Thursday, November 05, 2015

Tag! You're IT!

Tonight, Trenton's governing body will, yet again, vote on a contract for IT Consulting services. It has become every bit as hot button an issue this year as it was five years ago under the Mack administration.

There have been a few articles in the local press, some good blogging by Kevin Moriarty, plus some extended commentary on social media. Here are three points that we think must be kept in mind when discussing this situation and deciding the best direction from here.

1) The shortcomings of the City of Trenton's IT system should not be blamed solely (if at all) on the current consultant, Associated Data Processing. ADPC is a vendor hired to support the city's various departments and their IT needs.

Over the years, many have commented on how the city has lagged in effectively using technology to increase the efficacy of its many operations. We've begged for more modern, up to date, services.

Is it the fault of the vendor supporting the existing systems that the city has not drafted a plan to improve the technology used or committed the resources necessary to execute a plan (if there was one)? NO!

If you know your car needs new tires, a transmission rebuild and a tune up but don't direct your mechanic to do the work and authorize the cost of same, is it the mechanic's fault that you can't get up to speed on Rte 1? NO!

If you talk about wanting to lose weight, quit smoking and get in shape with your personal physician but don't follow her suggestions on how to achieve those goals, is it her fault? NO!

Why are so many so quick to blame ADPC for the shortcomings of the Trenton's IT infrastructure?

Just read the documents included with the RFP and you'll see that in the past five years there has been few substantive discussions with either the past or current administrations about upgrading the city's IT system. Contained within in that RFP is an assessment report done, at the City's request, by the (then) current contractor, ADPC. Or we should say, a part of the report is included.

The RFP only contained 36 pages, about half, of the full assessment report. The parts that were omitted were the recommendations, evaluations of ADPCs performance, and lists of aborted or stalled projects, etc. The full report can be found here.

One example...stretching back to the Palmer administration, the city has been "ready" to implement a new computer based system for issuing parking permits and passes. This started when the current Mayor was the Director of Public Works (under whose supervision falls the Division of Transportation) and has been talked about through the Mack years and into the present.The city has yet to commit the resources (funding) to get this system up and running. That is hardly the fault of ADPC.

Another example, the city has failed to update and maintain its GIS system, rendering it somewhat less than useful.

In the full IT Assessment report, various departments rated ADPC's performance. We'll let the document speak for itself here.

2) The RFP process has, by all accounts, been seriously flawed. Flawed to the point where it certainly appears, at least superficially, that it was done in an attempt to manipulate the outcome. Let's start with the simple fact that the city's purchasing agent is not certified (nor does she have to be, by state statute, but she hasn't been able to pass the test). So how credible is the bidding process for anything when it is overseen by someone who cannot meet the requirements for certification set by the state?

With regards to the IT contract, the members of the scoring committee are somewhat suspect. Are they qualified to evaluate IT matters? Are they free of conflicts of interest and totally objective? Was the hired "professional" really able to evaluate a dozen responses from bidders in only the two hours he was paid for?

The mere fact that the administration only published part of the IT Assessment report, leaving out the solid recommendations and lack of commitment to upgrades and improvements is a pretty good indication to us that they were trying to push their shortcomings (and those of their predecessors) off on someone else.

3) It is very doubtful that FCC Consulting is truly the best firm out of all the companies that responded to the RFP. A simple review of the websites of all the companies shows a notable lack of professionalism in FCC's site when compared to the competitors. All of the other firms show at least a small staff and multi-person leadership. FCC's is obviously a one person show at the moment, run out of the principal's rented home. Not very confidence instilling.

What happens if FCC gets the contract? How quickly can he staff up to meet the demands of the work? Can he recruit people with the right skills and experience to serve what will surely be FCC's biggest client?

Does FCC have the financial wherewithal to manage this contract? Doubtful.

Mr. Carothers' business history is rather checkered. There are two judgments from 2008 and 2009 totaling almost $70,000 that are listed on the state judiciary website as still being open. Why hasn't he been able to pay these off?

The business registration for the various LLC's Mr. Carothers has created have all been suspended at one time or another for failure to file annual reports. Filing is a simple process, done online. And if your company goes out of business, you are supposed to file that as well.

