the "sauce (my family didn't use the "gravy" term much) was red except for Christmas Eve when we had aglio e olio with anchovies.

My mother, a non-Italian Midwesterner, was probably the first to make "lasagna" in our family, but my Italian Grandfather’s sisters taught my Jewish grandmother to make ravioli from scratch and that was the only kind I ate for the first ten years of my life or so. It wasn’t until Porfirio's opened and offered quality, local product at reasonable prices that we stopped eating homemade ravioli and put Grandmom out of business!

3. Custom.

A good part of the high rating the Chambersburgof old received was based upon the presentation of the meal. No matter what level restaurant, there were touch stones to old world hospitality that go well beyond the abondonza of all you can eat pasta at Olive Garden. When you dined in Chambersburg, whether at Ceasare's or Diamond's, there was pride in what was put on your table and how it was presented.

When I was a kid, Marsilio's was the restaurant where I was introduced to eating in courses. The food was always good but it wasn’t as stylish as it became in the last decade before the Roebling Avenue site closed. Even if the dishes were served family style, the fact that the salad came out, then the pasta, then our entrees set the pace. The anticipation (for me) added to the enjoyment. It was the same up and down the price range of restaurants.

4. Mystique.

For non-Italians, the accessibility of this "exotic" cuisine and good service so close to home made it special.
Add to that the sense of being treated "differently" as a regular at places like Crecco's or getting your own “pitcher” at the later incarnation of Marsilio’s. In the really successful restaurants everybody was made to feel "special" (some just more so than others) and welcome.
So, yes, I think Chambersburg's reputation was deserved. I believe the old stories of people jumping on the train from DC just to come to Trentonfor a fine Italian meal. Why wouldn’t they? We used to drive to Baltimore just to get some steamed crabs and then come home. So what happened?

Chain restaurants have, in my opinion, taken the once authentic (or Americanized-authentic) and homogenized and standardized the quality out of Italian and other cuisines. They have succeeded by providing the "same experience nationwide" for a public too averse to taking a chance on a non-brand name dining experience. These are the kind of people who will forego the potential of experiencing a Tattoni's white chicken cacciatore or roast pork and instead choose a Caraba's or Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden meal; the same people who will stand on line to eat at McDonald's in Rome.

With their portion controlled, commissary assembled range of products; chain restaurants have created an economical dining option with ample nearby (and usually free) parking. They play into the mall mentality of the suburban clientele. Their sterile and soulless menu options offer up synthetic cultural adventures to the tract home and McMansion set.

But to be fair, the demise of Trenton’s Chambersburg is not just the fault of chains.

The restaurant business is tough. It takes many long hard hours to source, procure, produce and serve better than average meals. You need a dedicated staff. In the early days, that staff was mostly family. A generation or two down the line and the dedication to carrying on the family business wanes. The parents retire; the kids don’t want to carry on. The business closes.

For those few restaurants that did manage to continue on past the second or third generation there were other problems.

As the middle class flowed out of the city, the once loyal, Trenton-resident clientele diminished. It was less enticing to travel back to the city for a nice night out when all those options existed along Route 1 and elsewhere.

The ups and downs of the economy contributed as well. Marginal operations failing to attract new customers to replace their aging and dispersed regulars began to close.

The sagging fortunes of a mismanaged city and the demographic changes of the neighborhood kept the suburban customers away. The old line restaurants closed and/or moved out. The city’s famed restaurant district lost its luster and the critical mass needed to make it thrive.

The problem is simply that, for the reasons outlined above, the restaurants no longer had a customer base that would support them in their traditional locations. If the customers kept coming, the restaurants would have stayed.
The announcement that Rossi's is going to close the Trenton location after 80 years and move to Hamilton marks the death of the "old Chambersburg".

It will be interesting to see how well the Trenton restaurant diaspora will do and for how long.

And what of the new Latino eateries that have opened in the wake of the departure of the Italians, will they evolve to the point where there will be a new, vibrant Chambersburg restaurant district that will attract not only locals but diners from the suburbs and beyond?

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Who is responsible?

Remember back in November of 2011 when the city announced the beginning of the “Trenton Gateway Project?

