Thursday, July 03, 2014

Alice doesn’t (have to) live here anymore.

Shortly after taking the oath of office on Tuesday, July 1, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson announced four appointments to his cabinet. Three of the four appointees are NOT city residents and are therefore, technically, not able to hold the positions on a permanent basis.

Now we have learned that the state, through the Division of Local Government Services oversight of the Transitional Aid, has made changing the city’s residency law a requirement in the recently signed MOU for the current fiscal year.

This is not new. The state has suggested these changes before but the governing body has been reluctant to go along.

Instead of following the law we get out of town people who, at best, rent apartments or homes in the city in an effort to feign compliance, while escaping home to Maryland or North Jersey or wherever on weekends and holidays.

Since 1972, the City of Trenton has had an ordinance requiring all cityemployees except police, fire and teachers to be bona fide residents. After 15 years of continuous service, employees could move out of the city without losing their jobs. The idea, of course, was to help retain a middle class by making residence in the city mandatory for anyone seeking employment with the city. The rule applies from directors down to the maintenance people.

In 1987, the ordinance was amended to allow for a waiver to be granted to give individuals who were not residents at the time of hire a defined window in which to become bona fide residents of the capital city.

The ordinance was increasingly applied in a haphazard manner. There were numerous examples of people who maintained a Trenton address merely to appear to comply with the law while the administration “turned its head” to look the other way.

The ordinance was also at times used to punish those who had fallen out of favor with the administration. There are various individuals who were railroaded out of their city job for “non-residency” that actually were residents. Some fought and retained their positions; others took the hint and walked away.

We cannot continue to ignore the law when it is convenient to do so and apply it selectively when it suits the whim of the administration. We either have to live with it, and the consequences, or we must change the law.

We’ve been here before.

As recently as April of this year an ordinance was brought forth for council approval that would have allowed the Trenton Water Works to recruit and hire non-Trenton residents to fill key vacancies at the utility. 

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered TWW to bolster its staff of licensed technicians. The fact is that there just aren’t that many in the state, let alone Trenton proper.

While it is a great idea to train current employees and residents for the positions, the process is a long one and, per TWW Superintendent Joe McIntyre, there have been few if any people willing to take the required courses.

Hence, the request to amend the residency requirement to allow TWW to recruit from beyond the city borders.

The ordinance passed its first reading but was tabled before the second because members of council were concerned about shutting Trentonians out of good paying jobs at TWW. Even then candidate, now councilman Duncan Harrison was against revising the ordinance.

Residency or rather the lack thereof was what finally caused controversial police director Joe Santiago to leave the city of Trenton’s employ.

It really isn’t much of a surprise that any attempt to find the “best and brightest” candidates to stock any administration’s cabinet or fill vacancies in various departments must reach beyond Trenton’s 7.5 square miles.

In April 2011, the city wanted to amend the residency ordinance so that former State Treasurer David Rousseau could be appointed Trenton’s chief financial officer. Council balked and a year later Mayor Mack decided not to renew Rousseau’s consulting contract. This came on the heels of Rousseau showing the governing body the path by which it was able to cut the funding for and eliminate the Mayoral Aides. Had the ordinance been changed a year earlier and Rousseau actually appointed to the Mayor’s cabinet, the council could have (and we guess probably would have) overruled his dismissal by the petty tyrant Tony Mack.  

The sad fact is that as Trenton’s fortunes have flagged, the supply of residents with the requisite “world class” abilities and qualifications has decreased. Additionally and to be brutally honest, the city’s long decline makes it unattractive for individuals with the desired skill set to relocate here to take a job that could vanish with the next round of layoffs or at the whim of some elected official.

So what is the water works superintendent or new mayor supposed to do when they are looking for capable and qualified candidates to fill positions?

The Times editorial board has gone on record suggesting a rethinking of the residency requirement. Civic activist Dan Dodson and others have raised their voices in concert with this line of thought.
Certainly the Division of Local Government Services in its role as recruiter for cabinet level appointees has sought candidates from beyond the city. Recently departed Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson and Police Director Ralph Rivera are but two examples.

If we truly want to turn Trenton around and need to go outside the boundaries to get the kind of personnel needed to do so, then fine.

We just caution the new mayor and the new (old) council to do it legally. If we are going to hire from outside the city, than lets craft and adopt a proper ordinance that allows us to do so.