Then there is Mr. Carother's personal history of bankruptcy and such. Again, not a lot to build confidence in his ability to successfully perform the important work that the city so badly needs.

So, what to do?

It is possible that there is a better company out there that can help Trenton move ahead in the IT game. There is really no way of knowing until the administration maps out a plan, on its own or with the help of a consultant, as to what it wants to achieve, when it wants to achieve it by and earmarking the funds and human resources to get it done.

For the long term, a plan must be drawn up and a timetable for implementation adopted.

In the short term, the city needs a capable IT consultant. Why not keep ADPC at least through the process of developing a strategy for moving ahead? And if not ADPC, then at least obtain the services of a truly experienced, financially stable vendor to handle the current needs.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

This is how our failing city operates

The headline read “Trenton union leader files suit against the city to have $40k returned after contract dispute”.

The story was about Dave Tallone, the head of the city’s largest union and his quest to have $40,000 returned to him by the city of Trenton.

Tallone had been charged with 15 counts of forgery and fraud in 2011 but the charges were dropped in 2013.  At that time, Tallone paid the city of Trenton $40,000 in case the city decided to pursue a civil case against him in the matter. They haven’t and he asked for his money back but hasn’t received it. So, Tallone filed a lawsuit.

Now, at first, this might seem only fitting and right. He put the money up in trust, it wasn’t needed and now he wants it back.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple.  There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

If you are not familiar with or have forgotten the background in this matter, here’s a refresher:

From at least 2006 through 2011, Dave Tallone was paid by the City of Trenton to provide food for the Annual Spring Litter march. State law prohibits municipal employees and officers from doing business with their employer so Tallone used other names in an effort to cover his tracks.

Most often, he seemed to use the name of Adele Wright. Ms. Wright is Mr. Tallone’s sister. He also used the name of a Joseph Gresko who is believed to be a relative and/or friend of Tallone’s. The addresses used on the documents pertaining to the contracts were sometimes Tallone’s home address or that of his son (who has since passed away).

It had to have been common knowledge throughout City Hall he was doing this. It was Tallone who showed up to serve the food each day (presumably while still collecting his daily pay from the City of Trenton).

The payments for the food were deposited into bank accounts in the city employee credit union, of which Mr. Tallone was the president. One check was actually endorsed by the payee and then endorsed again with a signature reading “Dave Tallone.”

In the fall of 2011, Mr. Tallone was charged by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office with 15 counts of forgery and fraud.  The charges were dropped in 2013 because the MCPO could not get Tallone’s sister to travel from her home in Nevada to Trenton to testify.

Tallone got his job back and was given his back pay. The day after the charges were dropped, he gave the city a check for $40,000. Ostensibly this was to be held “in trust” pending the result of any civil action the city might initiate in place of the failed criminal case.

Now Tallone wants his money back. The city hasn’t yet given it to him, so he’s going to court to get it.

Too many questions, too few answers
We have never quite grasped the whole way the case was handled from the outset. Nor have we understood how it went on for several years before being brought to the attention of the authorities.

From the New Jersey State Statutes:
40:69A-163. Interest in contracts or jobs forbidden
No officer or employee elected or appointed in any municipality shall be interested directly or indirectly in any contract or job for work or materials, or the profits thereof, to be furnished or performed for the municipality, and no such officer or employee shall be interested directly or indirectly in any contract or job for work or materials or the profits thereof, to be furnished or performed, for any person operating any interurban railway, street railway, gas works, water works, electric light or power plant, heating plant, telegraph line, telephone exchange, or other public utility within the territorial limits of such municipality.
L.1950, c.210, p. 509, s. 17-14, eff. June 8, 1950.
There seems to be no disagreement that it was Mr. Tallone who got the contracts. The Mercer County Prosecutor states, in a faxed letter accompanying Tallone’s legal filing that “Mr. Tallone maintains that any service under vendor contracts with the City of Trenton were [sic] provided in full and at the lowest bid.”

That’s pretty clear. Tallone got the jobs. It is also pretty clear that the by using the names of other individuals and effort was being made to circumvent the law.

The whole idea of Tallone having submitted the lowest quote is also questionable.