This was the streetscape improvement project centered on the Market Street/Warren Street intersection in front of the then-under-construction new criminal courthouse. The project was funded by a $5.3 million grant from the Delaware Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

Alex Zdan wrote this in the Times article published November4, 2011.
“The project will include new traffic signals, repaving of New Warren and Market streets, and landscaping in the area. Improvements will lead to greater safety for pedestrians, better traffic movement, and a more appealing streetscape, authorities said.”

Well, the project was finished earlier this year. The grass and plantings along the sidewalks bordering the streets are nicely maintained. The traffic islands in the middle, not so much.

South Warren at Livingston, looking towards Market Street

Roundabout at Livingston and S. Warren looking towards Broad
Is this the “more appealing streetscape” the authorities touted?

Why do we think this has happened? Does anyone know?

Is this the city’s responsibility? The county’s? The state?

Or did we work on this plan without determining who should maintain the plantings in the middle of the road?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Check, please

Two items from the June 18, 2013 City Council Docket:



To explain:

Every year for a very long time, the city of Trenton has applied for and received a grantfrom the NJ Department of Agriculture to provide free meals to children in the city. The grant covers both the cost of the food contract and money for temporary summer help to run the feeding program locations in city parks.

Reading from the two resolutions reveals the total grant is for $433,208.25 and the catering contract with Karson Food Services is not to exceed $220,000.

There must be some attendance/participation issues with the program this year. We frequently find ourselves passing by the Clay Street Park/Ike Williams Center during the noon hour on weekdays. There has been no evidence of children getting meals or participating in activities there.

A Mill Hill resident found this flier “shoved into {his} mailbox” on July 29. Leaving aside the fact
that it is technically illegal to stuff anything but mail in a mailbox, this “invitation” suggests participation in the program is somewhat below what was expected. The lack of activity in the park seems to support that fact.

This has us pondering what kind of monitoring goes on for this program. Is the participation at each site and citywide documented? Are we tracking the number of meals purchased versus the number of children served? Does the state ever audit the program to see if it is being run effectively and efficiently?

These musing were brought back to the fore again today when we discovered this.

We spied this box with a couple of apparently untouched “lunches” sitting atop a trash can at the corner of S. Warren Street and Assunpink Drive in downtown Trenton. Low on the side of the box was the imprint Karson Food Service Inc. Higher up on the same side was the word “Trenton” scratched through with a dark marker of some sort.
How and why did this carton and these uneaten meals end up here…blocks from the nearest lunch site?

Is this typical of how this program is being run?

In light of the state comptroller's recent report on the statewide abuse (including Trenton) of the school lunch program, can someone check. Please.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Sounds familiar

"My heart aches today knowing that my beloved home town of Detroit now has the notoriety of being the largest American city to officially file for bankruptcy. But the filing was really just a formality. Detroit has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades — a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots ."
"Detroit's demise was decades in the making" is the title of a piece published on July 19 in the Washington Post  and written by Detroit native, Keith B. Richburg. The above is the opening paragraph of that article.

Richburg lays out, honestly, openly and sadly what has happened to his hometown over the last 50+ years. He rightly deduces that the city did not reach the point of having to file for bankruptcy overnight. It is a sobering read for anyone interested in urban studies.

There are some very strong parallels to Trenton's own history in the same period. The similarities are so strong, that Richburg could easily have been writing about our capital city rather than the motor city.

Take the last sentence in that opening paragraph and change one word: Detroit Trenton  has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades —a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots.

OK. That was easy and a no-brainer. Read the article in full while mentally swapping Trenton in for Detroit. Substitue other local references where appropriate and see what you get.

For example:
The Detroit Trenton I remember ceased to exist a long time ago. But it was kept alive by a pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the next corner. We who love Detroit Trenton — even people like me who abandoned it long ago — were all complicit.
This paragraph stands on its own, unchanged from Richrburg's original and readily applicable to Trenton:
"Most of the old-time residents say they never plan to move, even though city services are virtually nonexistent in the old neighborhoods and most of the neighbors are gone. It’s a pride, a stubbornness and an attitude of “I bought this home 40 years ago, and no crack addicts or gangbangers are going to drive me out of it!” "
In a paragraph discussing Detroits past mayors, Richburg closes with a statement about convicted and imprisoned Kwame Kilpatrcik and how people still defend him. Change just a couple of words and it suddenly is Trenton that we are talking about:
But Detroiters Trentonians are prideful and protective of their own; even when Kilpatrick Mack and his associates were shown to be corrupt, many Detroiters Trentonians came out to support him, blaming the prosecutors for unfairly targeting a black elected official.
Perhaps the most telling passage comes near the end, under the subtitle "Racial politics."

