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...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

This stinks

And its not just the uncollected trash.

We have all read, heard about and/orexperienced delays in trash collection due to the chronic shortages of workersin the public words department.

It is a situation that has been frustrating for residents and the city administration alike.
West Ward Councilman Zac Chester suggested on Monday that the city utilize the Blackboard Connect robo-call system to notify residents if and when trash collection was going to be late.

It seems like a common sense request to use a system the city pays $50,000 or more a year to use.  -----

Original Message-----
From: Zachary A. Chester []
Sent: Monday, June 10, 2013 9:55 PM
To: John Seigle
Cc: Zachary Chester
Subject: Trash pick up

Hi John,
Mr. Hutchinson asked that I email him this request.
I would like the city to use the call system to inform residents about the delay in trash pick up when we are unable to pick up due to low staffing. I asked the director and Mr. Harris to do this so the residents know what is going on.

Thank you,

It went from Mr. Hutchinson’s office (via John Seigle…Mr. Hutchinson seems adverse to answering or sending his own emails) to public works director Mollinedo, with copies to mayoral aide Anthony Roberts and Trenton Water Works stock clerk Paul Harris.

(You can read the complete email chain here, starting at the bottom of the document.)

The response that came back from Anthony Roberts was this:
-----Original Message-----

From: Anthony Roberts
Sent: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 1:39 PM
To: John Seigle
Subject: RE: Trash pick up
John: The Mayor said No! to this request!

Anthony C. Roberts, Aide to the Mayor
City of Trenton
Department of Administration
319 E. State Street
Trenton, New Jersey 08608
609-989-3807 - 609-989-4250 FAX
  Note the emphasis indicated by the application of the exclamation mark following the mayor’s one word response.

Now we are the first to admit we feel the Blackboard Connect system has been abused and overused. Certainly, no one wants to be bothered by phone calls touting the opening or re-opening of the failed “Learning Centers”.  We don’t want to be further annoyed by calls touting the waste of tax dollars known as the “Heritage Days Festival.”

This, however, seems like a fairly reasonable use of the system.  A simple phone call informing folks that trash collections will be delayed. A message with instructions on when the trash will be picked up, whether or not to leave it on the curb and for how long seems like something worth communicating to the residents.
Not according to the terse response given to Councilman Chester’s request.

It does make one wonder. Surely the mayor, Mr. Roberts or Mr. Harris are not the only city employees who know how to access and activate the phone system. Per the MOU with the state upon which our transitional aid funding is given, Mr. Hutchinson, Mr. Mollinedo and other directors can not be summarily dismissed by the Mayor. Not without the approvals of DCA and the governing body.

Maybe it is time for one of these parties to stand up to the petty tyrant and do what is right for the city.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The mayor changed his mind.

Mayoral Aide Anthony Roberts faced off agains five members of City Council last night (Alex Bethea and Kathy McBride were absent) over the proposed Recreation budget for the coming fiscal year.

According to David Foster's reporting in the Trentonian, when the topic of Heritage Days came up, Roberts defended the Mayor's last minute decision to break a previous agreement to cancel the event this year.

"He changed his mind," Roberts said laughing.
That is supposed to be a good enough reason to spend $40,000 on a poorly planned, poorly executed and (if the last two years are an example) poorly attended festival?

Any experienced event planner will tell you that is not the way to produce a meaningful, rewarding festival.

If you measure success by the fact that you actually manage to mount an event, then this kind of half-assed approach is probably good enough.

Even though Anthony Roberts has stated otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any real marketing of the event going unless you want to count the two images posted to the front page of the city of Trenton website. Where’s the information on the lineup of performers? Where is the information about how interested groups or vendors might get involved?

We can’t help wonder though, would this be good enough if the $40,000 was coming directly out of the Mayor, or Mr. Roberts’ personal funds? 

Why is it “OK” then, to proceed haphazardly and irresponsibly with the public’s money?

Because the mayor changed his mind.
Not good enough.

The city should be focusing its activities and money on providing the basic services of public safety and a functional infrastructure. If we can’t afford enough staff to make regular garbage collections or mow and maintain our parks, how can we possibly be considering funding festivals and parades?

If the governing body has to fret about the cost of accepting a grant that would help rehire a dozen police officers because it would mean raising taxes, how can we even consider having “end of year” parties or summer concerts?

It is not the purpose of the city to entertain the citizens. It is not for the city to provide activities. 

Yes, fund the pools. Give some money to the various sports leagues, but not their complete operating budget and only under closely monitored agreements.

The rest is just bread and circuses.

It is long past time for the city of Trenton to cut out the frivolous expenses and focus its meager and dwindling financial resources on what really matters.