A purchase order issued for the April 2011 event was in the amount of $12,000 for “unlimited” lunches to be served. It was made out not in Mr. Tallone’s name. It was made out in the name of Joseph Gresko but at the address of Mr. Tallone’s residence.

Documents obtained from the city show two other price quotes for providing the lunches for the April 2011 litter march. One was from Heavenly Ham in Mercer Mall for 3000 lunches at $7.00 each ($21,000). The second was from Fred & Pete’s Catering in Mercerville. Again, 3000 lunches but at $6.00 per ($18,000). Note, the number “3000” not “unlimited.”

Why were two of the quotes for 3000 lunches but Mr. Tallone’s was for an “unlimited” amount?  Was it to make the bid appear even lower?

Who requested the quotes is not clear but we do know this, the entire Litter March was coordinated and paid for out of the Department of Public Works. Mr. Tallone, as an employee of the Sewer Utility, works in a division of the Department of Public Works. Is it possible Tallone was given access to the other quotes so he could come in with a lower price?

If you do the math, Tallone’s price wasn’t the lowest.

The city provided a roster of 37 “teams” representing 1904 people expected to participate in the litter march. The list noted some “no shows”, dropping the count to 1857 plus "staff". If we round the number up to 2000 people in attendance it’s a full third less than the 3000 lunches in the other quotes. If you divide Tallone’s “lowest” bid of $12,000 by a maximum 2000 attendees it comes out to $6.00 per lunch served. That’s the same amount as the well known Fred and Pete’s Deli was going to charge. It is very unlikely, given the list of 1857 attendees “plus staff” that the number of lunches served reached 2000. Let’s assume the 1857 participants were augmented by 43 “staff”.  That brings the total of lunches to 1900. Dividing the $12,000 by 1900 brings the price per lunch to $6.32, higher than the Fred and Pete’s quote.

Interestingly, documents show that Tallone was paid in full for the unlimited lunches on March 29, nearly three full weeks prior to the event. This is another irregularity. Vendors are not usually paid in full prior to delivering the goods or services. We can understand a partial payment to cover the upfront costs of materials, but full payment before delivery should never have occurred. Yet the purchase order was signed off by the then acting director of Public Works, Ralph Burzachiello. There was never a full accounting of the number of lunches served. What if the event had been cancelled due to weather? Would the city have gone back to Tallone and asked for the money back?

A copy of another PO for $8,500 was obtained from the city. This PO was for supplying and serving of “unlimited” continental breakfast for all staff and volunteers the day of the litter march.

The accompanying handwritten quote was broken down into two items. The continental breakfast for an estimated 2500 people at $2.00 per ($5000) and to supply and serve “unlimited” lunch for staff and participants estimated at 700 people extra at $5.00 per head ($3500). This PO was made out to Adele Wright and the address given was that of the condo where Tallone’s son lived.

We know that Ms. Wright was living in Las Vegas at the time, so how come her name is on the PO? Why wasn’t Mr. Gresko’s name used? Was this an attempt to splinter the quotes so that the cost fell below the minimum bid threshold? It should also be noted that this quote, requisition and purchase order were all dated AFTER the April 18 Litter March. So, after the before the fact payment of $12,000, there was an after the fact billing and payment for breakfast and MORE LUNCHES. Sounds like someone was helping himself to healthy seconds from the City's plate! How is it no one in the city finance offices caught that?

Another anomaly in this story is the lack of documentation regarding the vendor providing the food to the city. State law requires any individual or entity to doing business with the local unit to provide a Certificate of Registration. There appear to have been none sought or obtained for Mr. Tallone et al.

When copies of the 1099 forms issued to the vendor(s) for tax reporting purposes were requested, the city stated none had been issued because no Tax ID numbers had been provided. Another violation of law but the city went ahead and repeatedly engaged Mr. Tallone in contracting for the food for the litter march, year after year without reporting his income.

Where were the controls? Who was ignoring or directing to be ignored the most basic rules for purchasing and payment by a municipal government?

The highest levels of management had to know this was going on. How else could so many rules have been overlooked in allowing Tallone to get the contracts?

In 2011, it was acting Public Works Director Ralph Burzachiello who signed the PO for the

In 2010, then Public Works Director Eric Jackson signed some of the paperwork submitted under Gresko’s name. 