The white population’s abandonment of the city left Detroit Trenton with a shrinking tax base and deteriorating, segregated public schools — a system locked in place by a Supreme Court order that halted busing across school district lines. But blacks still in Detroit Trenton had one thing left — political power. And they would guard it jealously against any encroachment, real or imagined.

Thus, the city’s black political class sees conspiracy theories everywhere. The investigation of the last mayor by the Detroit Free Press local press, and his indictment by a prosecutor, are seen as a white conspiracy to undermine black “home rule” of Detroit Trenton. The governor’s appointment of an emergency financial manager, once it became clear that Detroit Trenton cannot manage its own fiscal affairs, is again seen as a hostile, racist takeover by the state over the city’s elected black leadership.

Racial politics, and that racial prism, long ago ruined Detroit Trenton , and now they hamper any chance the city has at a modest recovery. As a longtime friend, one who has stayed in Detroit and worked to help the city, once put it to me succinctly: "Some people would rather be the king of nothing than a part of something.”

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

And what have we learned?

The Skelton "Learning Center" on S. Broad Street.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013

 Rear fence pushed in. Why? For access to...

...the yard to scavenge copper from the two A/C units.


Can't empty the mailbox....


...but we can tape up a poster for Heritage Days (I think they called it "marketing the festival.")

Way to go, Mayor Mack! Way to manage the city's resources.

PS: As of this posting, the A/C at Ellarslie mansion is still not fixed and most likely won't be this week.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Whatever happened to the arts and culture mayor?

This week, we received the following message on our office phone...a phone, by the way, that was NEVER registered with the city of Trenton but receives their robocalls. Anyway, here is the message (as relayed via the internet service provider that logged the message for our VoIP phone):

"This is Gordon James. Good evening, the first day of summer was last Friday and Heritage Days is finally here. Two days of music food and fun for the entire family with live music performances from Grace Little and the amazing Grace, Gordon James, Swing Sabroso, SWAG and many more."

"This year we've expanded our children's Village to include triple the inflatable's we've had in the previous year. There will be face painting, pony rides and all types of ethnic food and drinks. Join us at Mill Hill Park."

This is Mayor's Mack defiant way of asserting his authority. He promised the city council he would NOT stage the costly, poorly organized and sparsely attended event this year but then, "changed his mind." Raiding other budget lines, he has come up with some $40,000 of taxpayer dollars that he will use to throw a self-aggrandizing, wasteful party.

In the meantime, we also received the following email:

The Trenton Film Society regretfully announces that the screenings of Landfall: The Eyes of Sandy and the finalists in 2013 Not Quite Legal Film Festival on Saturday, June 29th, have been cancelled.

The City of Trenton just announced that Heritage Days will be taking place in Mill Hill Park, with some events planned for the Mill Hill Playhouse. The Trenton Film Society will work with the staff of the Mill Hill Playhouse to reschedule the screenings of Landfall and the finalists in this year's NQL Film Festival in late-July or early-August.

Apparently, what happened was the organizers of the Heritage Days faux-festival took it upon themselves to pledge access to the Mill Hill Playhouse to a solo filmmaker. They did not bother to check with anyone else about possible conflicts.

Now, it should be noted that the Mill Hill Playhouse is a city owned facility. The primary tenant of the Mill Hill Playhouse is the independent and non-profit Passage Theatre. The last we knew under the terms of the MOU between the theater company and the city, Passage had first dibs on use of the facility and was responsible for the scheduling of other uses.

It is always possible things have changed and we certainly wouldn't know since the city has yet to comply with the year old ordinance that states an inventory of city owned properties, who uses them and under what terms and agreements be provided to the city council (and thus made public).

The key thing here is that it just makes sense that a professional theater company that is the primary user of a facility should keep the schedule for ALL usage. Unfortunately, the Tony Mack administration has proven repeatedly that it cannot and generally will not adhere to any agreements, pledges or promises if it does not suit the whim of the mayor.

We understand that the solo filmmaker was very gracious and willing to work with the Trenton Film Society folks to accommodate their event. He reportedly offered to screen his film on Sunday only, leaving Saturday for the already scheduled event.

That would have been a wonderful compromise except for one thing. The general noise level from the performances outside at the festival will be loud enough to be heard inside of the playhouse. External sound carries very well into the space and in all likelihood will make hearing the soundtrack of any film hard to hear.

Therefore, the Trenton Film Festival folks are opting to try to find another weekend later in the summer for their event.

The poor filmmaker who now has total clearance to use the playhouse may still face the problem of no audience.

The city in its "exhaustive" (NOT) marketing campaign for the Heritage Days event has made no mention that we have seen or heard of the screening. Not only is it unreasonable to expect a reasonable turnout for this waste of money event, the lack of promotion will also likely leave this poor filmmaker sitting alone in the Mill Hill Playhouse listening to the throbbing music seeping through the walls from the main stage a block away.

The Tony Mack has effectively killed off two events for the sake of holding onto his desire to "throw a party" for the city.

Meanwhile, across town, we have another example of the inability of this administration to manage the simplest things.

The Trenton City Museum is housed in the 19th century Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park. The building and the park are the property and responsibility of the city. The collection housed in the museum and all the programming there are the work of the Trenton Museum Society. The TMS is an independent non-profit organization.

Under the decades old MOU between the city and the TMS, the city was supposed to provide (as in hire and pay for) a full-time museum director. This individual was not only the liaison between the city and the TMS, they were the on-site eyes and ears that oversaw and managed the routine maintenance of the facility.

In the great "layoff of 2011", the museum director was let go. This forced the TMS to cancel exhibits and programs while they figured out what to do. In the interim, there was no one onsite who really understood, cared about, or demonstrated the will or knowledge to keep things running.

The TMS finally bit the bullet and, using its own funds, hired a part-time director of its own to help get things back on track. The problem with this arrangement is that the director is NOT a city employee and not part of the bureaucracy of city government. Getting things done in an efficient and timely manner is always a struggle.

This week, as the weather turned decidedly summer-ish with temperatures in the 90’s, the aging HVAC system for the building went down. (NOTE: the HVAC system would have been replaced with a newer one if the city had been able to win an National Endownment for the Humanities grant a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, that grant application was written by one of Mayor Mack’s inexperienced hires. Her grant application was denied and the city has had to struggle on with the antiquated system. This is not only a matter of comfort for the patrons, it puts the collection at risk from the effects of unstable environmental conditions).

The A/C goes out in the middle of a heat wave and the replacement part comes in by Friday but cannot be installed until the following Wednesday. This necessitates the relocation from Ellarslie to the Trent House of a lecture scheduled for Sunday because the museum is just too warm without the A/C.

The lecture is about a current exhibit at the museum and will be given by the curator of that exhibit. Unfortunately for the audience, the lecture will be given in a completely different facility than the one two and half miles away that houses the exhibit.

And all because this incompetent mayor cannot manage to keep his word and support the city’s cultural institutions.

Party on, Mayor Mack. Party on.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Watching the money

While much is being reported and discussed about Birdsall Engineering, the firm found guilty of campaign contribution violations, another costly and equally distasteful situation has been brought to light.

The NJ State Comptroller has just issued a report summing up its investigation into the millions of dollars paid in legal fees by local governments and school districts.

The escalating amount of legal work being done by outside law firms on behalf of the city of Trenton has not gone unnoticed.

We can all remember how the large and politically connected law firm of Cooper Levinson "withdrew" from their contract to provide outside legal counsel to the city of Trenton. The withdrawal came after it was revealed that the firm received work with the city after contributing to Political Action Committee that in turn made a matching contribution to Mayor Tony Mack's campaign.

There was also Andrew Weber, formerly of Cooper Levenson and recently with the Mt. Holly law firm of Riley and Riley, one of the many Acting Business Administrators appointed by Mayor Mack. Weber held the seat until it became known that the Riley and Riley firm was seeking a contract with the city.

It is not just these close ties between elected officials and campaign contributors/supporters that is worrisome. Just who is keeping tabs on the billings and payments to all these law firms for all the work they are doing on behalf of the city? How do we know we aren't being overcharged?