Why hasn’t the MCPO investigated the city side of this issue?

Tallone acknowledges he did the work, yet the PO’s were issued under the names of others. Isn’t that in and of itself fraud? Why was the MCPO’s case so dependent upon the testimony of Ms. Wright that it couldn’t proceed without her? What was Mr. Gresko’s role in all of this? Was the use of his name in combination with different addresses just another attempt to hide the real fact that Tallone was getting the contracts illegally?

A big if
If Mr. Tallone, Mr. Gresko and Ms. Wright actually had some sort of catering business, it was not properly registered with the state. They didn’t provide proper tax identification numbers to the city. Due to Mr. Tallone’s obvious and acknowledged involvement, they are banned from doing work for the city anyway.

How did any of this escape the notice of the department directors and others who had to sign off on the paperwork?

With all of the above unanswered questions it is somewhat understandable that, on the advice of counsel, Mr. Tallone would pay the city $40,000. It seems pretty obvious that any civil action taken by the city against Tallone would result in him having to make restitution for the money gained from his prohibited contracts.

Or does Mr. Tallone think that the current administration would rather give back that $40,000 in the hopes of putting this story to rest without having to answer any of those pesky questions above?

Dave Tallone got his job back. He has reportedly received his back pay. Seems to us he has pretty much been made whole. Why shouldn’t he make restitution to the city for at least some of the money he received through the illegal contracts?

He should leave it as is and drop his lawsuit requesting the return of the money.

Or maybe it would be better for the matter to proceed, publicly, in the courts so the world can see and hear how the successive administrations in the City of Trenton have broken and ignored public contracting laws and how no one, including the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, has stepped up to take all the parties to task.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Clean it up

Excerpts from the Trenton City Code:

[HISTORY: Adopted by the City Council of the City of Trenton 9-7-1967 as § 12-19 of the Revised General Ordinances. Amendments noted where applicable.]
It is found and declared that there exists in the City of Trenton structures used for nonresidential purposes which are, or may become in the future, substandard with respect to structure, equipment and maintenance; further that such conditions, including, but not limited to, structural deterioration, lack of essential heating, plumbing, storage or refrigeration equipment, lack of maintenance or upkeep of essential utilities and facilities, existence of fire hazards, inadequate provisions for light and air, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, constitute a menace to the health, safety, morals, welfare and reasonable comfort of the citizens and inhabitants of the City.
It is further found and declared that by reason of lack of maintenance and progressive deterioration, certain properties have the further effect of creating blighting conditions and initiating slums, and that if they are not curtailed and removed, such conditions will grow and spread and will necessitate in time the expenditure of large amounts of public funds to correct and eliminate the same, and that by reason of timely regulations and restrictions as contained in this chapter, the growth of slums and blight may be prevented and the neighborhood and property values thereby maintained, the desirability and amenities of residential and nonresidential uses and neighborhoods enhanced and the public health, safety and welfare protected and fostered.

§ 56-2. Purpose.

The purpose of this chapter is to protect public health, safely, morals and welfare by establishing minimum standards governing the maintenance, appearance, condition and occupancy of nonresidential premises; establish minimum standards governing utilities, facilities and other physical components and conditions essential to make the aforesaid facilities fit for human habitation, occupancy and use; fix certain responsibilities and duties upon owners and operators, and distinct and separate responsibilities and duties upon occupants; authorize and establish procedures for the inspection of premises; and provide for the repair, demolition or vacation of premises unfit for human habitation or occupancy or use. This chapter is declared to be remedial and essential for the public interest and it is intended that it be liberally construed to effectuate the purposes as stated herein.

§ 56-9. Duties and responsibilities of owner and operator.

The following duties and responsibilities are imposed on every owner and operator of any building covered by the provisions of this chapter:
It shall be the responsibility of the owner of a commercial establishment to supply suitable trash containers of a minimum size of 30 gallons at each entrance/exit to the establishment as a convenient means for customers to dispose of discarded products that were purchased within and to prevent the accumulation of trash and debris in front and around said commercial property.
[Added 6-20-2002 by Ord. No. 02-53]

Sunday, January 11, 2015
No trash receptacle as required. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Trash has been on the curb since Friday, January 9. No Trash receptacle as required.