The report from the State Comptroller shows quite plainly, how easily local government units lose control or track of their legal expenses.

The report offers some "best practices" ideas that we encourage Trenton's city government to adopt.

  1. Developing policies and procedures regarding the procurement, use and management of legal counsel
  2. Conducting a competitive procurement for legal counsel
  3. Drafting formal, written contracts with legal counsel
  4. Managing those contracts.

Let’s hope the administration gets good legal counsel on this matter. And can keep itself out of trouble enough to reduce the excessive need for legal representation!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Back to the future

Trenton's city council voted Thursday night to restore South Ward Councilman George Muschal to the position of president of the governing body.

This was accomplished after a long day of scrambling, huddling, researching, caucusing and planning because as the fiscal year draws to a close, certain members of the city council were expecting a reorganization meeting resulting in, probably, a new president being chosen along with a council vice president.

There were multiple problems with the expected scenario above.

1. The council's own rules of procedure as stated in the city code do not allow for the annual reshuffling of the deck as has been practiced by this body.
2. State law does not indicate that there would be an annual reorganization of the governing body.
3. Nothing in the rules of procedure or the state statutes creates the position of vice president.

What has happened is that this council has been operating out of compliance with its own rules. (It should be noted that the ersatz vice president position was instituted under the previous council and somehow got carried through to this one. An example of the poor performance of the the city law department, the municipal clerk's office and the governing body itself for not recognizing and correcting the deficiencies in their process).

On Tuesday night, East Ward Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson wanted to introduce an ordinance to amend the rules of procedure to accommodate the errors in executed over the past several years. Even that move was a mistake as the council need not, indeed should not, amend its rules of procedure via ordinance because an ordinance requires the signature of the mayor. This adds a layer of oversight and inter-branch cooperation that state law does not require.

N.J.S.A. 40-69A:36 clearly gives the governing body the authority to set its own rules of procedure by resolution. The fact that Ms. Reynolds-Jackson attempted to use an ordinance to change the rules of procedure indicates a) lack of comprehension of and familiarity with her powers as a council member and b) a similar ignorance of the law on the part of whomever was advising her.

Besides going about amending the rules of procedure in a more complicated and unnecessary way, the council woman's proposed changes seem to conflict with the intent of state law.

The proposed ordinance was pulled and in its place, West Ward councilman Zachary Chester proposed a resolution amending the resolution naming Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward president for the 2012-2013 year and extending her term through June 30, 2014.

This, of course, met with great resistance by Ms. Reynolds-Jackson, Councilwoman McBride and Councilman Bethea.

These three, who have generally been understood to stand with the administration of indicted Mayor Tony Mack in all matters, appeared to be fearful of having Ms.Holly-Ward continue as president. So concerned, they were adamant about continuing to violate the body's own rules of procedure just to ensure one of their own could obtain the chair of presiding officer.

Mr. Chester's resolution was tabled until Thursday's meeting so that everyone would have the opportunity to review what was being proposed (compliance with the law).

All accounts indicate that Thursday was spent hammering out a new restore Councilman Muschal to the presidency. Actually, this was a reasonable and workable solution.

Unfortunately, the internecine workings and innate mistrust amongst members of the council indicated the need to do some maneuvering to ensure that matters were conducted fairly and transparently.

This caused another flap when Councilwoman Reynolds-Jackson balked at a change in the voting order that would make her vote first rather than last. She objected that this was not the normal way they did things (the council generally votes in alphabetical order by last name, the same order they sit in on the dais). There is not set rule about this and, further, Ms. Reynolds-Jackson has expressed no problem with her colleague, Kathy McBride, sitting (out of order) at the far end of the dais just to make the point that she doesn't wish to sit next to Ms. Holly-Ward.

The double standard is obvious to all and it was generally conceded that, had she voted last, Ms. Reynolds-Jackson may very well have voted against her own proposal to restore Mr. Muschal to the presidency.

This is the painfully exemplary of how this governing body fails to work, as a whole, for the good of the city. Some members are more concerned with their perceived position and effectiveness than with doing the job they were elected to do.

With less than a year before the next election, we hope that the electorate of this city will awaken and deny the poseurs (in office or wannabes) the opportunity to mire the city in personal politics to the detriment of the greater good.

We've seen the way this body has conducted itself. We can, and must, do better.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Some people just don't get it

And apparently never will.

The depth of the ignorance of some members of the city’s governing body never ceases to astound us.

Last night, East Ward Councilwoman tried to introduce an ordinance amending the Rules of Procedure for City Council.
Her proposed amendments would have called for a reorganization of the body each year, rather than once every four years as it is now. Her ordinance also referenced the position of Vice President of Council.
This proposal is fraught with errors.
The first error is that amending the rules of procedure does not and should not require an ordinance when a resolution works just fine.
By utilizing an ordinance to make the changes, the governing body inadvertently drags the mayor into the mix. Ordinances, once passed, go to the mayor for signing.
Why would the governing body do such a thing when state law clearly gives them the authority to set their own rules by resolution? The following citation (our emphasis) is pretty clear on the matter.

N.J.S.A. 40:69A-36. Legislative power

1. 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

So, Ms. Reynolds-Jackson was ready to yield the body’s power to the mayor, for what purpose?
The East Ward councilwoman, along with her colleagues, at large councilpersons Kathy McBride and Alex Bethea have been chomping at the bit to take the gavel from the hands of current president, Phyllis Holly-Ward. They also wish to continue the non-conforming process of having a designated council vice president. This has come up before.
During Tuesday night’s proceedings, Councilwoman McBride asserted that there has been a council vice president “as long as {she} could remember.” If that is the case, the councilwoman must not have a very long memory.
The council vice president title was bestowed upon former West Ward councilwoman Annette Lartigue in the July 2006 reorganization of the body. Before that, if the designated presiding officer was not in attendance at a meeting, the body selected a president pro tem as proscribed in state statute and the existing rules of procedure. The council never formally or properly changed their rules to create the position of vice president. The current council, not knowing any better, carried on that erroneous for the first two years of this term. They never amended the rules of procedure and so current president Holly-Ward would not allow a nomination of someone to the non-existent post of vice president.
This has not sat well with Ms. Reynolds-Jackson who wanted, badly, to be the VP.
Compounding the problem was this body’s initial plan to rotate the presidency amongst its members by holding a reorganization meeting each year. This was done, we suspect, in large part to quiet the outrage expressed by Councilman Bethea and Councilwoman McBride when, in 2010, SouthWard councilman George Muschal was made the council president.
In a nice gesture towards his colleagues, Councilman Muschal decided he would serve for one year and then the council would reorganize and choose a new president. This opportunity to rotate the presidency was never formalized by amending the rules of procedure.
And they may not be empowered to make such a change.
In the state statutes there doesn't appear any power granted to Council to organize every year, or to limit the term of its president to one year or less than four years. There is no authority to elect a Vice President of Council. The law allows for a President and in the absence of a presence at a meeting, provides for the election of a temporary president to conduct the meeting. See subsection c below:

40:69A-180. Rules of procedure; quorum; ordinances and resolutions; presiding officer; compensation

(a) Council shall determine its own rules of procedure, not inconsistent with ordinance or statute. A majority of the whole number of members of the council shall constitute a quorum, but no ordinance shall be adopted by the council without the affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the council.
(b) Each ordinance or resolution shall be introduced in written or typewritten form and shall be read and considered as provided by general law. The vote upon every motion, resolution or ordinance shall be taken by roll call and the yeas and nays shall be entered on the minutes. The minutes of each meeting shall be signed by the officer presiding at such meeting and by the municipal clerk.
(c) The council at its organization meeting shall elect a president of the council from among the members thereof and the president shall preside at its meetings and perform such other duties as the council may prescribe. In the absence of the president, the council shall elect a temporary presiding officer. The compensation of the mayor, council members and department heads shall be fixed by the council immediately after its organization. (our emphasis)
Just as current council president Holly-Ward has attempted to bring the body back into compliance by refusing to allow the designation of a vice president, Councilman Zachary Chester made a motion to amend last year’s resolution naming Holly-Ward president for one year and extending her term through June 30, 2014.
This action was greeted with great resistance from the axis of Bethea, McBride and Reynolds-Jackson. They sputtered and spit; claiming outrage and seeking legal advice from the city attorney (who actually seemed rather bewildered by the proceedings).
In the end, councilman Chester’s motion was held to be added to Thursday night’s docket. Leaving matters, once again, unresolved.
To be continued...