Sunday, January 11, 2015. Trash from former bank building at Broad & Market.
Note to sack of stucco mix on the ground to the right of the utility pole. It has been there for weeks. 

And lest we think it is just commercial establishments, there are also rules for residences:

Chapter 248. SOLID WASTE

Article I. Garbage Collection

§ 248-3. Provision and use of containers.

One- or two-family dwellings. A proper and sufficient number of approved containers, as herein defined, for the storage of garbage and rubbish between collections shall be provided by each family residing in a single-family dwelling or in a two-family dwelling. It shall be the duty of the occupants to maintain such containers in good repair, in a clean and satisfactory condition and to store rubbish and garbage properly therein.
[Amended 1-6-2001 by Ord. No. 03-8]
Multiple dwellings. In the case of a building housing three families or more, the owner, lessee or agent of the premises shall provide a sufficient number of suitable approved containers, as herein defined, for the storage of garbage and rubbish. In the case of buildings housing 75 units or more the owner, lessee or agent of the premises shall provide front-end-load containers and maintain them in good repair and in a clean and satisfactory condition.
[Amended 1-6-2001 by Ord. No. 03-8]
Commercial and nonresidential establishments. The proprietor, manager, agent or person in charge of a commercial establishment, professional office, church or any other premises where occupancy is nonresidential in nature shall provide proper and sufficient approved containers as defined herein.

And this is just one small corner of the city.

Where is the enforcement?

How can we make the city better if we don't make property owners honor their responsibilities?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

We know what it says, we just don't care

Lack of adherence to vehicle ordinance driving us crazy

City of Trenton Ordinance 10-007 was passed passed by the governing body on January 21, 2010. It was signed by then Mayor Douglas Palmer on January 25, 2010. It has been the law of the city since then.

That ordinance reads in part:
Passenger Motor Vehicle use
A. It is the policy of the City of Trenton that the cost of purchasing, leasing, maintaining, insuring and fueling non-specialized passenger automobiles for use by civilian public employees be reduced to the greatest extent compatible with the safe and efficient provision of municipal services. To that end, it shall be the duty of the Business Administrator forthwith to enforce the restrictions on on the acquisition, maintenance and assignment of non-specialized passenger motor vehicles as set forth below as of the effective date of this Ordinance. 
The ordinance goes on to enumerate various things the BA is responsible to submit to the Mayor and City Council including, under items number 3 and 4: 
3. For each vehicle listed, the name, office, or position or employment or agency of each person who has been or is currently assigned or otherwise permitted to operate it shall be set forth, stating the date or date range of each person's usage of that vehicle. 
4. For each non-specialized passenger vehicle on the list, the Business Administrator shall provide a concise explanation as to the purpose served by continuing the City's ownership and maintenance of the vehicle and by not requiring the assigned user or users to use personal vehicles on a reimbursement basis. 
 We've written about the abuse of the unnecessary vehicle fleet before. You can read it here, here and here.

For at least the third time in four years, we requested the vehicle list AND the "concise explanation" as to why it is better for the city to own maintain the specific vehicles than reimburse the employee for using their personal cars.

The initial response was a general inventory of vehicles and where they were assigned. But there was no explanation given as to why it is a good idea for the city to maintain the fleet. We reminded the City Clerk's office that the response to the OPRA request was incomplete and asked for the explanation to be provided.

This is the response we received:
"According to the Department of Public Works; The City of Trenton limits the assignment of vehicles to personnel depending upon their daily responsibilities and necessity to respond during emergencies.  Under the direction of the Business Administrator, each department Director reviews their respective employees’ assigned tasks to determine and establish the vehicle use limits based on the same.  Directors are also assigned vehicles which are used at their discretion."
 Thanks, but that is not what we asked for.

Mr. Mayor, Mr. BA, Ms. Chief of Staff, and Mr. Council President:

Does the Administration and/or the Governing Body of the City of Trenton ever intend to follow the procedures spelled out in plain English regarding the non-specialized passenger vehicle fleet? It is, after all, the law!

For all the lip service given to new beginnings, accountability and such, to date, on at least this one matter, you are no better than either of the two Administrations/Councils to come before you.